COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — For USA Basketball’s U18 team, it’s not all about talent and athleticism.
Familiarity helps, too.
That’s another reason why incoming Arizona Wildcats wing Stanley Johnson, plus Duke-bound standouts Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, were named Thursday, as expected, among the 15 finalists for USA Basketball’s entry into the FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
Not only are the three among the top players in the high school class of 2015, but all three have already won two gold medals while playing for USA Basketball teams. Johnson even goes so far as to call USA Basketball “family.”
Their coach, Florida’s Billy Donovan, is another familiar face in the organization. He’s coming off U18 and U19 stints in the previous two years, having coached the U19 team to a gold medal in the World Championships last summer when former UA forward Aaron Gordon earned the MVP. So with this group, USA Basketball is hoping to reduce that one weakness — continuity — it has often faced relative to countries whose top youth play together much more frequently.
“We’re really fortunate,” said Sean Ford, USA Basketball’s men’s national team director. “This is the first time ever we’ve had three players and a coach who’ve all won two gold medals. That consistency really helps. This is the sixth time Tyus has played for us and the fifth for Stanley and Justise. So all of a sudden, there’s a standard that is set.”
One of the keys was getting Donovan to return as head coach. After he guided largely the same group of players through the U18 and U19 circuit, it was his turn to rotate off.
But instead, Ford asked him to start with a new group to take through the U18s this year, then added some new blood with UA coach Sean Miller and Providence’s Ed Cooley as assistants.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Donovan to commit again — with USA Basketball often butting into the beginning of the heavy July recruiting circuit — but he did.
Recruiting “is my first obligation,” Donovan said. “As much as I love doing this and having the opportunity to represent my country, I’m being paid by Florida to do a job, and it’s always been hard” if you miss July recruiting.
At the same time, Donovan said it’s been invaluable to get a chance to spend time with his peers in college basketball — Miller and Cooley along with junior national team committee members Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Lorenzo Romar of Washington, Matt Painter of Purdue and Bob McKillop of Davidson.
“We’re just talking basketball, putting together a team and getting a chance to talk about what you don’t get a chance to talk about a lot of times,” Donovan said. “That’s part of the fun for me.”
The tough part is when that group has to get together and make cuts as they did Wednesday, sending home UA commits Tyler Dorsey and Justin Simon plus seven others. They did keep UA recruiting targets Allonzo Trier, Isaiah Briscoe, Stephen Zimmerman and Chase Jeter, among others.
USA Basketball will cut three more players before the U18 Championship begins next Friday at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, but Ford said he doesn’t even like to use the word “cut,” since all the players invited to the tryouts are elite.
Besides, both he and Donovan said, talent is not the only measure of who makes it. Sometimes it’s a role or fit the team is looking for, as hard as that is to explain to guys who may have never been cut from a team in their lives.
“They don’t understand it’s not picking the 12 best players, it’s picking the 12 guys who we feel like can make the best team,” Donovan said. “When you look at what we’re missing in terms of skill, the last couple of years we’ve really lacked shooting, and that’s been an issue because a lot of these overseas teams shoot very well.
“So you want to have some shooting. The way you want to play defensively in terms of pressing and the way you want to try to push teams up against the shot clock, you want to get back to playing that system.”
Miller said the process is similar to putting together a college team, though it is obviously much more rushed.
“You need a little bit of everything,” Miller said. “You need frontcourt players who are mobile and interchangeable. You need wing forwards who are physical and can do a lot of different things. And you need a couple of point guards so that in case of an injury or foul trouble that you have somebody out there who can run the show.”
And, no matter where they play, they also need to be on the same page.
“The other thing that’s important is picking a team of guys who are unselfish,” Donovan said. “A lot of guys have been the best players on their teams, and sometimes they have a problem playing with other good players just because they haven’t done it before.”