The Jazz know the worst-case scenario here.
Four years ago, Jazz point guard Dante Exum tore his ACL in an international friendly against Slovenia, on a relatively standard drive to the rim. The injury cost him the entire rest 2015-16 season, pushing him a step back and turning a developmental year into a recovery year. Exum’s recovered from that injury, but has gone on to experience multiple others in his time with the Jazz.
But despite that risk, the Jazz say that they’re “excited” for three of their key pieces to be playing in the FIBA World Cup and the associated international warmup games that come along with it. Sure, that means Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Joe Ingles are playing more competitive basketball games, these ones on the world stage.
“We’ve been the beneficiaries this year, and for quite a few years now, of national team experience,” Justin Zanik, the Jazz’s recently-promoted general manager, said. In short, there’s some thought that Ingles and Gobert — and departed players like Ricky Rubio, Boris Diaw, and others — wouldn’t have become quite the players that they have been for the Jazz if it weren’t for their lengthy national team experience.
“Competing for Australia is why I started playing the game. Growing up, I wanted to represent Australia. That was all I wanted to do. The NBA, and even playing professionally in Australia seemed so far at the time,” Ingles told The Sporting News in Australia. “Watching Australia at the Olympics and the World Cups was what I watched, what we got to see in Australia.”
TEAM USA SCHEDULE
World Cup exhibitions games:
Thursday • USA vs. Australia, at Melbourne, 3:30 a.m. MDT
Aug. 24 • USA vs. Australia, at Melbourne, 10 p.m. MDT
Aug. 26 • USA vs. Canada, at Sydney, 3:30 a.m. MDT
Gobert, too, tells similar stories of watching France’s national basketball team growing up, led by Tony Parker. Mitchell obviously had more NBA exposure than Gobert or Ingles as a kid, but he too saw the USA experience as something he wanted to commit to, even as American stars around him dropped out of the competition.
“I’ve wanted to do this,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really too concerned about what everybody else did.”
There’s also the fact that NBA players are basketball junkies: they love playing the sport. Even if they weren’t playing for their international teams, they’d be working out in a gym, either with a trainer or against others, in competitions like the California-based Drew League or in Rico Hines’ pickup runs.
THE WORLD CUP
China, various locations
Group play • Aug. 31-Sept. 9
Quarterfinals • Sept. 10-11
Semifinals • Sept. 13
Finals • Sept. 15
Injuries can happen outside of competition, too, as the NBA was reminded on Thursday. Then, Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL in a private gym, crumpling to the floor with an injury observers could tell was serious right away. It wasn’t in the crucible of the World Cup, but still, Cousins is out for the season.
Regardless of where they’re playing, the Jazz don’t want that to happen to any of their players. So to minimize risk, they send one or more staffers — among a large group that included coaches, trainers, and front office personnel — to follow the players to whatever national or international destination they’re playing basketball in. The idea is with some training supervision and expertise around, they’re less likely to get injured or in a tough situation.
“I think we want to support, certainly, our players’ goals in terms of getting better and their desires to compete and play for their national teams. We also support them if they choose not to,” Zanik said. “We want them to train, and whether that be at our great facilities, or whether or not they’re in the country, we want to support them in getting better and pursuing their goals.”
Not that Zanik could stop the players for playing for their countries, anyway.
“Wearing the colors, the name...it’s just something that you can’t get anywhere else,” Ingles said. "I love playing the NBA, I loved playing in Europe, but putting on the colors and the name on the jersey, there’s just really nothing that compares to that.”
THE JAZZ’S WORLD CUP CONTINGENT
Donovan Mitchell, USA • The 2017-18 Rookie of the Year runner-up averaged 23.8 points and 4.2 assists in his second NBA season while shooting 43.2% from the floor and 36.2% from 3-point range. He’ll play both guard positions during the World Cup.
Rudy Gobert, France • Earned his second consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award and and was named third team All-NBA while averaging career-highs in scoring (15.9) and rebounding (12.9). He will anchor France at both ends of the floor.
Joe Ingles, Australia • One of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA, Ingles averaged 12.1 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 44.8% from the floor and 39.1% from deep, giving the Boomers a potent perimeter threat. His always-annoying defense will also be on display.