- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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USA Basketball released its list of the 28 names in USAB’s national team player pool for the next three summers on Thursday, making official what ESPN.com reported Wednesday night.
If it manages to win the inaugural FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain in September, Team USA will have the summer of 2015 off and automatically qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. If the Yanks unexpectedly slump to No. 2 (or lower) at the World Cup, they’ll be forced to qualify for the Olympics at the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament ... something Mike Krzyzewski’s crew managed to avoid in 2009, 2011 and 2013.
Although both Krzyzewski and USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo repeatedly (and predictably) stressed in a Thursday morning conference call that the pool is fluid -- meaning names can always be added over the next these next three years if, say, someone like John Wall or Mike Conley or Chandler Parsons or DeMar DeRozan forces his way in -- chances are strong that the 12-man roster for the World Cup will come from the 28 players currently in the pool.
What follows, then, is our first projection forecasting the dozen players Coach K will have at his disposal when Team USA tries to beat mighty Spain on Spanish soil after narrow victories in the gold-medal game in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics over the nation regarded as Europe’s strongest over the past decade.
A Trio of Locks
Colangelo tried in vain to tell reporters that USAB officials never “talk about locks,” but Kevin Durant and Kevin Love formally pledged in July to be on the World Cup squad. And Colangelo went on to reveal that he’s secured a similar commitment in recent months from LaMarcus Aldridge, giving us three knowns with the World Cup still some seven months out.
Three More Virtual Certainties
Sources told ESPN.com on Thursday that Blake Griffin, James Harden and Dwight Howard have all expressed a desire to USA Basketball, health-willing, to make the trip to Spain. Given the stature of those three players -- and the fact that injuries prevented Griffin and Howard from going to the London Games -- expect all three to be there alongside Durant, Love and Aldridge.
Best of the Next Gens
The glowing manner in which Krzyzewski spoke of Anthony Davis during Thursday’s conference call should have slammed home the notion that Davis, at a mere 20, is already regarded as a USAB cornerstone, thanks to his stint as the 12th man in London after Griffin got hurt.
And Colangelo, for that matter, was equally effusive in praising Paul George.
“If you’re taking odds,” Colangelo said of George's making the World Cup roster, “it’s probably a good bet.”
Trust us: You can go ahead and write in those two in dark ink now. Ditto for Stephen Curry (who played on the team that won the World Championship in Turkey in 2010) and Kyrie Irving (who played for Krzyzewski at Duke and wowed everyone at last summer’s minicamp in Las Vegas).
Which means that 10 of the 12 spots for Spain, when you do the math, are realistically taken already ... provided the 10 players we’ve listed to this point can avoid the injury plague that has wreaked havoc on marquee players throughout the 2013-14 season. After being forced to play LeBron James at center and Carmelo Anthony at power forward in the championship game at the London Olympics, Krzyzewski will have no shortage of big men at his disposal this time to counter the Spanish threesome of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
The Race for the Last Two Spots
You can safely rule out seven names on the 28-man roster for World Cup participation thanks either to their veteran status or health concerns.
LeBron, Melo and Chris Paul all consented to be included in the player pool with the understanding that they’re candidates only for the 2016 Olympics. Deron Williams and Tyson Chandler likewise hope to be considered for the 2016 squad, even though they’re expected to take this summer off to rest their bodies. And star guards Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are bound to be left home by USAB for their own good -- even if they’re healthy and willing to go to Spain -- after the knee traumas they have endured this season.
Even if Westbrook -- one of Coach K’s faves -- really does stay away in the wake of his three surgeries since last May, that still leaves 11 players vying for what appears to be the last two tickets available on the Team USA charter to Espana.
Acknowledging yet again that injuries can and will almost certainly affect most (or all) of USAB’s decisions, I see Damian Lillard as a virtual certainty to make the 12-man roster. You could legitimately make the case that he should have been right there with Curry and Irving in the previous category, such is the progress Lillard has made in just a season and a half in the NBA, along with the fact that so many top point guards are ailing these days.
If Lillard indeed proves as lock-y as he looks, that likely throws Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver into the tiniest of three-man steel cages to fight it out for the final roster berth. That would force USAB officials to make the very unappealing choice between Iguodala’s experience and four-position versatility in the international game and the need for either Thompson or the fast-rising Korver (who is said to be increasingly popular within USAB’s chambers) as an extra perimeter threat off the bench.
That would still leave a talented group of seven outsiders to try to defy these projections. Those seven (in alphabetical order): Bradley Beal, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Kenneth Faried, Gordon Hayward, David Lee and Kawhi Leonard.
So based on all of the above, this is how ESPN.com’s depth chart looks for the Yanks exactly 219 days before the tournament starts in Spain (with the names again listed in alphabetical order):
Guards: Curry, Harden, Irving.
Forwards: Aldridge, Durant, George, Griffin, Love.
Centers: Davis, Howard.
Last Two Spots: Lillard and one of the following three: Iguodala, Korver or Thompson.
100dMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo