With NBA All-Stars Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant all watching from the sidelines, USA Basketball's big-man heavy World Cup roster includes surprises like Mason Plumlee and Kenneth Faried.
Three weeks filled with training camp, exhibition games, a devastating injury and some surprise withdrawals culminated Friday in the naming of USA Basketball's final roster for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, set to begin in Spain later this month.
With centerpieces Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George all watching from the sidelines, USA Basketball named the following 12 players to its roster: DeMarcus Cousins, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond, Kenneth Faried, Rudy Gay, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Mason Plumlee, Derrick Rose and Klay Thompson.
Previously, Bradley Beal, Paul Millsap and John Wall were also cut. Love, who is expected to be traded by the Timberwolves to the Cavaliers, withdrew prior to USA Basketball's Las Vegas minicamp, obliquely citing his "current status." Durant, who is reportedly involved in ongoing sneaker negotiations, withdrew earlier this month citing the need to "time some time away, both mentally and physically." George suffered a serious leg injury during USA Basketball's Aug. 1 showcase game in Las Vegas.
USA Basketball's final roster includes a number of surprises, and it represents the second stage of an inevitable transition process that has taken place following the losses of Durant and George. The first step, of course, was turning over additional responsibilities to its star backcourt players, including Harden, Curry and Rose. The second step, the world learned Friday, would be to field the largest and most athletic squad possible, a roster clearly designed to defeat USA's chief rival, Spain, in a potential gold medal game showdown.
Much of the talk in recent weeks had been which big men would make the final cut. USA's unexpected answer? All of them. All five players who play power forward or center -- Cousins, Davis, Drummond, Faried and Plumlee -- made the cut, with Plumlee, a former Duke Blue Devil, doing so after first earning a bump up from the USA Select squad. That quintet will do its best to compensate for the losses of Love and Durant, who both log minutes inside for USA basketball. Perhaps more importantly, the retention of all five players give Krzyzewski a range of possibilities when it comes to matching Spain's big frontline, which includes Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka. USA will surely give Davis all the minutes he can handle, and the other four players offer maximum versatility when it comes to frontline looks: Faried brings energy, Cousins and Drummond offer bulkier low-post options and Plumlee can keep pace during up-and-down games.
Krzyzewski has been fond of saying, when asked about USA's small ball approach in years past, that "opponents have to match up with us too." His point: star-caliber, perimeter-oriented players and skilled shooters can often overcome interior shortcomings. Although this roster composition doesn't contradict that maxim, it does amount to USA Basketball having his cake and eating it too. While the bulk of the rotation minutes will go to players who fit Krzyzewski's preferred high-pressure, floor-stretching, mismatch-creating style of play, USA tipped its hand by keeping the extra bigs. Cousins and Drummond entered Friday's cut on the bubble: that both were retained indicates that USA wants to maximize its depth so that it can withstand any worst-case scenario on their way to facing the Gasols.
The biggest surprise inclusion, aside from the bigs, is DeRozan. The Raptors wing isn't a serious threat from outside and his off-the-dribble game is still coming along; that combination makes him stick out like a sore thumb from his fellow perimeter players, but it hasn't prevented him from putting up numbers in multiple exhibitions this month. DeRozan likely beat out Korver, Parsons and Hayward because his combination of size and athleticism is the closest USA can come to replacing George. The Gay/DeRozan combination is a serious downgrade from Durant/George, but length and leaping ability had to come from somewhere.
Rose, who rested for portions of this week after missing most of the last two seasons due to multiple knee surgeries, escaped the guillotine. Krzyzewski, Colangelo and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau (a USA assistant) all seemed extremely invested in Rose using the World Cup as a springboard to his comeback. His selection -- which essentially came at the expense of Lillard, once USA decided to load up with bigs -- doesn't come as much of a surprise.
Here are scattered thoughts on all 12 players who made the roster, as well as the final four who didn't.
DeMarcus Cousins: Rumors that Cousins would be beaten out by Plumlee proved unfounded. Instead, the Kings center escaped USA Basketball's doghouse and shook off a minor knee injury to earn a trip to Spain. One hopes that his inclusion could mark a turning point after years of erratic behavior. Cousins would seem to be a preferred option against Marc Gasol.
Stephen Curry: USA uses Curry on and off the ball, but he appears to be the roster's most reliable option at the point guard position given the day-to-day uncertainty around Rose. Expect Curry's eyes to light up whenever opponents go to a zone defense. His chemistry with Thompson, his Warriors teammate, has been evident in recent exhibition games and should continue to be a real asset throughout the tournament.
Anthony Davis: The most important and irreplaceable member of the team once Durant departed, Davis has the opportunity in Spain to announce his arrival as a bona fide superstar. His length will be a major factor on both ends, and his ability to finish in pick-and-roll situations and by diving to the hoop will be endlessly frustrating to lesser opponents. Who Krzyzewski deploys alongside Davis against Spain, assuming both teams advance to the gold medal game, will be one of the central questions to track in the early portions of the tournament. Davis must avoid foul trouble.
