NEW YORK — Gregg Popovich will do everything he can to lead the United States to Olympic gold in Tokyo. Except for one thing.
He won’t lobby players to go to China, where the U.S. will play in the Basketball World Cup and qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
“I just think that would be inappropriate for me before games to go up to one or two guys on each team and say, ‘Hey, are you going to play for us this summer? I’d really like to have you,’” Popovich said. “He’s there to try to whip (us). He’s got a different priority that night and I think it would be inappropriate for me try to do that.”
Popovich has been the Americans’ national team coach for a few years but there was never a guarantee he’d actually get to lead them in competition. The U.S. first had to qualify for the Basketball World Cup, where the Americans can then play their way into the 2020 Olympics. Jeff Van Gundy guided the U.S. through qualifying, earning a spot in China with teams comprised of mostly NBA G League players. He finished 10-2 when the Americans beat Argentina 84-83 on Monday night in Greensboro, North Carolina .
“He was remarkable. Spectacular. Off the charts what he did to qualify the USA for the world championships,” Popovich said. “He put together about five different teams, mostly different players each time in a short amount of time they had to get them ready. If they didn’t do well, U.S. doesn’t go and he deserves a lot of credit for doing that on his own and really grateful to him.”
The minor leaguers will now give way to NBA stars this summer. Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach who was hired in 2015 to succeed Mike Krzyzewski following the Rio Olympics, said he doesn’t believe anybody has, thus far, committed to playing.
The Americans compiled a national team pool of more than 30 players they can choose from, knowing top stars such as LeBron James are unlikely to want to play consecutive summers. They will trim that to a smaller number to invite to training camp in Las Vegas this summer, with the goal of getting the final roster of 12 players there.
Unlike Krzyzewski, who rarely saw his prospective players while coaching at Duke, Popovich is around them all the time during the NBA season.
“And hate half of them,” he joked. “It’s going to be really tough to coach them.”
USA Basketball leaders haven’t begun reaching out to World Cup prospects yet, needing to devote their time first to the revolving-door rosters of the qualifying games. With that behind them, national team managing director Jerry Colangelo and director Sean Ford can begin assembling the next team — without Popovich’s help.
“Jerry Colangelo has been the wizard of that, he’s been the guy who’s put those teams together along with Sean Ford,” Popovich said. “The two of them have done yeoman work over the years in putting the groups together and they’re good at it, so I’ll leave that to them.”