Held biannually since 2007, the FIBA U19 World Championships afford college kids and elite high school prospects a once-in-a-lifetime platform to showcase their skills on a global stage. For every single one of the 12 players selected, the experience gained from playing top notch competition away from their comfort zones can be immense. And aside from the fact that all twelve of these kids clearly have aspirations of reaching the highest level of pro basketball at some point (re: NBA), simply making this roster alone is an achievement that could help to open doors for a possible future overseas one day.
Two years ago, led by Davidson's Bob McKillop, a group featuring Ashton Gibbs, Klay Thompson, Shelvin Mack, Gordon Hayward and Tyshawn Taylor turned in a perfect 9-0 record to capture the U19 gold medal over Greece. Built around larger scoring guards and dangerous three point marksmen, that '09 squad showed up with the ideal amount of balance necessary to flourish in international play, and that's exactly what happened.
But as the 2011 tournament prepares to kick off on Thursday, it's impossible to block out the rumblings that this newest crop of youngsters might not be able to swing a repeat. In two preliminary games against Lithuania's U20 and U19 teams, the U.S. team has been outscored by a jaw-dropping 62 points. Even with decades of hoops dominance to our credit, seeing any of Team USA's factions on the wrong side of a 30-point beatdown is hard to swallow.
That said, facing an obvious favorite like Lithuania is not exactly a fair representation in an exhibition game for a group of kids who haven't really played together before. The talent level on this USA roster, just like in previous years, remains extremely high. That's a big reason why Memphis guard Joe Jackson, a former 5-star recruit, still views his group as the preemptive favorite despite the early hiccups:
"I feel like we still are the team to beat. It’s just our first time playing together as a group and generally it’s a different style of play out here. These guys can ball. We’ve got to make some adjustments and we’ll be ready.
I don’t want to be arrogant or anything, but I know that we’re a good team. I’m not going to shoot at my team because of a couple of losses. These are some of the top players in America, so if we get together, become more focused and player better defense and just play through all of the stuff that goes on over here, we’ll be alright."
As far as that pesky Lithuanian team goes, the outspoken Jackson isn't ready to fuel the fire just yet. Wise move.
"I’m not going to say we’re going to beat them. I’m sure we can beat them if we come out with the right game plan and we play hard enough, match their intensity. It’s just a different style of play for us, they played really fast. Both teams scored a hundred points against us. It’s a faster pace. And we’ve just got to play better defense and make some stops, as well as rebound the ball better."
The main test ultimately comes down to how well Team USA head coach Paul Hewitt and his staff can deal with the nuances of a slightly different brand of hoops. None of these kids are adjusted to a Euro-inspired game and the spotty officiating that comes with it. Finding a niche for 12 guys, AND keeping them happy in such a short amount of time is painstaking enough to say the least, but it is absolutely essential for the U.S.'s chances. Hewitt's in-game coaching is something that has been criticized before, so this tournament will be just as much of a proving ground for him as his players.
Full roster and player notes after the jump...
Paul Hewitt - Head Coach - George Mason
Keith Appling - G - Michigan State
Shot 41.1% from deep in his first year with the Spartans. More of a defensive-minded, game-managing point guard at this point in his development. Could crack rotation for perimeter defense alone.
James Bell - G - Villanova
A 6'4" wing who looks like a breakout candidate in 2011-12. Explosive leaper, but inconsistent in other areas. One of the more intriguing players to watch during the tournament.
Anthony Brown - G - Stanford
Versatile swingman who really came into his own late in his freshman season. Can step out and hit from beyond the arc with regularity, but struggles to draw contact and grab rebounds on the interior. Could be a nice spurt player for Hewitt off the bench.
Jahii Carson - G - Mesa High School (Arizona State)
The only high schooler on the roster, Carson is a top-50 prospect with a quick first step and tight handle. He should get a few chances to get acclimated and run the offense if the U.S. can roll over some early opponents.
Tim Hardaway Jr. - G - Michigan
Scored in double figures in Michigan's final 16 games last season. A three-point machine from the guard position who protects the ball well. Much more comfortable playing off the ball and coming off screens.
Joe Jackson - G - Memphis
Slightly turnover-prone in year one, Jackson poured in roughly ten points a night for Josh Pastner's Tigers. Can score in bunches, but makes more mistakes than some of his peers.
Jeremy Lamb - G - Connecticut
Arguably the most sought-after player in college basketball after his crusade through defenses in March. A silky smooth scorer with ideal size and the ability to get into the paint and absorb contact.
Meyers Leonard - C - Illinois
Prized recruit who never got off the bench last year due to Illinois' depth. Still very raw all-around, his 7'0" size will be an immediate asset.
Khyle Marshall - F - Butler
Butler's reserve extraordinaire, Marshall owns a mammoth wingspan and rebounds at an elite level for his 6'7" frame. Should serve as a high energy big man off Hewitt's bench.
Doug McDermott - F - Creighton
Posted 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds as a freshman for the Bluejays. Efficient spot-up shooter and all-around offensive player. The type of player who could lead the U.S. in scoring on any given night.
Tony Mitchell - F/C - North Texas
The 24th overall recruit in the 2010 class according to ESPN, Mitchell was academically ineligible in 2010-11. Instead of attending Missouri, he inked with North Texas and will finally get on the court in 2012. Could be a double-double machine if he gets going.
Patric Young - F/C - Florida
Physically there aren't too many amateur big men in the world who can match what Young brings to the table. This guy literally has the build of a Pro Bowl linebacker and the size of an NBA power forward. Big things are expected out of him next year in the SEC, and this could be his jumping point.