Two weeks ago, Donovan Mitchell looked unlikely to make the Team USA roster for September’s FIBA World Cup.
Mitchell ranked fourth or fifth among Team USA shooting guards in terms of experience, behind Houston’s James Harden and Eric Gordon, Washington’s Bradley Beal, and Portland’s C.J. McCollum. If the 22-year-old Jazzman was to make the 12-man squad, it needed to be on the back of his defensive efforts as a role player.
“The thing that we’re looking for is defense, and he has the ability to be a real factor,” Team USA Jerry Colangelo said then. "That could be the best way for him to make a roster spot, is to play incredible defense.”
But then, in a hurry, everything changed. Over the course of a few days, every single shooting guard on the roster ahead of Mitchell pulled out of the competition. Harden said he wanted to “spend the remainder of the offseason to focus on preparing for the retooled Rockets.” Gordon followed suit with his Houston teammate, and McCollum chose to do the same for Portland. Meanwhile, Beal will miss the tournament due to the expected birth of his child.
The upshot? Mitchell now looks like the expected starter for Team USA at the shooting guard spot, as training camp opens in Las Vegas on Monday. Daily practices will try to get USA’s team gelling as they ramp up for international basketball’s second-biggest tournament behind the Olympics, including a televised scrimmage game on Friday.
The two-guard isn’t the only weaker-than-expected position for USA Basketball, though. Other stars that have withdrawn from the competition include Portland’s Damian Lillard, Los Angeles’ Anthony Davis, Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris, Cleveland’s Kevin Love, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Denver’s Paul Millsap, and even role players like the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell and New Orleans’ J.J. Redick. Meanwhile, elite players like LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl Anthony-Towns and others rejected invites earlier in the process, skipping withdrawal entirely.
Instead, Team USA figures to be headlined by backcourt players Kemba Walker and Mitchell carrying the scoring load, with Kyle Lowry — returning mid-camp from a thumb surgery — and Marcus Smart behind them. The bigger wing candidates are headlined by Khris Middleton, Jaylen Brown, and P.J. Tucker, while Harrison Barnes, Thaddeus Young, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle compete for spots at the four. The team also has to choose between some internationally-unproven centers: Myles Turner, Bam Adebayo, and Mason Plumlee.
USA BASKETBALL CAMP ROSTER
At UNLV, August 5-9
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)
Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)
Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)
Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)
Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)
Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
P.J. Tucker (Houston Rockets)
Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)
Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)
Thaddeus Young (Chicago Bulls)
Of those on the roster, there’s only one player who made one of the 15 All-NBA slots: Walker. Only Walker and Khris Middleton were named as All-Stars, and only Walker, Mitchell, and Randle scored over 20 points per game in the NBA last season. Colangelo, though, says he isn’t worried about the overall level of Team USA:
“I think we’re going to be fine,” Colangelo told the New York Times. "Out of this — I don’t want to call it adversity — out of these circumstances comes opportunity for the young guys. Some young guys who I think are ready to bust out.”
Mitchell isn’t the only Jazzman who will start in the FIBA World Cup. Rudy Gobert, of course, figures to start and play a huge role for France, while Joe Ingles will be a big part of Team Australia, the “Boomers," as Australians call their national basketball team. Miye Oni was also named to Nigeria’s 44-man preliminary roster list. Bojan Bogdanovic won’t participate for Croatia because they failed to qualify for the event.
But Gobert and Ingles too will be leading somewhat weakened squads. Dante Exum won’t play for Australia due to the knee injury he’s still recovering from — though he is expected to be ready by the start of the Jazz’s training camp. Ben Simmons is also out for Australia, as are NBAers Thon Maker and Ryan Broekhoff. France hasn’t had as many withdrawals, but still is without some of its signature figures: Tony Parker and Boris Diaw are gone after retirement, big men Ian Mahinmi and Joakim Noah aren’t on the roster, and Joffrey Lauvergne is injured.
There should also be plenty of Jazz-on-Jazz battles to watch down the stretch of games. Team USA plays two separate exhibition games against Australia in Melbourne on August 22 and 24, pitting Mitchell and Ingles against each other. Then, once the event actually begins in China on August 31, Australia and France look poised for a critical matchup at the end of the competition’s group phase, for either seeding or qualification to the knockout tournament.
USA Basketball is certainly still favored in the knockout stages, but anything is possible there. Mitchell has faced the bright lights of the NBA Playoffs before, but this summer, he figures now to have an opportunity to show he can carry a load on an international stage.