Take a second, close your eyes and enter an alternate 2014, where the world has grown tired of NBA stars dominating every international competition. The chatter from 2012 about FIBA teams adopting an Under-23 age limit, similar to Olympic soccer, has come to fruition.
Imagine that every international basketball federation has agreed to give that new age rule a test drive at the 2014 World Cup before the 2016 Olympic cycle begins. In this brave new world, USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski has allowed the experts at SI.com to select his roster.
The team has been almost completely overhauled, but every other country would face similar problems. Experienced countries like Spain, Brazil and France would be without the majority of their teams. The best young American talent and next generation of NBA players would be given a chance to shine on the international stage.
Taking all three holdovers from the current roster, and assuming every eligible player would be available, here’s what an Under-23 Team USA might look like.
Still just 22, Irving has served as the American starter in the current World Cup, and with Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard all too old to partake, he’s a shoo-in selection slated for big minutes. Though he can be inconsistent at times and has to work on making those around him better, Irving’s pure talent level and ability to maneuver with the ball in his hands make him extremely dangerous. It would be tough to make a case for anyone but him to win this spot.
The 21-year-old star knows the program: He won gold medals at the 2009 FIBA Americas and 2010 World Championships with the U16 and U17 teams and was cut from Team USA this summer in favor of more experienced guards. A gifted three-point shooter with size at 6-foot-5, Beal would play off of Irving effectively and find easy looks with the penetrating abilities of the American forwards in this four-in, one-out lineup. Opponents have to account for him at all times. He can also get into the paint and finish to keep defenders honest. Beal should have a role with the senior team in the future, but given our age limit, he’s already the best option at the two.
Small Forward: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
Another guy who’s had major success with USA Basketball’s youth teams (gold medals at the 2011 FIBA Americas and 2012 Worlds with the U16 and U17 sides), Parker will be looked to for scoring and leadership as a major cog for this team. He boasts highly-advanced offensive skills, particularly at age 19, that are well-suited for international play, and brings the Chicago roots and Duke pedigree to a Coach K team. Though he’ll need some defensive cover, he’ll be able to switch and guard power forwards in this setup, with Anthony Davis waiting at the rim to clean up any mistakes.
Though Leonard opted out of the World Cup, we’ve used our powers of persuasion to bring the 23-year-old Spurs star and Finals MVP into the fold. His quiet confidence and no-nonsense attitude are a perfect fit. He fits in this frontcourt with outstanding perimeter defense that makes up for Parker’s slower feet when matching up. Though pairing the two gives up some size, their versatility will let them interchange, spread the floor and make the U.S. even deadlier in transition play. We saw Leonard emerge as a star in the NBA playoffs, and he’ll be a jack-of-all trades for this team.
More often than not, Davis has looked like the best player and centerpiece of the current World Cup setup. None of that changes here. He’ll be asked to clean up the glass on both ends and protect the basket, and will also shoulder an offensive load. His occasional struggles guarding physical bigs would be mitigated by the age limit on everyone else. Playing against guys closer to his age would make Davis’ outlook even scarier at this World Cup. At age 21, he’s the backbone of the team and the future of USA Basketball, age limit or not.
The third member of the current team young enough to make this roster (he’s only 21), Drummond will be leaned on much more heavily by the U-23 team. He’ll step in as the backup center and also allow Davis to slide over to the four when needed, offering a bigger lineup that would eat up everything inside. His physicality and rebounding will be key on a team devoid of true big men.
The former Michigan star brings floor leadership and a steady hand behind Irving. He gets the nod over guys like Marcus Smart and Michael Carter-Williams with his ability to take care of the ball and get teammates involved (5.7 assists to 1.9 turnovers as a rookie). He’s a little bit undersized, but would thrive in the U-23 game and wouldn’t be leaned on for a ton of scoring. Burke was a member of the USA Select Team this summer and gives this team a true point guard off the bench.
Oladipo was also a member of the USA Select Team, and serves here as an extra ballhandler, ace defender and energy guy. He’s an ideal fit for the way the Americans like to pressure the ball, and his ability to drive the lane and handle either guard spot makes him even more attractive. With a year of NBA experience under his belt, the Indiana product will be a valuable role player here.
McDermott can put up points quickly and gives Team USA an ace shooter and scoring punch off the bench. He should have appropriate defensive cover given the guys around him, and will interchange more with Parker than anyone else so as not to sacrifice too much on that end of the floor. He’s already logged a good amount of USA experience with the Select Team on multiple occasions and is a perfect fit for a bench role.
Barnes was the last guy to make the team, and he’s coming off a bit of a sophomore slump. But he’s got talent, can hit shots when he’s on and adds length on the perimeter while also able to play a stretch four. He might have been tasked with a little too much responsibility off the Warriors bench last season, and here, Barnes will be asked simply to defend and make shots when he’s in.
Forward: Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Given Kenneth Faried’s success in the national side, Gordon is here to provide energy and defense in a similar fashion. Able to defend on the perimeter and on the inside, Gordon is an unselfish passer, effective in transition and known for playing hard -- and as one of the youngest guys on the team, it’s easy to see him taking the opportunity and running with it. He was a key part of the U-19 team that won gold in 2013 and brings a unique dimension to the roster.
Center: Jahlil Okafor, Duke University
Okafor was also part of that squad with Gordon and was the team’s most skilled post player despite being the second-youngest guy on the roster. He’s on this team more for the future than anything else, but has the talent and size to fill in behind Davis and Drummond and will benefit from the international experience. Being a Duke guy from Chicago gives him a little bump. He makes the cut over Jared Sullinger to aid his development and keep the potential No. 1 pick involved in the program.
Missed the cut
Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers: Burke got the nod at backup point guard as more of a pure playmaker and better shooter. Carter-Williams' scoring ability doesn’t play as well in the FIBA format, he needs the ball in his hands to be at his best and this roster has enough guys in need of touches already.
Jared Sullinger, Boston Celtics: This was a tough one, as Sullinger comes off a strong year with Boston and would add experience and skill on the block. Ultimately, there was enough offensive firepower at the four to allow Okafor a chance to cut his teeth.