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August 8, 2019

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‘Pop’ faces challenge of finding a team

USA Basketball coach Gregg Popovich typically has a month of NBA training camp and a half-dozen or so preseason games before he picks a San Antonio team, and then gets a few more months of the regular-season grind to mold those Spurs into playoff shape.

These aren’t the Spurs.

These are not typical times, either.

USA Basketball will finalize its World Cup team on August 17 — meaning training camp, which started on Monday, lasts less than two weeks. That also means there’s a real urgency in this camp in Las Vegas, since Popovich and his staff won’t have much time to decide who will fill the 12 spots on the roster that will head to China in search of a third straight title.

“We’re looking for guys who are competitive, who can handle the discipline it’s going to take to get this done, play a team game and basically fall in love with each other and have that empathy so that they feel responsible to each other and depend upon each other,” Popovich said. “That obviously means you don’t need the greatest amount of talent in the world.

“Too little talent is not a good thing, but we don’t have that problem.”

The biggest US names — LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden etc. — aren’t playing World Cup. There are four current All-Star NBA players expected at the tournament, and three of them will be aiming to beat the US. Nikola Jokic will lead gold-medal hopeful Serbia, NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing for Greece, and Rudy Gobert is playing for France.

The only American All-Star in the mix is Kemba Walker, who knows team building over the next few days is vital.

“On the court is pretty easy. I think we’ll get that,” he said. “Off the court is where we need to figure out, where we need to spend more time and communicate more, just have fun with each other. Like Pop said, just love each other. That’s the way it has to be, because it has to translate to on-the-court if we want to do something special with this team.”

Even though the US roster lacks the biggest stars, there’s already a clear sense of competition.

Popovich brought in the select team — the younger NBA players who were invited to Las Vegas this week to push the national-teamers and potentially compete for their jobs — into practice on Tuesday, and players said the intensity of play immediately ramped skyward. There’s no grace period for players to ease into camp.

“They came to play,” Miami center Bam Adebayo said. “I give them respect.”

It’s already clear that Popovich, entering his first tournament as the US coach, doesn’t want the 12 best players. He wants the 12 best-fitting ones.

So the roster is still anyone’s guess.


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