Amateur Power

The U.S. Under-19 basketball team celebrates their gold medal victory over Serbia. (Photo courtesy of
The U.S. Under-19 basketball team celebrates their gold medal victory over Serbia. (Photo courtesy of

U.S.A. Basketball has competed using college players for many years, and this year’s team is the best one in decades.

September 28, 1988 is considered by basketball fans to have been a very fateful day. On that day, the United States Men’s Basketball Team, who had won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles amidst a boycott by the Soviet Union, faced off against the U.S.S.R. in the semifinals of the Seoul Olympics. It was the first time since the infamous miscarriage of justice the Americans suffered against the Soviets at the Munich Games in 1972 that the two nations would play each other in the Olympics. Although the roster was not as loaded with future Hall of Famers as the 1984 version was with Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Wayman Tisdale, the ’88 team, coached by John Thompson, was the best team the college game had to offer. Among the members were college stars and future NBA stars like David Robinson, Mitch Richmond, Dan Majerle, Danny Manning, Hersey Hawkins, Stacey Augmon, and J.R. Reid.

But it turned out that the Soviets, who were trotting out veteran professional players for their Olympic squads like the rest of the world, were too much for the United States, as they took an 82-76 victory en route to winning a gold medal. The Americans fought hard and won the bronze medal in Seoul, but the writing was on the wall that the imbalance of European pros against American college kids was fundamentally unfair and a change had to be made. The change came in 1989 when F.I.B.A., the governing body for international basketball, announced that professional players from every country could participate in the Olympics, including the U.S. That loss in Seoul to the U.S.S.R. turned out to be the final game the Americans would play in the Olympics with only amateur players. There was one final tour for the college players in the F.I.B.A. World Championships in 1990, where they earned another bronze medal, but after that, the NBA All-Stars took the stage when it came to the men’s national team. The Dream Team came to life for the 1992 Barcelona Games, and the rest is history.

For many casual fans of basketball, the story of amateurs participating for USA Basketball in international play ended with that final game against the U.S.S.R. in 1988. But there is a whole lot more to the story than that.

In fact, high school and college players have been performing in a variety of international competitions outside of the Olympics donning the red, white, and blue since the late 1960s, and they still do. There are the World University Games, consisting of college juniors and seniors, which the US team won 10 out of 13 times from 1973 to 1999. The last gold medal for Team USA in that tournament was won in 2005 by head coach Jay Wright with a team that featured future pros like Randy Foye and Shelden Williams as well as lesser names like Vincent Grier and Matt Haryasz. The Americans get another crack at winning the World University Games, which take place every two years, this month. There are also the Pan American Games, but USA Basketball has resorted to using NBA Developmental League players and coaches for that contest, showing how high of a priority that competition has become. F.I.B.A. also institutes separate tournaments for players under the ages of 18, 17, and 16. The latter two were just recently added to the schedule in 2009 and 2010, and combining all three age groups, Team USA has only lost two games altogether! As fun as it is to watch American high school players clown the rest of the world, those three tournaments are merely training grounds for what may be considered the third most important tournament in USA Basketball after the Olympics and the F.I.B.A. World Championships: the Under-19 World Championships. 

When it comes to the U-19 Tournament, the US team has a rich history, as well, although it is not very heavily covered by national media, or even very well attended in overseas arenas. The tournament has been around since 1979, the same year Bird played Magic for the national championship and turned college hoops into a national must-see event. The US won three of the first four gold medals from 1979 to 1991 until the team hit a long snag, losing in the gold medal game in 1999 and 2007. Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon led the team in 2009 (which included two then-unknowns named Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward from a small school called Butler) to win a gold medal and break the 18-year losing skid. But the 2011 version coached by Paul Hewitt lost early to Croatia and Russia, leaving them medal-less for the first time in eight years. Team USA executive director Jerry Colangelo, who was the key man behind the resurgence of the men’s national team in the past two Olympics, could crown the United States as the reigning country for every single age group in international play at one time if the U-19 team could bring home the gold this summer in Prague. Colangelo commissioned men’s national head coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistant coach Jim Boeheim, two legends in the college game, to get it right this time and make certain that the college kids would not miss this opportunity.

Out of that winning initiative came the hiring of Florida head coach and two-time national title winner Billy Donovan to run the U-19 squad. Donovan brought along former Florida assistant and part-time miracle worker Shaka Smart as well as Virginia head coach Tony Bennett to round out the staff. Next was the roster, which is always mercurial given the fact that you are coaching players who are either seniors in high school or freshmen and sophomores in college and may buckle under the pressure or be unwilling to play team ball. But this time, Donovan got it right and then some. All but four of the twelve players on the U-19 team had previously played for Team USA in the younger age groups, including Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart and Arizona highlight reel Aaron Gordon. You will likely hear both of their names get called early in next year’s NBA Draft. For elite three-point shooting, they added Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon and Donovan disciple Michael Frazier II out of Florida. They got a nifty playmaking point guard in Washington freshman Nigel Williams-Goss and an ultra-quick defensive stopper in Elfrid Payton out of Louisiana-Lafayette. (EDITOR’S NOTE: I have to mention Providence’s sophmore Kris Dunn for being one of the 26 invited to tryout! Beast. – Justin)

For size in the paint with college experience, they brought in Tennessee junior big man Jarnell Stokes and Louisville dunk master Montrezl Harrell. To round it off, the two handpicked high school seniors were Jahlil Okafor, the #1 ranked high school player in 2014, and an energetic slasher from Houston, TX, named Justise Winslow. What makes things even scarier is the fact that Julius Randle and Jabari Parker, two surefire NBA lottery picks next summer who had won gold in the U-18 and U-17 games last summer, skipped out this year to focus on their freshman seasons at Kentucky and Duke, respectively. Can you imagine how much more overwhelming this team would have been if Parker and Randle had played alongside Smart, Gordon, Harrell, Okafor, and Winslow? We probably could have saved some time by calling the tournament off! For those curious about future #1 pick and incoming Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, he is from Canada. Jerami Grant from Syracuse was also named to the team, but he had to back out after coming down with mononucleosis.

