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Why Team USA has a chip on its shoulder

With the least star-studded squad in years, USA Basketball is extra-motivated

LOS ANGELES — “Why don’t they love us? We’re American too.”

That’s what one USA Basketball player quipped after practice Aug. 15 as Team USA, with just two NBA All-Stars on its 2019 World Cup roster, finds itself already dealing with skeptics.

For the past decade, USA Basketball has been unstoppable in Olympic and World Cup competition. With the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony wearing the red, white and blue during that span, Team USA has won five straight gold medals, with its last loss coming in 2006. But with many of the league’s stars sitting out this summer’s tournament, there is talk that Team USA is ripe for an upset.

That kind of talk, though, has become motivation for the players who are preparing to represent the United States in the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

“It’s like they picked us up off the street,” said Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. “We’re NBA players. We’re pretty good at what we do. It’s added a chip on our shoulder, and we’re going to take it with us.”

Celtics guard Kemba Walker, who is the only All-NBA player on Team USA, added: “We are embracing it as much as we can. It’s adding fuel to the fire. A lot of us, it’s where we come from. We come from being underdogs, most of us.

“We’re hungry.”

Kemba Walker of Team USA talks to the media during a training session at Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Australia on Aug. 19.

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James, Curry, Harden, Westbrook and other top-tier talent chose not to participate this summer, focusing instead on the upcoming NBA season. Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that players were worried about playing high minutes on a lesser squad. Whatever the case, this has opened the door for other stars to emerge.

Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes, the only member of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games gold-medal squad who is currently on Team USA’s roster, was excited about the opportunity.

“For me, I make the commitment anytime USA Basketball asks,” Barnes told The Undefeated. “As long as my family is good and I am healthy, I will be out here playing as long as they give me the opportunity. … Everyone is different. Some guys are coming off injury. Some guys had commitments. For me, I try to take advantage of it every time I can to play for my country. To be able to suit up with these guys, that has been fun.”

Golden State Warriors star forward Draymond Green, who also played on the 2016 Olympic team, showed his support for Team USA’s new guys by attending practice Aug. 15. Green is confident that this collection of talent will keep the winning tradition alive.

“So many great players have put on that USA jersey and went and done great things,” Green told The Undefeated. “Obviously, there’s so much noise about, ‘Oh, it’s the JV team; it’s the B team.’ Those are some great players in there really embracing the challenge. …

“Understanding that no matter what anyone says about this team or the roster, you’re wearing a USA jersey. And for that reason, everybody wants to destroy you. Take that, take it in stride, enjoy the process and go win the gold.”

Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich (left) speaks with forward Jayson Tatum (right) during a training session at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Australia on on Aug. 19.

Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

That will be the mission for Gregg Popovich’s squad, but concerns grew louder for Team USA after reports surfaced that it struggled against a group of NBA G League players in scrimmages on Aug. 14. A source told The Undefeated that the G Leaguers did get the better of Team USA, but it was “not close the next day at all.”

The U.S. also lost potential key contributors when forward P.J. Tucker of the Houston Rockets departed the team with an ankle injury and Kings guard De’Aaron Fox left for personal reasons.

Still, Team USA showed what it was capable of by comfortably defeating Spain 90-81 in an exhibition game Aug. 16 in Anaheim, California. It was an impressive win for the Americans, considering No. 2-ranked Spain boasts a roster that includes NBA players such as Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol.

Gasol believes the skepticism toward USA Basketball’s roster is “going to fuel them.”

“The amount of talent that the U.S. generates every year is unbelievable,” Gasol told the New York Times after the exhibition game “Even with all the guys that dropped out — or if you want to say these guys don’t have experience internationally — they’re still supertalented physically and technically, and they’re pretty well-coached as well. So you put it all together and it’s a great team.”

Team USA’s biggest competition will likely come from Spain, Serbia and France. Besides Gasol, Spain features new Phoenix Suns guard Ricky Rubio, brothers Willy and Juan Hernangómez, and several former NBA players who have been playing together for years. Serbia is led by Denver Nuggets All-Star center Nikola Jokic, Nemanja Bjelica, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Boban Marjanovic. And while Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have retired from international competition, France still boasts two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Frank Ntilikina.

But America will no doubt still have the greatest depth of any team in the World Cup. USA Basketball’s roster is led by Walker, fellow All-Star Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks and several potential All-Stars in Tatum, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner. They also have an experienced leader in Barnes.

“We hear the noise,” Barnes said. “It’s about just us, getting better, continuing to grow closer on and off the floor, and we’ll go from there. …

“We’re motivated more than anything to keep the gold standard going, by the teams that went before us that went and won the World Cup, that went and won the Olympics multiple times. That’s what we’re chasing right now.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.