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It’s Time for the Next Generation of Team USA to Step Up

Zion Williamson and the best U.S.-born up-and-comers need to take the reins of USA Basketball to avoid another ugly international defeat

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There was one clear lesson from Team USA’s 89-79 loss to France at the FIBA World Cup on Wednesday: They didn’t have enough talent. The Americans were ravaged by withdrawals and injuries, forcing them to rely on a group of flawed players whose weaknesses were exploited by a well-coached French team with an NBA-caliber player at every position.

The best U.S. players have always preferred playing in the Olympics over the World Cup. That didn’t matter at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups (then known as the World Championship) because Team USA used those tournaments to prepare the next generation of great players. The problem this time around was that many of the best young Americans weren’t in China, either because they chose to stay at home or they weren’t quite ready to play on the international stage. The difference in 25-and-under talent in 2019 compared to 2014 and 2010 is striking:

  • 2010: Steph Curry (22), Kevin Love (22), Kevin Durant (21), Russell Westbrook (21), Derrick Rose (21)
  • 2014: James Harden (25), Klay Thompson (24), DeMarcus Cousins (24), Kyrie Irving (22), Anthony Davis (21)
  • 2019: Donovan Mitchell (23), Myles Turner (23), Jaylen Brown (22), Jayson Tatum (21)

Mitchell did his part. He had 29 points, six rebounds, and four assists against France, and was Team USA’s best all-around player. But Tatum played only two games before spraining his ankle, and neither Turner nor Brown did enough to establish themselves as mainstays going forward.

The future of the program is in flux. The players from the 2010 team have stopped competing internationally, and there may not be any left from the 2014 team, either. Harden, Davis, and Irving have already won Olympic gold, while Thompson just tore his ACL and Cousins has suffered too many injuries to list. There could be plenty of spots available on Team USA for players in the next generation.

International basketball has changed since the days of the Redeem Team. Giannis Antetokounmpo could be the best player in the world for the next decade, while many of the best young prospects in the NBA, from Luka Doncic to Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns, don’t play for the U.S. The Americans have to focus more on finding players who complement each other instead of just gathering as much talent as possible and seeing what sticks.

The good news is the outline of the next version of Team USA is already coming into focus. There are four young players who stand out as potential cornerstones, all of whom fit well together:

Trae Young (20)

Young is coming off a brilliant rookie season with the Hawks, when he averaged 19.1 points on 41.8 percent shooting and 8.1 assists per game. He played for the U.S. Select Team this summer and had an outside chance of making the World Cup roster before withdrawing with an eye infection. His combination of unlimited shooting range and elite playmaking makes him a perfect fit for Team USA. The Americans don’t need a big-time scorer at point; they need someone who can create easy shots for teammates in transition and shoot defenses out of zones in the half court. And while Young will have issues on defense, the Americans should have more than enough long and athletic perimeter players to protect him, from returning players like Mitchell and Tatum to a Select Team player like Jonathan Isaac.

Devin Booker (22)

Booker is one of the more polarizing players in the NBA, but there’s no denying his growth in his first four seasons. He went from a shooting specialist in college to an elite scorer (26.6 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting last season) who stretches out the defense (6.5 3-point attempts per game) and makes plays for his teammates (6.8 assists per game). A backcourt of Young and Booker would open up the floor and prevent defenses from playing zone. Booker’s individual stats have benefited from receiving the Suns’ constant green light, but he would have a better reputation around the league if he were playing for a well-run organization. He fits the profile of a young star on a bad team who could get a wandering eye after his time on Team USA.

Zion Williamson (19)

Williamson, despite being a teenager with no NBA experience, could have been a difference-maker in China. At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, his combination of size, speed, and athleticism would have posed matchup problems for most of the teams in the field. At the very least, he would have been a better fit than Harrison Barnes as a small-ball 5. Williamson isn’t just an athlete—he’s a skilled player with a high basketball IQ who knows how to maximize his physical gifts. His ability to pass out of the high post would have been huge for a team that struggled to make plays against zone defenses. Williamson is one of the most exciting prospects to enter the league in a long time. There is no telling how good he will be by the time the next World Cup rolls around in 2023.

Jaren Jackson Jr. (19)

Jackson is the next great American unicorn after Davis. Team USA will need a 7-footer with his type of length and athleticism to match up with guys like Giannis, Nikola Jokic, Towns, and Porzingis in future international tournaments. Jackson was the best rookie big man of the five taken in the top seven in the 2018 draft, and he should be even better in Year 2. Everyone knows about his ability to shoot 3s, protect the rim, and defend on the perimeter. Now, after serving as an understudy to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr., Jackson will get the chance to show that he can also put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. He can do almost everything on a basketball court at a high level, and his versatility on both sides of the ball would add an element that the latest version of Team USA was sorely lacking.

That may not be the most awe-inspiring list in comparison with the Redeem Team generation, but this foursome’s style of play is a better fit for the international game. The best defensive strategy against the Americans has always been to pack the paint to neutralize their athleticism and turn them into shooters. The best scorers in the next generation are all volume 3-point shooters, which means the U.S. won’t have to rely on shooting specialists like Joe Harris and Brook Lopez to be zone-busters anymore.

Players like Young, Booker, and Jackson grew up watching Steph Curry. Shooting 3s from all over the floor is second nature to them. That shooting ability, in turn, will create massive openings at the rim for players like Williamson. Team USA always brings the best athletes to international competitions. Now we will have the best shooters, too.