USA Basketball heads overseas after trial by fire

DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE OPPONENT: San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich during the first half against the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at the Pepsi Center. Popovich is the head coach for Team USA in the World Cup. Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports via Reuters

LAS VEGAS – Let's cut to the chase and call them the United Spurs of America.

The viewing public got its first look at USA Basketball on Friday, and what it saw was both bland and ruthlessly effective. Whereas Team USA intrasquad scrimmages were often all-star exhibitions under previous coach Mike Krzyzewski – filled with a parade of dunks aided by third-gear defense – the Gregg Popovich era began in starkly different fashion.

Instead of mixing up the teams to create a balanced, fan-friendly contest, Popovich pitted his national team against the select team of understudies. This was varsity versus junior varsity rather than East versus West, and the game play had the feel of a suit-and-tie affair.

The central challenge facing Team USA in the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China is its lack of A-list star power after a long list of withdrawals in recent months. Popovich has responded by copying the San Antonio Spurs' playbook and turning the system into the star.

On offense, the national team exhibited balanced scoring, a deep commitment to ball movement, a relative lack of isolation play, and a desire to set up drive-and-kick shots. On defense, they pressured ballhandlers, got back in transition, tried to take away three-pointers, and sought to control the glass. The unselfish and disciplined approach led to a runaway 97-78 thumping of the select team.

"We're looking for people who are committed defensively and are willing to move the ball and move themselves on the offensive end," Popovich explained afterward.

Team USA doesn't have a Tim Duncan in the middle, but on all other counts they delivered an impressive Spurs impression. They held the Select team to 32.5% shooting, they hit 41% of their 3-point attempts, and they registered 23 assists on 38 shots.

Kemba Walker is Tony Parker's body double, a quick and crafty point guard who can run the offense and float in feathery jumpers. Donovan Mitchell gets Manu Ginóbili duties, adding a creative and unpredictable scoring punch to the backcourt. Khris Middleton, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum all ably fill the 3-and-D wing role made famous by the likes of Bruce Bowen and Danny Green.

The biggest difference between Team USA and the Spurs, other than Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, is time. Popovich has had to fashion USA's culture in a matter of weeks rather than years – a fact that came up multiple times in his assessment of the group's progress.

"We'll up our assist total even more than what you saw tonight as we become more familiar with each other and feel more comfortable with the system," Popovich said. "[On defense], there's been absolutely no problem with the effort and the physicality. It's just a matter of getting wiser and more habitual."

As it prepares to head to Los Angeles for a second week of training, USAB announced a 17-man group of finalists for the 12-man roster. Out are Chicago Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo. In are Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox, Kings forward Marvin Bagley, Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris and Spurs guard Derrick White.

The inclusion of White, a former G-Leaguer who enjoyed a nice breakout season in 2018-19, is a good prism to view Popovich's imprint on USAB. While White was a standout in practices all week, he also benefits from a personal understanding of the boss' philosophies. Popovich can count on his fit and buy-in, no small pluses given the tight preparation timeline.

Popovich's Spurs, at their best, squeeze the life out of their opponents and leave the theatrics for everyone else. In that same vein, his national team didn't exactly titillate. The T-Mobile Arena crowd of 7,656 sat quietly for much of Friday evening, cheering the occasional dunks and free T-shirts but otherwise appearing somewhat less than engaged.

By the time Popovich addressed the media during a monotone news conference, the message was clear: This version of Team USA will be all business and no frills, as it seeks to extend the program's gold medal streak.

"We've got the right guy coaching," USAB managing director Jerry Colangelo confidently declared. "I keep saying we're going to be OK, and we're going to be OK. That's how I feel."