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A Glimpse Into Basketball’s Future at the FIBA Americas U18 Tournament

Five next-gen athletes from Team USA to keep tabs on

Michael Porter Jr. (Getty Images)
Michael Porter Jr. (Getty Images)

The U.S. men’s national basketball team’s lopsided victories throughout Olympic exhibitions will get all the publicity, but they aren’t the only American team playing in an important international basketball tournament this summer. As promising as Team USA looked in its 106–57 rout of China on Sunday, NBA front offices likely spent most of their weekend marveling at the homegrown talent playing in the FIBA Americas U18 championship in Valdivia, Chile. The five-day tournament put some of the best high school–age players in America in a controlled, competitive setting, playing for some of the best coaches in the world, with stakes much higher than those of a promotional exhibition put on by shoe companies.

Team USA went undefeated, winning 99–84 in the championship game against a significant opponent in Canada. It’s the team’s fourth championship in a row at the event, which is held every two years. Kyrie Irving played in 2010; Julius Randle and Marcus Smart paired up in 2012; Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, and Myles Turner all played in 2014. Stardom is no guarantee of professional success — just ask 2010 tournament standouts Quincy Miller and Tony Mitchell, or Jarnell Stokes and Shaq Goodwin in 2012. This year’s roster is made up of players eligible for either the 2017 or 2018 NBA draft. How they responded to the change of environment is an early indication of who is ready for the NCAA game, and it gives scouts a baseline to measure their progress over the course of the upcoming season.

This year’s team was coached by Shaka Smart, who installed a full-court defensive scheme similar to the one he ran at VCU. Smart had his players hounding opponents all over the floor, and he was happy to give up a few open 3s if it led to enough turnovers and run-outs the other way. The result was a team that perfectly reflected the state of modern basketball. Smart emphasized speed and skill over size at every position. He wanted to play as many ball handlers as possible, and he preferred big men who could operate out on the perimeter rather than bang in the post. The U18 team follows a similar blueprint to what Mike Krzyzewski implements with the men’s national team; the biggest difference is the amount of pressing involved. Given how much more skilled international opponents are at the senior level, there is much less full-court pressure.

From an NBA perspective, the most interesting aspect of the national team is how it impacts the relationships among the league’s best players. The seeds for the Heat and the Warriors superteams were sowed on Team USA, and that dynamic goes double at the youth levels. When the players of this generation face decisions like LeBron James did in 2010 and Kevin Durant did in 2016, the bonds they make playing with the best overseas and in exhibitions will make a difference in the recruiting process. Here’s a look at five players from the 2016 team with the best chance to generate similar shockwaves in the NBA.

Markelle Fultz (Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz (Getty Images)

Markelle Fultz: The MVP of the tournament continued his strong play from the high school all-star game circuit, where he established himself as a serious candidate for the no. 1 pick in the 2017 draft. Fultz, who will play for Washington next season, can do a little bit of everything, and he’s exactly what NBA teams are looking for as a lead guard. At 6-foot-4, he’s an elite athlete with the size to guard all three positions on the perimeter and the skill set to score in any zone — behind the arc, from midrange, and at the rim. Fultz is the rare teenager who could probably play in the NBA right now — his well-rounded game is impressive, and it gives his team a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of the players it can put around him.

Michael Porter Jr.: Maybe the highest-upside player on the team, Porter still has one more season of high school basketball ahead of him. At 6-foot-10 and 212 pounds, he’s a classic combo forward who spent a lot of time playing as a small-ball power forward in Chile. It’s rare for a wing with Porter’s size to be both as athletic as he is and as good at creating his own offense. The biggest key for him going forward is refining his jumper and his shot selection. There’s no ceiling to how good he can be, although the same thing was said of Harrison Barnes at the same age. If the worst thing you can say about an 18-year-old is that his downside is a guy who just got a $94 million contract, his future is pretty bright.

Jarrett Allen: Allen will play for Smart at Texas, and he’s the archetypal big man you want in that system. At 6-foot-11, 224 pounds, with a near 7-foot-6 wingspan, he’s designed more for sliding his feet on the perimeter than throwing his weight around on the interior. He can fly around the floor, move the ball, and play in space, which makes up for his lack of core strength and still-evolving offensive game. Allen’s already a good passer, but his ceiling will be determined by how much he can improve his shooting off the dribble and in the post. If he stays healthy, he’s going to put up big stats at Texas next season.

Mohamed Bamba: Bamba is a preposterous athlete who might have been constructed in a basketball laboratory. With a 7-foot-9 wingspan, it’s like he’s playing with two tree trimmers attached to his torso. Physically, it’s hard to avoid Rudy Gobert comparisons, but he reminds me more of Clint Capela in terms of the way he moves and slides his body through traffic. Everything about his offensive game is raw, but his ability to shoot free throws (73.3 percent in Chile) is encouraging. Bamba isn’t nearly as far along as Allen (he still has one more season in high school despite being only a month younger) but his upside is as vast as his wingspan.

Hamidou Diallo: Diallo appeared to be the best athlete on Team USA. A 6-foot-5 wing from the class of 2017, Diallo made his presence felt by being everywhere on the court — he was gliding on the floor at extreme speeds. Opponents have found it almost impossible to get around him when he gets down in a defensive stance, though he does tend to jump at fakes, and doesn’t always put himself in the best position to recover. He was a monster on the boards all tournament long, and he came up huge in the championship game with 14 points and six rebounds, including three on the offensive glass. The jumper still needs a lot of work, but hopefully that comes over the next few seasons.