All the way back in 2012, before Paul George broke his leg in the most gruesome way possible during a Team USA exhibition, NBA owners had concerns about their best players putting themselves at risk for injury in international play. For those who don’t recall, the owners were in then-Commissioner David Stern’s ear so much that a movement started to gain some traction in which FIBA would only allow American players under the age of 24 years old into the Olympic Games. It gained so much traction, in fact, that FIBA actually had to put the kibosh on the idea publicly right in the middle of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
“The NBA has come up with the idea to go with under-24 and at the same time to promote younger athletes,” said FIBA chief Patrick Baumann back in 2012. “My feeling is that we will not be proposing a 23 age limit for the 2016 Olympic Games.”
That, of course, didn’t happen (literally every player on the current Team USA roster is over the age of 23 years old). But when George—who is on this current Olympic roster, by the way—broke his leg back in 2014 during a meaningless exhibition, owners’ mumbling about the issue grew even more sincere and severe.
Dallas’ Mark Cuban’s voice was, as usual, the loudest. He made a lot of great points about who profits from the Olympics and these superstar assets that technically “belong” to other organizations. Care to guess how much money Cuban makes when Dirk Nowitzki represents Germany for some international tournament or another? Zilch. So when a star like Nowitzki is at risk of a potentially career-ending injury (or even just a serious season-ending ailment, for that matter), it’s easy to understand why Cuban – or any other owner – would want to keep him safe and healthy rather than put more miles on his career odometer.
There hasn’t been much talk about a 23-and-under Team USA roster in a couple of years, but in an alternate universe where such a thing did actually come to fruition, what might that team look like? The following is an exercise in determining not only which young American NBA players would be good enough to make the Team USA roster, but which 12 of them would represent the best opportunity for the U.S. to remain the best international men’s basketball team in the world.
Spain and France and Lithuania aren’t putting age limits in place any time soon, so this is the roster that would have to stand up to that stiff competition despite their relative lack of strength and experience:
Guards: Bradley Beal, D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield
Forwards: Anthony Davis, Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ingram, Justise Winslow
Bigs: Andre Drummond, Karl-Anthony Towns, Myles Turner
Snubs: Kyle Anderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Stanley Johnson, Zach LaVine, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker, Otto Porter, Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Josh Richardson, Marcus Smart, Victor Oladipo.
There aren’t many “true” point guards who are both elite and of the appropriate age for this team, but Dunn probably would play that role about as well as any eligible player in the pool. Russell can bring the ball up the court, as well, and both he and Dunn represent pretty diverse backcourt scoring options. Beal and Booker can shoot it from all over the floor, as well, and Hield would be another three-point specialist for the team who, as the best player in college basketball last year, would be a fairly likely “college kid” to make the team, anyway.
The forwards are an incredibly varied group, with Gordon and Ingram representing athleticism and scoring ability and Winslow representing strength and defensive ability. Davis, of course, would be the team’s best player by a mile, as he does just about everything well except stay healthy. He’d be the cornerstone on which the entire team was built and would be just about the only unstoppable offensive player against the field’s best defenders.
As for the bigs, Drummond and Towns are the rest of the team’s star power, with Drummond anchoring the interior defense and Towns playing that pretty inside-out game that helped him win unanimously win the Rookie of the Year award. Turner wraps it up, though the team might not need his size with so many other talented bigs on the roster and could instead opt for another swingman or forward (or take a flyer on another young point guard) to fill the 12th spot.
Top-to-bottom, that’s still a team with enough to talent to handily dispose of most of the world’s top competition, but it’s also a team that might have struggled with a big, strong, experienced Spain team that has won the last two silver medals in men’s basketball. While Marc Gasol has had to sit out this year’s Olympics, the Spanish team still features Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez, Nikola Mirotic, Juan Carlos Navarro and several other players with years and years of tough international and NBA experience. France, which features the likes of Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert, would be no walk in the park for this under-24 team either.
Still, Team USA would have every opportunity to compete with the best teams in the world. But, then, what if Anthony Davis opted not to participate? Losing just him completely changes the outlook of the team to one that, with a few exceptions, essentially is made up of amateurs.
Thankfully we don’t yet have to realistically consider what an under-24 U.S. Olympic basketball team would look like or how they’d fare because the demands for such a thing have simmered down in the two years following George’s grisly injury. For now, the Olympics remain an opportunity to showcase the best athletes in a given sport rather than just the best up-and-coming ones.
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