The U.S. men’s national basketball team hasn’t even started getting ready for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, but it’s already taken some serious losses. Just one month after USA Basketball announced the 20-player pool from which chairman Jerry Colangelo and new head coach Gregg Popovich would pick the roster that will compete in China in September and two weeks before Team USA convenes in Las Vegas for the start of its training camp, five prominent prospective national-teamers have already removed their names from consideration to wear red, white, and blue.
Anthony Davis dropped out first, preferring to spend what remains of his summer preparing to put his best foot forward in his Hollywood debut. Then James Harden did the same, citing the need to get things organized in Houston after the Rockets’ recent roster restructuring. Eric Gordon, CJ McCollum, and Bradley Beal have stepped back, too, removing three knockdown shooters and offensive creators from a U.S. player pool that’s suddenly looking short on both backcourt bodies and international experience.
Only four members of the U.S. training camp roster have Senior Team experience: Kyle Lowry, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, and Harrison Barnes. And Lowry, the only guard of the bunch, just underwent surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left thumb. While he recuperates—he “remains hopeful” he’ll be ready for camp next month and game action in China in September, per ESPN—the U.S. will have only three healthy guards in the mix: Donovan Mitchell, Kemba Walker, and Damian Lillard.
With versatile forwards like Khris Middleton, and Paul Millsap to help handle the ball, young creators like Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma to help generate offense and floor-spacing shooters like Love, Brook Lopez, P.J. Tucker, and Myles Turner to provide firepower from the frontcourt, there’s still plenty of shot-creating skill and overall talent in the pool, which will be whittled down to a 12-player roster announced August 17. And USA Basketball brass could add some new names to the guard group before breaking camp, perhaps through call-ups from the Select Team of younger players picked to practice against the senior squad in Las Vegas; the 10-player Select Team roster will reportedly include Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox and Clippers sharpshooter Landry Shamet, among others. (Young bigs Marvin Bagley, John Collins, and Mitchell Robinson, have also been invited.)
With or without the sort of signature stars who routinely top the NBA’s MVP ballot, Team USA will still be the favorite to win its third straight FIBA crown, due partly to the fact that we’ve seen this movie before. The 2010 team that won FIBA gold in Turkey featured zero holdovers from the U.S. roster that had won Olympic gold in China two summers earlier. The 2014 team that won it all in Spain had only two players who’d suited up in the 2012 Summer Games: Harden and Davis, who saw the least playing time of any members of the U.S. squad in London. Despite lacking marquee superstars, those teams bested their international counterparts thanks in part to stellar performances by younger players rising to seize the opportunity to take on larger roles. A 21-year-old Kevin Durant won tournament MVP in 2010; a 22-year-old Kyrie Irving earned the honor in 2014.
Tatum, who turned 21 in March, and Mitchell, who will turn 23 midway through the World Cup, could fit the bill as rising young talents given a greater chance to shine. This time around, though, it seems like the stage is set for a previously overlooked older head to prevail.
After being cut from the final roster in 2014 and withdrawing from consideration in 2016, Lillard has gone on to become one of the sport’s premier point guards. He’s finished in the top six in MVP voting in each of the last two seasons, earned consecutive All-NBA berths, and established himself as a clutch assassin and Pacific Northwest legend by drilling one of the most iconic shots in NBA postseason history. After leading the Trail Blazers to their deepest postseason run in 19 years, Lillard agreed to a supermax contract extension—four years, $196 million—to cement himself as Portland’s cornerstone for the next half-decade and as one the NBA’s true superstars.
With Harden and Davis both bowing out, there’s room for a star to take the reins of Team USA. Why not Lillard, a man seemingly in the midst of A Moment, whose earning power and Q rating are both on the rise, who has yet to get a crack at wearing a U.S. uniform in international competition, and who seems to perfectly fit the bill for what Pop’s roster needs most after the recent defections: an ace scorer, a top 3-point shooter, a primary ball handler, and a bona fide leader?
“For me, I’ve had a lot of accomplishments—high school, college, and even in the NBA,” Lillard recently told reporters at his summer camp. “But the ultimate goal is to win it all, to win the championship as a team. As an individual, you want to be MVP. So, I think that’s an easy question. I haven’t been either one of those—a champion or MVP—so there’s a lot I still have to play for, a lot to keep me going.”
A first career gold medal seems like something to play for. The chance to win it while stepping forward as the All-Star who stuck around while his peers stayed home—to win it all and be the MVP, not for club, but for country—seems like it’d keep Lillard going and be a hell of a capper to what’s been a massive summer. It’s probably not easy to find the right role to take on next after suiting up for Space Jam 2. Captain America’s got a pretty nice ring to it.