USA Basketball has an interesting dilemma on its hands, now tasked with fielding a team for the FIBA AmeriCup qualifying window which will take place from Feb. 17-22, with Team USA playing on the 19th against the Bahamas and the 20th against Mexico in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In 2017, FIBA, the international basketball governing body, switched over how teams qualify for the World Cup, Olympics and continental tournaments – or, in the case of the United States, the AmeriCup. The old model involved continental tournaments every odd year during July, August and September. The new model resembles what FIFA has done with soccer, having three separate qualifying windows throughout the year as opposed to a single opportunity in the summer.
When FIBA went to this model, Team USA had to figure out how they would field a team to qualify. COVID has caused the qualifying windows to change slightly, but the plan was always to have the windows be in November and February. Typically, they decided on sending a team of G League players and then NBA players for the bigger tournaments. Importantly, it was working: With Jeff Van Gundy coaching during the qualifying windows, Team USA was able to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup this way.
The issue these days, of course, is that the G League season will take place in a bubble format in Orlando starting on Feb. 10th, with most teams having already arrived at the site. Without the use of G League players, what will USA Basketball do to fill out the roster?
Currently, it looks like they will tap into the free agent market for those who will use this qualifying window to audition for NBA teams. Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier this week that USA Basketball has currently received commitments from Isaiah Thomas, Joe Johnson and Dakota Mathias to play in February for longtime NBA assistant coach and one-time interim head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, Joe Prunty.
Thomas is a two-time All-Star who is looking to prove that he is healthy and ready to contribute to a team. After a 2016-17 season where he averaged a career-high 28.9 points per game, Thomas has played in only 84 contests over the past three seasons. This offseason, Thomas didn’t find interest from NBA teams, so these two games could be a springboard for him to re-reach the NBA.
Seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson saw his last professional action during the preseason at the start of the 2019-20 season. After not making the Pistons’ final roster, he spent the year training and staying in shape, even playing for Overseas Elite during The Basketball Tournament. The 39-year-old has USA Basketball experience, having been a part of the bronze medal team at the 2006 World Championships in Japan.
On this qualifying team, he will take over the role Carmelo Anthony played for many years as a floor-spacing, mismatch-creating four.
Mathias started this season on a two-way contract with the Philadelphia 76ers and was waived on Jan. 18th. Over eight games with the 76ers, he scored in double figures twice – but this is a fine opportunity to stand out as a floor spacer.
So far, these are the only three players confirmed to be playing in the tournament. If USA Basketball decides to fill out the roster with similar free agents, they will have no shortage of options.
Here are some players who USA Basketball could turn to in order to fill the roster:
Napier ended last season with the Washington Wizards after being traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves. During his 20 games with the Wizards, he averaged career highs in minutes, field goal percentage and points. Worth noting, Napier is also eligible to play for the Puerto Rican national team.
Crawford is one of the most prolific bench scorers in NBA history. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year could use the two games in Puerto Rico to show that, at 40 years old, he is healthy and can still provide a scoring punch.
The veteran shooting wing has spent parts of the last seven seasons in the NBA, most recently with the Denver Nuggets. He took a step back in minutes and production last season but he can contribute as a 3-and-D-worthy wing.
The eight-year NBA veteran has played for USA Basketball during youth tournaments and could provide a versatile wing defense and improved offensive skill.
Roberson has battled injuries the past few seasons and could build on his performance in last year’s bubble, showing teams he has a clean bill of health.
One of the surprise waives from training camp, the Timberwolves cut Hollis-Jefferson to preserve cap flexibility. But has a long-time Nets holdover, the forward’s gritty play often does the little things on the floor.
The last time Vonleh got playing time, he averaged career-highs with 8.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game for the New York Knicks.
No stranger to USA Basketball with his three gold medals, the 38-year-old Chandler has always been a welcomed veteran big man off the bench.
Although many thought Brooklyn would sign Dedmon after trading Jarrett Allen, this is an opportunity similar to Chandler – to provide a veteran post presence with the second unit.
USA Basketball could also pick from players that went undrafted in this year’s G League draft. With only 25 players selected, Michael Beasley, Lance Stephenson, Isaiah Briscoe, Mario Chalmers and Shabazz Muhammad are all available.
Despite the unconventional structure of the roster, USA Basketball should still be able to field a very good team. Auditioning with NBA teams for roster spots, it will make for an interesting evaluation period for teams leading into 10-day contract season.
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