Let me start with a disclaimer: I like the current version of Team USA. They all want to be there, they seem to enjoy playing with each other, and it will be fun to watch them be tested and try to solve problems together. I imagine they’ll find a way to win the World Cup later this month, but it’s also fine if they eventually lose. America has never seen a deeper talent pool than the current generation of U.S. stars in the NBA. Whatever happens in China this month or Japan next summer, no one needs to wring their hands about AAU culture or the soul of basketball the way we did when Team USA lost in the middle of the last decade.
Having said that… In the wake of Team USA’s near-loss to Turkey earlier this week, a friend stopped me in my tracks when he asked a simple question: “If you list the best players under 25 years old,” he said, “how far down the list do you go before you get to an American?” Think about it:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Nikola Jokic
3. Joel Embiid
4. Karl-Anthony Towns
5. Luka Donic
6. Ben Simmons
7. Kristaps Porzingis
Towns was born and raised in New Jersey, but he plays for his mother’s Dominican Republic in international competition. There’s also Porzingis, who, if healthy, might rank higher than any American competing for that seventh spot. KAT is an admittedly tricky case and Porzingis is a wild card, but in any case, however you rank the players among the top group, it’s hard to find an American who definitely cracks the top six.
Even after six or seven, it’s not clear which American would be nominated for that subsequent spot. Zion Williamson? Devin Booker? Donovan Mitchell? Jayson Tatum? If we’re looking for prospects and projecting where players will be four years from now, I would probably nominate Jaren Jackson Jr. and put him somewhere near the top of that list. By contrast, if we’re looking at production in 2020: Bradley Beal is 26 years old, but even if he were under-25, I’m not sure he’d crack the top five. The 26-year-old Anthony Davis is the only American under 27 who could definitely land near the top of that list.
What’s most confounding is the absence of American wings. Think about the past 40 years. Whether it was Bird, Magic, Jordan, Pippen, Kobe, McGrady, Durant, LeBron, Carmelo or Wade, American wings have traditionally been the best, most explosive players in the entire world. Even now, if America sent its A-team instead of the C-team, rangy wings are the players who would set the U.S. apart from the field. LeBron, Harden, Draymond, Kawhi, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson… These are players the rest of the world can’t match.
So where are the superstar American wings of the future? Jayson Tatum looks the obvious heir apparent, but I’m not sure he’s actually the correct answer. While I acknowledge this could look ridiculous if he’s winning MVPs five years from now, at the moment it’s hard to imagine him ever cracking the “best in the world” conversation. He can be very good, but his game, particularly off the dribble, is just too deliberate and mechanical. It’s hard to imagine taking over the entire league. His teammate in Boston, Jaylen Brown, is a similar story—he can definitely be an All-Star, but he’ll probably never be a superstar.
In Utah, Mitchell seems to have every intangible a team could want, but at 6’3″ he’s smaller than the archetype wings of the past (albeit with a 6’10 wingspan). For that matter, while he’s been preordained as a star of the next generation, we still need to see him make shots consistently before any of the next steps are a foregone conclusion. Booker is more skilled and fluid than any of the players above, but he doesn’t play defense and we’ve yet to see him crack 30 wins as he’s marooned in Phoenix. De’Aaron Fox has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Mitchell. It’s hard to gauge exactly how dominant he’ll be at his peak. Trae Young has a higher offensive upside than any of the players mentioned so far, but defense will be in adventure. And again, all these players are guards—not quite the rangy, do-everything wings that we’re looking for in this conversation.
Among traditional wings, the field of Americans is full of unknowns: Do you still believe in Brandon Ingram? How much Kevin Knox stock are you willing to buy? What about Michael Porter Jr. or Cam Reddish? How far down the Kevin Huerter rabbit hole are you willing to go? Should we start digging into high school recruiting rankings? Rising senior Cade Cunningham plays point guard but he’s built like archetype wings of the past. Experts think he’s the best prospect in high school or college. The 6’8″ Emoni Bates has people very excited in Michigan, but he’s 15 years old.
Speaking of teenagers, we should put on our draft nerd pants and note that superstar development isn’t always linear, particularly over the past 10 or 15 years. Look at Kawhi, Klay, George, Draymond, or Harden—none of these players were obvious superstars at 21 years old. But even that argument only goes so far. Someone like Durant sort of was an obvious star at 21 years old. He was tearing through an even better Turkish national team at the 2010 FIBA Championships, scoring 38 points to seal a gold medal in the title game. The whole world could see where the Durant story was going. LeBron and Carmelo’s future looked just as bright after two seasons in the NBA. Kobe’s did, too.
If panic or concern aren’t the proper reactions after some of these USA games, maybe curiosity is. The lesson of Team USA this summer is that we’re missing a few of those obvious young superstars that used to carry these teams. We’re particularly thin on the wing, an area that used to be a strength. So why is it happening? How much could a star wing scarcity shape the next generation of the NBA? And if we’re imagining American wings a few years from now, I wonder whether someone will come out of nowhere to make most of these questions look ridiculous.