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Team USA's Next Generation

For all the attention the Las Vegas Summer League received, it was only the preliminary event to the real action this summer. This week, USA Basketball is holding a four-day mini-camp for 28 young players in Vegas. A Who’s Who of under-25 stars is there, with guys like Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Anthony Davis competing for spots on Team USA in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. No final decisions will be made, but it is an opportunity for the NBA’s best young players to see how they measure up.

Maybe more importantly, it’s also a chance for them to get to know each other. Instead of haphazardly assembling big names with little regard for continuity, Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo have emphasized the importance of players “buying in” over a multi-year period. This week’s mini-camp in Vegas is the first step towards building a roster not just for 2014, but 2016, 2018 and 2020 too. Playing for Team USA through their 20’s will change the new generation of players, just as it did the last.

There will likely be a changing of the guard at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. LeBron James, after gold medals in 2008 and 2012, is reportedly finished with international play. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams will all be well into their 30’s by 2016. Of the 12 who played in London, there may be as few as five -- Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Davis -- with any interest in Rio.

The next generation will have a high standard to live up to. Since 2006, the US has gone 62-1 in major international competitions. The field is deeper than ever, but no one has been able to find an answer for the versatility and athleticism of Team USA. Over the last six years, they’ve played the game “the way it was meant to be played”, with the ball freely moving around the court. Rather than an All-Star team, they’ve been a team that happens to have All-Stars.

If basketball is jazz, Team USA is a jam session at the highest level. From time to time, everyone needs someone to riff off of. Even the greatest individual talent can benefit from being part of an ensemble. At the Olympics, there’s no need to force the action. There are too many good players on the floor. It’s high-level stuff -- a LeBron and Durant two-man game, Carmelo and Kobe as safety valves spotting up for open shots.

Of course, once you play the New York Philharmonic, it’s hard to go back to the local bar. To this day, there are whispers that LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made a pact during the 2008 Olympics to play together in the NBA. It makes for a great conspiracy theory, since it can’t actually be proven or disproven. At the very least, there’s no question that their experience internationally made it easier for them to get behind the super-team idea. Why not win a bunch of games with your friends?

In many ways, Team USA changed the peer group of the NBA’s best young players. While their NBA teammates changed every year, their international teammates stayed the same. They were together almost every summer, sharing experiences they would tell their grandkids about. Why was Joe Johnson invited to the infamous free agent summit in 2010? He was on the 2006 World Championship team. He already knew everyone, so it was no big deal.

These days, that process begins way before the national team level. The big recruiting story right now is the “package deal” for Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, the consensus No. 1 and 2 players in the class of 2014. It’s never happened before: two top-rated prospects from different parts of the country teaming up together. They met at a USA Basketball developmental mini-camp in middle school and became close friends after playing together on the U-16 and U-17 national teams.

Here’s the kicker: everyone else wants in too. Justise Winslow, the only other high school player besides Okafor on this year’s U-19 team, may end up joining them. A season ago, Kentucky started three of the top five freshmen from the class of 2011 and went 38-2. It’s the same logic as you move up the food chain. When the best power forward, best small forward and best shooting guard in the 2003 draft class decided to play with each other, they started a dynasty.

The key is everyone being able to make the decision at the same time, whether it’s a recruiting class or a draft class. Stars attract other stars in the NBA, but it’s hard to work out a plan over multiple years. One guy can get traded and wind up in a great situation, leaving the other holding the bag. However, if two or more stars reach unrestricted free agency at the same time, everything is on the table. That’s what made the class of 2003 so compelling: the sheer number of elite players in it.

At this year’s Team USA mini-camp, the big story is the draft class of 2010. After three years in the NBA, they’re eligible for their first big extensions this summer. 2010 is hardly comparable to 2003, but it has a few interesting names. There are seven players from that draft in Vegas: John Wall, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Derrick Favors, Larry Sanders and Gordon Hayward. Of the seven, Hayward is the only one without All-Star upside.

Wall, the No. 1 overall pick, became the first to get paid when he moved closer to an agreement on a max deal on Wednesday. George will likely be maxed out soon as well. There are still questions about the rest, but big men with size and talent tend to be well compensated. Cousins and Monroe are 6’11+ double-double machines, while Favors and Sanders look like future Defensive Player of the candidates. If Roy Hibbert can get maxed out in restricted free agency, so can these guys.

There’s no telling what happens to them over the next few years. Some might get hurt; others might fall off the pace. I think Wall, George and Favors are the best bets to make the team in 2014, but all seven will get a shot. In a few years, when they enter unrestricted free agency together, they’ll still be in their mid-20’s. The ones in great situations will likely stay in place. The ones who aren’t so lucky? They’ll have each other’s numbers. 

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