The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup tips off this weekend in China. The tournament features Team USA as a favorite along with 31 other teams vying for the crown. Serbia, Greece, Spain, France, Canada, and Australia are expected to be among the top contenders to knock off Team USA.
Games will be mostly overnight for Americans since they’re in China, though all three of Team USA’s group games tip at 8:30 am ET if you’d like to start your day off with a cup of coffee and some American dominance.
Team USA is a -180 favorite to win the World Cup at Bovada, but those odds have certainly dropped in recent weeks. The Americans saw a flurry of marquee names withdraw from the roster, chief among them players like Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and De’Aaron Fox.
This Team USA roster lacks real star power, and just one week ago, they had their long 78-game win streak snapped with a loss to Australia in a friendly leading up to the tournament.
For the first time in years, there is some real worry and intrigue about Team USA heading into a major tournament. That makes this tournament more interesting, and it also means there’s some real money to be made on Team USA for the first time in a while.
So what players actually did decide to stick with the team, and how will their strengths and weaknesses play out in the international game? Let’s take a look at all 12 players on the Team USA roster, analyzing their fit on the team and what key questions will be asked of them in their expected roles.
Team USA is the favorite, and they’re the key question as you bet on the World Cup. If you still believe in them, there’s money to be made off rare playable odds. If you don’t believe in the Americans, you need to know why they’re flawed and exactly what sort of team could end up beating them.
The Presumed Starting Five
G Kemba Walker
After all the big names pulled out, Kemba Walker is the last marquee star remaining. He’s one of only three Team USA players to make an All-Star team and the only one to make more than one, having played in the ASG three straight seasons.
Walker is dynamic with the ball in his hands and a deadly pull-up jumper. He’s made 38% of his threes the last three seasons and typically puts up 5 or 6 assists a game in the NBA, a good but not great playmaker.
For better or worse, Kemba is used to being the best player on his team. That’s been the case for a while with the Charlotte Hornets, and it was the case at UConn too, where he memorably led the Huskies on a huge 2011 run through the Big East tournament and March Madness, playing almost every minute and almost single-handedly leading his team to a national championship.
Kemba is as close as this team gets to an alpha player. He is likely to lead the Americans in scoring, and if there’s a close game late, he’s Team USA’s best bet to go make a play. This is his team and his time to shine.
G Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell is the X-factor in this starting lineup. Team USA tends to bring out the best in young players ready to take the next step, and Donovan Mitchell is one of two third-year players who could make that leap in China.
Mitchell scored over 20 points a game as a rookie for the Jazz, then almost 24 as a sophomore. Spida probably has the quickest step and most sheer athleticism of anyone on the roster, and that’s the sort of skill set that can really stand out on the international stage.
This is Kemba’s team, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mitchell step forward as a star or leading scorer in a few games.
Mitchell’s jump shot can come and go, and he still makes a lot of youthful mistakes and got into foul trouble in a few of the friendlies. Team USA is not particularly deep at guard, so they need him to stay on the court. Mitchell may also end up running point guard with the backup unit at times.
F Khris Middleton
Middleton made his first All-Star Game for the Bucks this year and brings a rounded, all-around game to the roster. One of Team USA’s biggest advantages in most international cycles is their talent on the wing.
For all the guards and big men the international game has uncovered, only the Americans can bring LeBron, Durant, Kawhi, PG, and others. Middleton is none of those guys, but he may be the best wing on the roster.
Middleton is a career 39% shooter behind the arc. He’s also an excellent isolation scorer, able to create a bucket out of nothing if needed, and he often had the closer role for Milwaukee this year since that’s one real weakness in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game still.
Middleton will be a key Team USA player just because the Americans have so few reliable wings on this team. He’s not flashy, but he’ll score plenty of points within the flow of the game.
F Harrison Barnes
While Walker, Mitchell, and Middleton look like surefire starters, the final two spots in the starting lineup might be up for grabs. The best bet is for Harrison Barnes to get the other forward spot, at least starting out.
Barnes is one of two players with previous international experience after winning a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics plus an NBA championship with the Warriors in 2015.
Though Barnes may be a bit overrated and overpaid as an NBA player, his game is very well suited for the international game. Team USA loves to play small whenever possible, and that makes Barnes very well suited to play the four.
He’ll be especially valuable defensively, where his combination of strength, size, and athleticism give him real versatility in being able to guard almost anyone in the international game for stretches.
