LAS VEGAS — USA Basketball head coach Gregg Popovich typically has a month of NBA training camp and a half-dozen or so preseason games before he picks a San Antonio team, and then gets a few more months of the regular-season grind to mold those Spurs into playoff shape.
These aren’t the Spurs. These are not typical times, either.
USA Basketball will finalize its World Cup team Aug. 17 — meaning training camp, which started Monday, lasts less than two weeks. That also means there’s a real urgency in this camp in Las Vegas, because Popovich and his staff won’t have much time to decide who will fill the 12 spots on the roster that will head to China in search of a third consecutive World Cup title.
“We’re looking for guys who are competitive, who can handle the discipline it’s going to take to get this done, play a team game and basically fall in love with each other and have that empathy so that they feel responsible to each other and depend upon each other,” Popovich said. “That obviously means you don’t need the greatest amount of talent in the world.
“Too little talent is not a good thing, but we don’t have that problem.”
Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images
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The U.S. has won the past two World Cup gold medals, both won under former head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and now it’s Popovich’s turn to lead the red, white and blue.
“It’s been on my mind every day, what I want to do and what needs to be done,” said Popovich, the longtime San Antonio head coach who was picked as Krzyzewski’s successor nearly four years ago. “It’s been like thinking about two teams at the same time for that period. But Coach K did that for 12 years. So I think I can probably try to do the same.”
The biggest U.S. names — LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and so on — aren’t playing World Cup. There are four current All-NBA players expected in the tournament, and three of them will be aiming to beat the U.S. Nikola Jokic will lead gold-medal hopeful Serbia, NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing for Greece, and Rudy Gobert is playing for France.
The only American All-NBA player in the mix is Kemba Walker, who knows team building over the next few days is vital.
“On the court is pretty easy. I think we’ll get that,” Walker said. “Off the court is where we need to figure out, where we need to spend more time and communicate more, just have fun with each other. Like Pop said, just love each other. That’s the way it has to be, because it has to translate to on the court if we want to do something special with this team.”
Even though the U.S. roster lacks the biggest names, there’s already a clear sense of competition.
Popovich brought in the select team — the younger NBA players who were invited to Las Vegas this week to push the national-teamers and potentially compete for their jobs — into practice Tuesday, and players said the intensity of play immediately ramped skyward. There’s no grace period for players to ease into camp, not with stakes this high.
“They came to play,” Miami center Bam Adebayo said. “I give them respect.”
It’s already clear that Popovich, entering his first tournament as the U.S. coach, doesn’t want the 12 best players. He wants the 12 best-fitting ones.
So the roster is still anyone’s guess.
Everything that happens on the practice floor and in scrimmages will matter in terms of evaluation, of course. But there’s also the off-the-court bonds that Popovich will be wanting to see, the ones forged over dinners and meetings and conversations. When the U.S. plane leaves Los Angeles for Australia on Aug. 17, bonds that might not currently exist will have to be firmly in place.
“It’s about how the group fits together,” Popovich said. “You know, 12 All-Stars probably aren’t going to work great unless you have the right mix of point guards and defenders, big guys who can spread the court and shoot it. It’s how they fit together. It’s about being competitive, who the most team-oriented guys, who are the most dedicated guys. This is a long journey, and it takes a hell of a commitment.”
Popovich calls it “a huge responsibility” to both represent the country and continue the program’s long tradition of winning. He and his assistants have been meeting for weeks, going over every possible detail.
“He is so passionate about this project and he’s so well-prepared,” Warriors head coach and USA Basketball assistant Steve Kerr said.
There is also some pressure, of course.
When the Americans start World Cup play in Shanghai on Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic, it’ll be exactly 13 years since the national-team program lost a game at the world championships, now known as the World Cup, or in Olympic competition.
On Sept. 1, 2006, the U.S. lost to Greece in the world championships semifinals. Since then, the Americans are 76-0 — a run that started with the bronze-medal game in the 2006 worlds followed by gold-medal runs in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, the 2008 Olympics, the 2010 world championships, the 2012 Olympics, the 2014 World Cup and finally the 2016 Olympics.
USA Basketball has lost at times since 2006, including twice during the 12-game World Cup qualifying run.
But none of the defeats came against the full-fledged U.S. varsity, the level that Popovich now is overseeing.
There are some natural, and coincidental, parallels with Popovich following Krzyzewski as national-team coach.
Both were military and service-academy men: Krzyzewski graduated from Army West Point in 1969, Popovich from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. The Army put Krzyzewski into its Hall of Fame; the Air Force Academy did the same for Popovich. Krzyzewski has five NCAA titles; Popovich has five NBA titles.
“This is beyond playing for an NBA team,” Popovich said. “This is the highest level you can be.”
Tim Reynolds is an Associated Press writer.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Gregg-Popovich-finally-gets-his-turn-at-leading-14285715.php.