DeMar DeRozan: If everything goes according to plan, DeRozan should be a bit player on this roster, capable of providing a change of pace behind Harden and Thompson. His lack of three-point range does shrink the court, but that shouldn't be a crippling problem, especially if the USA goes to smaller lineups when he is out there.
Andre Drummond: Having just turned 21, Drummond is arguably the rawest player on the roster, but he's raw in the "just scratching the surface of awesome potential" kind of way. The only player besides Drummond to average at least 13 rebounds per game in his age-20 season was Shaquille O'Neal, and there won't be many players capable of keeping him off the glass during the World Cup. This competition should be a good learning experience: Drummond is likely fifth among the five bigs on the depth chart this time around, but look for him to be a major factor for USA Basketball in future competitions.
Kenneth Faried: As recently as a few weeks ago, Faried penciled in as an end-of-the-rotation energy player. Losing both Love and Durant created a hole at power forward, and Denver's high-flying bundle of energy has stepped in as a starter. A bit undersized, Faried does his best work in the basket area, a fact that bucks the international game's trends towards stretch players. That will make Faried a mismatch in many situations, and it could also require Krzyzewski to switch things up against opponents with traditional frontlines or who pursue a total commitment to small ball.
Rudy Gay: Big kudos to Gay, who wasn't initially invited to USA Basketball's training camp even though he won a gold medal at the 2010 World Championships. He didn't let his ego get the best of him, and he plugged in smoothly once USA Basketball called for help following the departures of George and Durant. There doesn't seem to be much question that most of the scoring on this restructured roster should come from other positions, and Gay's job will be to simply get in where he fits in and take his opportunities when they come.
James Harden: Without LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and other big name stars, Harden could very well emerge as USA's top scoring option down the stretch of close games. One of the best all-around offensive players in the world, Harden should enter Spain with a chip on his shoulder after a disappointing 2014 playoffs. Shot selection, which has been a bugaboo, is critical, as is his defensive awareness. Krzyzewski has hyped Harden's leadership abilities this summer, and USA Basketball really needs him to emerge as a consistent source of offense.
Kyrie Irving: The 2011 No. 1 overall pick out of Duke landed a roster spot despite plenty of competition at the point guard position. A Krzyzewski favorite, Irving's handle and off-the-dribble quickness will be key in collapsing defenses to set up USA's shooters. A capable outside shooter himself, Irving will face his biggest questions on the other end, where he will be asked to apply pressure defense and prevent dribble penetration. There are always some blowouts in these international tournaments, and Irving's highlight-making ability should be put to full use.
Mason Plumlee: Colangelo and Krzyzewski spent the past few weeks laying the groundwork for Plumlee's selection, and yet it's still surprising that a 2013 first-round pick with such modest numbers (7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds as a rookie) is heading to Spain when an All-NBA player like Lillard isn't. Plumlee's play in the exhibition has been mixed, but his connection to Krzyzewski and his mobility both worked in his favor. A center capable of clearing the defensive glass, making the right outlet pass, running the floor and doing the dirty work should have a tertiary role on this team, and Plumlee should be able to handle those responsibilities.
Derrick Rose: It would have been a shame if knee concerns had kept Rose home, especially after USA Basketball made such a concerted effort to announce his return this month. Rose has shown flashes of his All-Star form, and he's the single biggest fan favorite left on the roster. Although USA plays a rigorous schedule -- potentially as many as nine games in 16 days -- Krzyzewski appears to have enough backcourt options to keep Rose's playing time at a level that allows for peak effectiveness. Everyone hold your breath.
Klay Thompson: As USA's best two-way perimeter player, Thompson just might be this roster's X-factor. The fact he doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective is a huge plus on this team, and his on-ball tenacity should be a tone-setter on defense. Look for his sniping from the shorter international line to help the USA stockpile some blowouts.
Gordon Hayward: There never seemed much momentum for Hayward to make this roster. As a jack of all trades but master of none, Hayward would have been useful, but he won't really be missed: Harden is more dangerous, Thompson can shoot it better, Gay is longer and DeRozan is more explosive.
Kyle Korver: It's possible that Korver was an indirect victim of Durant's abrupt departure. Loading up pure shooters around Durant would have been an excellent formula for a gold medal; once he left, though, USA understandably turned its attention to more multi-dimensional wings.
Damian Lillard: The single toughest cut, even though Lillard never had a signature stretch of play this month. Note: Lillard secured All-Star and All-NBA honors last season, a feat matched only by Curry and Harden on this roster. That said, there's no crime in taking Curry, Rose and Irving over Lillard, who did outlast Wall in the cut process. Irving's superior ability to create off the dribble justifies his inclusion over Lillard, as both are capable shooters and both can play on or off the ball. This cut is really more of a positional balance issue. Would the USA have been better off taking Lillard instead of Plumlee or Drummond? The second-guessing will be in full force if Rose's knee issues reappear or if one of the roster's other primary ball-handlers suffers an injury.
Chandler Parsons: The window for Parsons to make the team seemed to narrow once Gay agreed to come aboard. Although Parsons is a complementary player in the same vein as Hayward, he likely feels he can do most of what DeRozan will do, while also offering a better outside shooting touch. Count Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, never a fan of his players being at risk of injury in international competitions, as a winner on Friday night.