Barnes has never been a big scorer but did hit almost 40% of his threes last season and has a reliable jumper. Team USA will rely on him to stretch the court. He could even play some small-ball center at times when Team USA wants to play fast.
C Myles Turner
A lot will be asked of Myles Turner and the other centers on this roster, as it’s the one position where Team USA is clearly outmanned against some of the other nations. You already know about Serbia’s Nikola Jokic, but Team USA will also have the less talented center against Montenegro’s Nikola Vucevic, Spain’s Marc Gasol, and France’s Rudy Gobert.
Serbia, Spain, and France are expected to be among the top teams, so Team USA may likely face a big man deficit in its biggest games of the tournament.
Turner broke out for the Pacers this year on defense with a borderline Defensive Player of the Year campaign. He’s become an outstanding rim protector and is the only true rim protector on the team, and he’ll certainly be the guy tasked with defending those names above.
The ball is live once it touches the rim in international play, so Turner will need to go get the ball off the rim and dominate on the glass.
Offensively, Turner isn’t much in the post, and Team USA won’t exactly be relying on its centers posting up. But he did shoot almost 39% on threes this year, adding some real spacing.
If Turner adds spacing on offense and plays the top centers even on defense and on the glass, Team USA will win the tournament easily. If he gets into foul trouble or struggles, the door will be open.
The Bench Players
F Jayson Tatum
It looks like Tatum will begin the tournament coming off the bench, where he’s acted as Team USA’s 6th man. Tatum might well be the most gifted individual scorer on the roster. He had a difficult sophomore season with the Celtics, often struggling with shot selection as he looks a bit too often for his own shot. As a 6th man on Team USA, that won’t be a problem.
Think Olympic Melo here, with Tatum getting the ultimate green light off the bench to fire away. Remember how Team USA usually has a big advantage on the wing in international play?
That will be even truer with Tatum coming off the bench against teams’ second units. Tatum is the bench X-factor and may likely be a closer, even if he doesn’t start. He’s made 40% of his NBA threes and has a silky smooth drive and pull-up game.
Tatum and Donovan Mitchell are the two guys on this team with a chance to blow up at the World Cup. One of those two could end the World Cup as Team USA’s go-to player and use China as a springboard to a third-year superstar breakout in the NBA this winter.
F Jaylen Brown
Tatum’s Celtics teammate Jaylen Brown will be another top bench option, and he could end up starting some games. Brown is another athletic wing that traditionally plays shooting guard or small forward in the NBA but could even play the four in the international game a la Harrison Barnes. His size and athleticism combination will be his biggest value to this team, giving him valuable defensive versatility.
Brown’s offensive game is more of a question mark than the other wings on the roster. His jump shot comes and goes, and his passing and decision making can be questionable at times.
Team USA will rely on his versatility, and he could be the team’s primary wing defender, particularly when they face Giannis Antetokounmpo in a likely second group stage matchup.
Lopez figures to be the first big man off the bench, coming off a career renaissance with the Bucks this year. Lopez is the third and final former All-Star on this team, though his lone appearance came long ago in 2013 with the Nets.
Lopez is a very different player now. He was effectively a shooting guard on offense for the Bucks, bombing threes from well behind the arc, while protecting the rim on defense.
Lopez is Team USA’s unicorn and one player no other international team will have a matchup for. Even star NBA centers like Gobert, Vucevic, and Gasol will struggle to guard Lopez deep out on the perimeter and still get back to protect the rim. International big men tend to be bigger and a bit slower laterally, so if BroLo starts raining threes, teams may not have an answer.
While you might have noticed a theme of shooting on this roster, Harris is the designated sniper off the bench. Harris led the NBA with a blazing 47.4% on threes this season, and he’s second in the NBA at 43.3% over the last three years combined. He also won the NBA Three-Point contest this year.
Harris is a liability defensively in the NBA, but his lack of athleticism won’t be as easily exploited in the international game, so his shooting may be even more valuable. He’s quite a story, from basketball journeyman to NBA regular to Team USA player.
Smart was injured for most of the run-in leading up to the tournament, though he’s healthy now and ready to go. Because of his injury, Smart hasn’t had much time to develop chemistry with his Team USA teammates.
Team USA loves to have one defensive stopper off the bench, and Marcus Smart is this team’s defensive X-factor. Team USA’s starting lineup is not the strongest defensively, so if an opposing player heats up, Smart is the sort of guy you bring in off the bench to shut him down.
