In wake of Paul George's gruesome leg injury last summer, there was a rush to judgement over whether NBA stars should really be devoting their offseasons to play for USA Basketball.
NBA seasons are long and grueling enough, some said. Don't the players have an obligation to the franchises who pay them eight-figure contracts to spend their summers resting instead of risking injury? Couldn't the U.S. win an event like the FIBA World Cup without sending our best athletes?
If your exposure to USA Basketball is limited to the Olympics once every four years and periodic events like the World Cup in between, that sort of worldview makes sense. The truth is that the roots of USA Basketball run far deeper. With four youth teams below the senior team, being selected for USA Basketball is the highest honor a player can receive before reaching the NBA. In a basketball ecosystem that values respect almost as much as it values money, players will always want to play for their country.
Nearly every member of the 2014 World Cup team had previous experience playing for USA Basketball on the youth levels. Steph Curry was a member of the 2007 U19 team that won a silver medal. Kyrie Irving won gold with the U18 team in 2010. Andre Drummond was selected to U16 and U17 teams before making the cut for the senior squad last summer. Think of USA Basketball as one giant feeder system. It's why the future of the game can so often be found by monitoring the junior teams.
On Wednesday, USA Basketball announced its 12-man U19 team ahead of the FIBA World Championship, which begins in Greece on June 27. What's striking about the roster is that nine of the 12 players have never played a game of college basketball. That includes incoming freshmen like Allonzo Trier (Arizona), Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Caleb Swanigan (Purdue) and Isaiah Briscoe (Kentucky), each of whom were McDonald's All-Americans. The roster also includes four players who still have to finish up their senior year of high school.
In class of 2016 stars Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson and Terrence Ferguson, USA Basketball is laying the groundwork for the future of the senior men's national team. Hook 'em early, and earn their pledge later if they develop the way many believe they will. Giles, Tatum, Jackson and Ferguson won't be on the 2016 Olympic team, but the 2020 team and the 2024 team could be in play.
You would expect a U19 team to feature more than just three players with college basketball experience, but USA Basketball is betting that talent will outweighs age. Georgetown's L.J. Peak, UCLA's Thomas Welsh and Louisville big man Chinanu Onauku are the only college "veterans" of this group. Head coach Sean Miller and his staff are banking on the fact that it won't be much of a deterrent as the U.S. chases its second straight gold in the event.
Miller and his brother Archie (along with Providence's Ed Cooley) might be leading U19 team, but you can bet Mike Krzyzewski's fingerprints are all over the roster. Duke just won the national championship led by three freshmen who each played for USA Basketball before arriving in Durham. In Tatum and Giles, Coach K has targeted two more elite talents he's hoping will like playing together so much this summer they decide to do it again at Duke a year from now.
Tatum and Giles are major talents, and Duke is after both of them hard. Each played for the U17 team that won gold last summer. Many scouts believed both could one day develop into NBA All-Stars. Coach K is hoping for the both the short-term benefit of boosting Duke's chances in the 2016-17 season and the long-term benefit of getting each to play for USA Basketball years from now by picking them for this team.
Not to be outdone, Miller has his top recruiting target on the team as well. Jackson is an incredibly gifted scoring wing whose offensive upside might be limitless if he works hard and proves to be coachable. Many believe he'll either chose Kansas or Arizona if he goes to college, but those same people believe the Emmanual Mudiay route of going overseas will also be a strong option for him.
That isn't to suggest Giles, Tatum, Jackson and Ferguson only made the team because Arizona and Duke want to recruit them. They are young but exceptional talents. Every report from the team's training camp is Colorado Springs confirmed as much:
Potentially, most of best players on @usabasketball U-19 team are HS guys: Harry Giles, Josh Jackson, Jason Tatum, Terrence Ferguson.— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) June 15, 2015
Can't remember high school player in last five years with better shooting stroke than Terrence Ferguson. Almost surprised when ball hits rim— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) June 17, 2015
Q. Could rising HS senior Harry Giles (@TheReal_HG3) be No. 1 pick this year if were eligible? A. Not out of question. Kid is that good.— Reid Forgrave (@ReidForgrave) June 16, 2015
If you follow recruiting you may already know this, but Harry Giles is ridiculous. #USABasketball— Michael DeCourcy (@tsnmike) June 14, 2015
Let's put it this way: if Giles, Tatum and Jackson were able to turn pro out of high school, it's very possible each would be a top-five pick in the 2016 draft alongside or ahead of players a year older like LSU's Ben Simmons and Kentucky's Skal Labiessie. They are that highly touted.
As it stands, Giles, Tatum and Jackson won't be able to reach the NBA before the 2017 draft. If they play well at the U19 World Championship, NBA GMs can start planning their tanking strategies accordingly. Their inclusion on this team means USA Basketball is already thinking about the future. Putting high schoolers Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow on the U19 team worked out pretty well last time, as the 2013 team won gold. Look at that roster now and there's more than a few players who will be banking (hundreds of?) millions from NBA checks.
For USA Basketball, it's never too early to start considering the future. Get familiar with these names now, because if the past is any indication, the whole world will know them before long.