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After Gloomy Talk of No-Shows, Signs of Optimism for U.S.A. Basketball

LOS ANGELES — Marc Gasol maintains a mostly detached relationship with the N.B.A.’s social media machine. Yet as he trained with the Spanish national team in Southern California last week, Gasol’s exposure to the gloom-and-doom talk around the United States team ahead of the FIBA World Cup was unavoidable.

Sitting on the wood bleachers of a tiny private school gym after a recent practice, Gasol chuckled at the notion that the Americans are in crisis — even after a record number of no-thank-yous from marquee (and even lesser) players to participate in the tournament beginning Aug. 31 in China.

“I’m sure that it’s going to fuel them,” Gasol said of the loud skepticism increasingly endured by the American team.

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

Such glowing words have been rare this summer for the United States’ coach, Gregg Popovich, and the 13 players who boarded a charter flight Saturday night from Los Angeles to continue their tournament preparations in Australia.

FIBA World Cup Donovan Mitchell goes to basketball school with Gregg Popovich.

But Gasol registered his view even before the United States, down to Kemba Walker of the Boston Celtics as the lone All-N.B.A. selection on the roster, posted a 90-81 victory over Spain on Friday night in an exhibition game at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Overhyping the result of a mid-August friendly, even one featuring the top two teams in FIBA’s world rankings, is obviously unwise. Popovich nonetheless came away encouraged by his team’s ability, in its first exposure to game conditions as a group, to amass an 18-point lead and retain most of it against a squad with so much more experience playing together in international competition.

United States guard Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz was struck by the way the Spaniards “just pointed to each other” in crunchtime as they ran their offense. Popovich described Spain’s read-and-react execution as “astounding” and said: “You could really see the experience. We hope to get close to something like that.”

“I think it was a ‘welcome to international basketball’ kind of evening for many of our guys,” said Jerry Colangelo, U.S.A. Basketball’s managing director.

Yet comfort for the Americans comes from the knowledge that no team in the 32-nation World Cup field has a higher potential ceiling. Perhaps they can’t get to Spain’s level between now and the Sept. 15 championship game in Beijing, but the United States’ continuity quotient should gradually climb as Popovich’s players grow more accustomed to one another.

Another undeniable boost for Popovich in his first major competition as the successor to Mike Krzyzewski: Spain also appears weaker after the retirements of the veteran guards Juan Carlos Navarro and Jose Calderon from international competition and its own slew of high-profile absentees, including Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Nikola Mirotic and Sergio Rodriguez.

The tournament, in general, is very short on countries that appear to harbor credible hope of inflicting the United States with its first loss since 2006 in terms of games played with a full complement of N.B.A. players.

Serbia, led by the All-Star big man Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, is widely regarded as the foremost threat, with Spain hopeful that Gasol can combine with its holdover veterans — Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull — to stay in the medal hunt.

“I understand the reasoning behind it,” Gasol said of those downgrading Spain’s chances. “But if we outwork people and we play as a team, I think we have enough talent to do a lot of damage.

“I see a lot of teams in the same pack, so it’s about timing. It’s about timing and peaking at the right time and playing confident. That’s what I tell these guys all the time. Play confident and don’t worry about who we’re playing.”

U.S.A. Basketball officials were stunned Saturday morning to learn that De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings had chosen to remove his name from consideration for the final 12-man roster mere hours before the team’s flight to Australia for three more exhibition games and a handful of practices.

One more roster cut will have to be made before the tournament begins, leading to the uncomfortable prospect of flying one player home while the rest of the team proceeds to China. But Colangelo insisted that the U.S.A. Basketball brain trust also had cause to be “very optimistic” after the United States seized an 11-point lead over Spain in the opening quarter and offset its 23 turnovers by grabbing 42 of the game’s 62 available rebounds.

“We believe that we have to win with defense and rebounding,” Colangelo said. “We don’t have a horse we can go to carry us — a Kevin Durant-type player. It’s got to be a collective deal.”

After nearly two weeks of practices in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, give Popovich and Co. this much: The group effort on the boards in the Spain game would suggest that these players have rebounded, figuratively and literally, from the 19-point humbling last week in a 10-minute scrimmage against a group of fringe N.B.A. players that caused a social media stir of its own.

“We still got a long way to go,” said the national team forward Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics. “A long, long, long way to go.”

Mitchell, for one, appears to have quickly grasped the enormity of expectations that always greet the United States in basketball — no matter who is in uniform.

“I think, at the end of the day, everybody is going to have an opinion regardless — ‘If they win by 20, why wasn’t it 30?’ ” Mitchell said. “So we’re just focused on what we can control.”

More FIBA World Cup CoverageFor Donovan Mitchell, U.S.A. Basketball Is Summer School. He’s Top of the Class.Aug 16, 2019Paul George’s Injury Was a Bad Break With No Permanent DamageAug 8, 2019Ready for the World (and his Utah Teammate)Aug 8, 2019U.S.A. Basketball Asks for Focus to Be on Who Is Here, Not Who Isn’tAug 2, 2019


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