It remains to be seen what value, if any, Smart can bring on offense. His three-point percentage jumped to 36% this season from a career 29%, but his jumper and finishing have been question marks for most of his career. He could be a real liability on offense if teams leave him open and force Smart to beat them.
G Derrick White
White is the forgotten man on this roster – for now. White barely played in most of the friendlies leading up to the tournament and probably only made the team because so many other Team USA guards bailed.
White’s NBA numbers aren’t particularly impressive, but he broke out a bit against the Nuggets in this year’s playoffs. He’s an excellent guard defender and a solid shooter, with an effective all-around game that can fill either backcourt spot.
And don’t forget, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich is the head coach of this team. His familiarity and comfortability with White could lead him to play White in key spots, and the bet here is that White would come through.
C Mason Plumlee
Plumlee is the clear 12th man on this roster, and many expected him to be the final cut before Kyle Kuzma withdrew to injury. Plumlee is the third big on this team, a fine defender that plays hard and brings previous international experience.
Plumlee is Nikola Jokic’s teammate in Denver and has to guard him every day in practice, so he could get that assignment if it comes down to it. He’s on this roster solely because so many good international teams have top big men. Plumlee can also play as a second big, and he may need to do that some against bigger teams like Spain and Serbia.
Overall Analysis and Outlook
There’s one other area Team USA will have a distinct advantage – coaching. The inimitable Gregg Popovich leads the squad as head coach, and he’s flanked by Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Villanova’s Jay Wright, and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce. The Americans will not be out-coached in this tournament.
But they do lack defense and size. Team USA struggled in the paint in their recent loss to Australia, giving up far too many easy looks at the rim, and the Aussies aren’t necessarily even one of the top teams in the tournament.
Keep a close eye on the rebounding margin. Against the best international teams, Team USA will typically be the smaller team, but they’ll also always have a distinct athleticism advantage.
In international play, Team USA loves to play small and run. If they’re getting hammered on the boards and in the paint, they’ll have no choice but to slow down and play bigger, muting their athletic advantage. But as always, their biggest advantage will be in athleticism and depth.
Other teams’ starters may hang with the Americans, but no other team has 12 NBA players on the roster or even close. The U.S. bench unit needs to build up a big positive margin in its minutes, and it should.
The Americans have plenty of shooting, but they lack some level of playmaking. No one on the team averages even 6 assists a game in the NBA. Their half-court offense could bog down into a series of my-turn-your-turn with the isolation scorers on this team. They don’t necessarily have that star player to take over in the game’s biggest moments – yet.
Still, while the Team USA roster is weaker than Americans are used to, many of the international rosters are on the weak side too. Their biggest vulnerability will be to an opponent’s size and their experience and team chemistry. The latter is what got them against Australia. The combination of both is what makes Spain and Serbia their toughest opponents.
Here’s the thing: with the way the tournament is formatted, Team USA will avoid both of those opponents until at least the semi-finals. They could have to play both of them in a row in the final two games, or they could end up avoiding one or both if they’re upset earlier.
The first six games are group games, which is where Team USA will likely face off against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece. That matchup is perhaps a bit overblown, as the Americans aren’t likely to lose to a one-man roster, and even if they do, one loss is not the end in group play.
The Americans will certainly make it to the 8-team knockout tournament, and then it’s only three wins to glory. And at least one or maybe two of those wins will be gimmes. In the end, it may come down to the championship game on September 15.
With Team USA’s recent loss to Australia and its weakened roster, you’ll never get better odds for an American team to open a tournament. Team USA sits at -10000 at Bovada to win its opening group, so don’t waste your time on that.
But you may want to take advantage of their -180 odds to win the whole thing. That’s around 64% implied odds of winning the tournament.
Do you really think the Americans lose this tournament 1 out of 3 times?
Team USA is too deep, too athletic, and too talented – even if it’s our C team. You could do a lot worse with your money than making a brief investment that could pay out a handsome 56% return in two weeks.
Remember, the path to the title game is pretty clear. So even if you get that far and are suddenly worried about Serbia or Spain in one final matchup, you’ll have a real opportunity to hedge at that point, too.
What better way to celebrate your patriotism than by winning a little cold hard cash by supporting Team USA the next few weeks? Let’s go Red, White, and Blue!