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Column: Team USA’s younger players grow game on a global stage

Team USA’s Donovan Mitchell brings the ball up the court during an exhibition against Spain in Anaheim.
Team USA’s Donovan Mitchell brings the ball up the court in Friday’s exhibition against Spain.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The way Kemba Walker bounced off a screen that was closer to a cross check from Spanish center Willy Hernangomez, the way he recovered to challenge the shooter, the way he sprinted down court and got two easy points, you could see that this meant something to him.

With so much talk around Team USA heading into the FIBA World Cup being about the stars who are absent, watching Walker operate with intensity and energy in a 90-81 win made it clear that he’s a star who is very much here for American basketball.

The accomplished players on the roster, All-Stars such as Walker and Khris Middleton, stood out among their teammates Friday night in Anaheim, as Team USA began its exhibition schedule against Spain on its way to the FIBA World Cup in China this September.

But it was, in a lot of ways, just as clear who the next wave of stars could be. History has told us that less-heralded Team USA rosters have been showcases for young players such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

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This year, players such as Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox and Kyle Kuzma look ready to use this experience as a boost as they move into the third seasons of their young NBA careers.

“They absolutely look [like they’re ready to take that next step],” Team USA center Brook Lopez said. “And even beyond the basketball, I’m just really impressed with their general presence, their leadership skills and the way they hold themselves on and off the court.”

All 14 players on Team USA’s roster will travel to Australia where the team makes its final two cuts before it opens World Cup play on Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Mitchell might already be there — a handful of players on the Spanish team were already wearing his first signature sneaker. That’s a good sign. He’s already been a 20-point scorer in both of his NBA seasons, and the Jazz are in great position for a real run in a shuffled West.

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And despite turning just 23 in a month, Mitchell, who scored 13 points, has emerged as one of Team USA’s leaders.

“It helps having guys willing to listen to each other. I think it makes it easier I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been a guy who leads by voice and example,” Mitchell said. “It’s not always easy for a young guy to come in here and do that, but when you have teammates who are stars on their own teams who are willing to listen, it’s what makes it easy for me to go out and be a leader.”

Tatum’s a little more polarizing. His fans love his ability to score, Walker saying that Tatum is so “smooth” earlier in the week. He regressed in year two from three-point range and still made 37.3%, a better percentage than Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard and Harden shot last season.

His detractors among the scouts and executives who watched Team USA practice all week in El Segundo wish he did more to influence games other than score. The context, though, is Tatum could be shopping for textbooks before his senior year at Duke instead of trying to win a world championship.

The same could be said for Fox, who could also be a college senior — a late addition to the Team USA roster thanks to Lillard dropping out.

Before he dropped out of consideration because of an ankle injury, Rockets forward P.J. Tucker named Fox first after being asked which young player had surprised him most in Team USA’s time together.

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Assuming Fox makes the team, there might not be a lot of minutes running the offense available with Walker leading the team. But Fox, who might be the NBA’s fastest player, has won over his teammates with strong performances in practice.

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Mitchell, Tatum and Fox are all the futures of their franchises. Kuzma’s track is different — his goals with Team USA are to develop the kinds of complementary skills (defense, rebounding, playmaking and decision making) that the Lakers will need if they’re going to have the kind of success they expect this summer.

Kuzma’s best play wasn’t a basket, a rebound or assist. It was a shot he didn’t take, one that caused Team USA coach Gregg Popovich to throw two hands in the air in celebration before pointing at his head.

Kuzma, instead of going one-on-one against Spain center Marc Gasol, pulled the ball back out and slowed things down — the kind of play that shows up more in his game-best plus-13 rating than it did in any other line on the box score.

“Everybody knows I’m a scorer,” Kuzma said. “But, I’ve got a lot more elements ... that I want to show off.”

Whether or not Team USA can survive this September without its best players, the team’s young players might have figured out the key to keeping talent interested in playing in international competition.

“It’s playing for your country and at the highest level,” Fox said. “It’s us growing together as we try and take the next step in our careers.”


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