LOS ANGELES — When Gregg Popovich agreed to take over as head coach of USA Basketball for Mike Krzyzewski, many envisioned names such as Harden, Love, Lillard, and Davis on the backs of the uniforms.
Those top-level NBA stars dropped off the Team USA roster and won’t compete in the FIBA World Cup in China next month, but Popovich doesn’t sound worried about his team.
“I’ve said that we’re going to be fine and by that what I really meant is that we’re blessed with a lot of depth in USA Basketball,” he told reporters after a team practice in Las Vegas. “All of the players here want to be here, there’s no question about it. And that’s a big part of the battle itself. And so, when you look at the enthusiasm, the youth, the athleticism and versatility, that’ll really work well for us because our depth will be a factor.”
Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker is one of those players. He said he’s happy for the opportunity to vie for a spot on the final 12-man roster.
“This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of us,” said Walker, an All-Star Game starter in February who relocated from Charlotte to Boston via free agency in July. “I think a lot of us are happy those guys pulled out because this is our chance. It’s our chance to get on the big stage and showcase our talent. A chance for us to do something new. It’ll be a new-look team. Everybody is kind of doubting us, but I think we’re hungry.”
Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers, James Harden of the Houston Rockets, and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are among the NBA stars who decided not to take part.
In their place are players such as Kyle Kuzma of the Lakers, Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Walker’s new Celtics teammates, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum.
“These are not ‘C’ players,” Popovich said. “You’ve heard a lot of criticism about who isn’t here, and I keep repeating that it’s about who is here. There’s some really good talent and it’s going to be difficult getting to a 12-man roster when you really think about it. So, every day is important to these players and I would say today’s effort was terrific. We had a great first day of practice. Certain individuals did an outstanding job. Overall, it was terrific.”
The World Cup begins in China on Aug. 31. Team USA opens play the following day against the Czech Republic. — Reuters