What makes the U-19 rosters for Team USA so enjoyable over the years is the fact that many of the players on these teams are sight unseen in many scouts’ eyes and this tournament can become a breakout onto the national stage for certain players. You may get the first glimpse at a future superstar like Jahlil Okafor or the tireless work ethic of a hidden talent like Elfrid Payton, who was not originally invited to try out until his head coach at Louisiana Lafayette Bob Marlin called Donovan to make his case a couple weeks before training camp. I was one of the people who actually knew who Mack and Hayward were before they won a gold medal in 2009 because Butler had played my LSU Tigers to the finish in the first round of the NCAA Tournament three months earlier. When they asked Jamie Dixon what lessons he learned coaching the team, he said that one of them was, “I don’t want to play Butler next year.” Two years after they played for Team USA, Mack and Hayward helped lead Butler to two straight national title games. Some of the NBA names that have been on the U-19 rosters over the years include James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Kenny Walker, Larry Johnson, Gary Payton, Vince Carter, Deron Williams, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Hayward, and recent NBA draftees Tim Hardaway Jr. and Tony Mitchell. Draft gurus estimate at least five members of this year’s team will be first-round picks.

There are also the former players who wound up having great college careers like Mack, Pearl Washington, Walter Berry, Scott Skiles, Doug McDermott, J.J. Redick, Dee Brown, Nick Collison, Trajan Langdon, Khalid Reeves, Sleepy Floyd, Lionel Simmons, and Fat Lever. This year’s players are so good, it is difficult to see all but a handful of them stay in school after their junior years. And the last type of team members are the ones who show promise in the tournament but seem to get lost in the historical shuffle like Larry Krystkowiak, Stephen Thompson, the late Dwayne Schintzius, Bryan Caver, Lance Miller, Tremaine Fowlkes, Steve Lepore, Deon Thompson, Trey Thompkins, and Terrico White. In what category are we going to place lesser-known names like Williams-Goss, Payton, Pittsburgh’s James Robinson, and Virginia’s Mike Tobey? They have a whole college season or two ahead of them to figure it out.

Future projections about draft stock and college legacies are all secondary, however, to the product on the court, and this team not only met the expectations that Jerry Colangelo bestowed upon them, but may have exceeded them. Blowouts against lesser countries are par for the course in tournaments like this for Team USA, but it was the rapidness and consistency with which they did it this year that was downright frightening. With the knowledge that F.I.B.A. institutes a 24-second shot clock like the NBA does, Donovan, Smart, and Bennett craftily utilized the lightning-quick speed and jaw-dropping athleticism of their team and turned it into a ball-stealing, high-flying, efficient-scoring machine. Just look at the numbers! I have never heard of a basketball team that averaged 13.6 steals per game in any walk of life before I witnessed this. The fact that four of the top seven scorers on the team have yet to play a college game (including tournament MVP Aaron Gordon) just goes to show how bright the future really is for college basketball in the coming years.

Even after taking into account two somewhat tight wins over tough and talented Serbia, led by future prospect Visilije Micic, this collegiate dream team won by an average scoring margin of 39.5 points. Even the 2009 champions, who won three of their last four games by 8 points or less, cannot hold a candle to that. The next best scoring margin by a gold medal-winning college team in recent years was by the 2005 World University team at 29.9, nearly ten points less than this team. The U.S. beat Ivory Coast, China, and Russia by a combined 183 points in the first round. The scores were so lopsided, I had to whip out a calculator just to keep track. The two countries that finished third and fourth in the final tournament rankings were Lithuania and Australia. Lithuania won the bronze medal and the Aussies were led by top NBA prospect Dante Exum. The United States pummeled both of them, beating Australia in the second round by 43 points and beating Lithuania in the semi-finals by 40.

They finished under 88 points only twice in the tournament, both times against the scrappy Serbian team in which the Americans won the first time 71-62 and then defeated them again this past Sunday 82-68 to win the gold medal. The win over Serbia sealed a golden legacy across the board for USA basketball for the first time in decades, owning the top prize for every age group from 16 to the pros. Obviously, this incredible victory in Prague will not receive the same pomp and circumstance that we have given to the likes of Michael, Magic, Barkley, Kobe, LeBron, Durant and other NBA superstars who have won Olympic gold medals for the men’s national team. If you wanted to see any of the games in the U-19 Tournament, you had to sit in front of your computer to watch them on or ESPN3, and the arena in Prague was not even half full. But I would dare anyone to find me an assembly of college and future college players who were as dominant, consistently outstanding, and just flat out fun to watch as the 2013 US Under-19 team was. I will not rule things out and say that you will never see a performance like this again in the college ranks of USA Basketball, but it is going to be damn hard to top.