The U.S. national team begins practices today, preparing for the 2014 FIBA World Cup tournament that kicks off at the end of next month. Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the rest of his staff will have to whittle down the pool of 19 available players -- which includes Portland point guard Damian Lillard -- to a 12-man squad by the end of the week.
Even with star players Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and the Blazers' own LaMarcus Aldridge withdrawing their names from the World Cup player-pool this summer, Team USA still has plenty of talent to draw from.
The list of potential players breaks down as follows:
DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond
Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kenneth Faried, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons and Paul Millsap
Bradley Beal, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Klay Thompson, John Wall and Lillard
It's fairly clear that Krzyzewski has much less size to work with when putting together his frontcourt after Aldridge, Griffin and Love opted out of playing this summer. Though it might be hard to put together an NBA lineup with a lack of available big men, international play often requires more floor-spacing and versatile frontcourt players.
Perhaps a bigger issue than the dearth of 7-footers on the roster is a completely loaded backcourt to select players from -- not a bad problem to have, really -- which includes five All-Star point guards. With seven players needing to be trimmed from the current Team USA roster by the end of the week, how well does Lillard stack up next to the other point guards?
The best three-point shooter between Curry, Wall, Irving, Lillard and Rose is definitely Curry, who hit 42.4 percent of his three-point attempts last season. Lillard is the next best outside shooter after hitting 39.4 percent of his threes last year. Irving and Wall were good for 35.8 and 35.1 percent, respectively, of their three-pointers last year while Rose -- whose statistics will be cited from 2011-12, due to the amount of games he's missed the last two seasons -- has never been a great outside shooter, converting on 31.2 percent of his attempts from deep two years ago.
Overall field-goal percentages are also dominated by Curry, who hit 47.1 percent of his shots last year. Lillard, Wall, Rose and Irving all made between 42.4 and 43.5 percent of their field goals most recently, all scorers who convert at pretty similar rates.
According to NBA.com shotchart data, the best finisher at the rim is Wall, who made 64.4 percent of his shots near the basket last year. Curry scored 60 percent, Rose 56.91 percent, Irving 56.87 percent and Lillard made 49.88 percent on the same attempts at the hoop. Though Lillard is statistically the worst finisher of the group inside, his 44.29 percent on mid-range shots makes him second to Curry's 48.66 percent. Not one of the other three point guards was better than 39.46 percent on mid-range jumpers last year.
Of Krzyzewski's five available point guards, Curry is probably the most efficient scorer. On a roster packed with talent at every position, though, shooting may not be the most important facet of the game for the point guard. Lillard acknowledged as much in an interview with the Oregonian's Joe Freeman last week:
During my 10 minutes on the court, I can pick up full-court [defense], hit a couple threes and play my game. I'm not going to go out and try to do anything extra to try to look better and all that. I'm going to do what I think the team needs me to do. I'm going to make the right plays, I'm going to play defense and I'm going to knock down shots. I'm going to do what's needed for me to be a part of that team.
Lillard's defense has been much-maligned by fans and media alike after his first two seasons, often noted as his most glaring weakness on the court. His defensive rating -- a stat that looks at how many points per 100 possessions the opposing teams scores while a particular player is on the floor -- was 105.1 points last year, better than only Irving's defensive rating of 106.8 points. Although it's an imperfect stat that can be influenced in either direction by the quality of the surrounding players on the roster and a coach's particular philosophies and system -- Rose had a defensive rating of 97 points in 2011-12 playing for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, widely known for his emphasis on defense, while Irving played for the lottery-bound Cavaliers last year -- it can be a good reference for a player's defensive ability.
Lillard, though, says he can be an effective defender in limited minutes, and if he's not as focused on scoring with Team USA as he is in his normal gig with the Blazers, he could be at least a serviceable defender. Lillard certainly has the quickness and motivation to be a factor on that end of the floor if he's put in work this summer at staying in front of his man and handling screens from opposing players.
Perhaps most important for a point guard on a roster full of star players is ball distribution and managing possessions effectively. Lillard's assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.37 puts him right in the middle of Team USA's current crop of point guards, better than the 2.27 ratio of Curry but trailing Rose's 2.58 assist-to-turnover mark. All of the ballhandlers in the lineup are adept at finding teammates while limiting turnovers.
Ultimately, solely using statistics to determine the most qualified players for World Cup roster spots is a flawed approach, as stats can be cherry-picked in any number of manners to paint a player in a particular light. Still, numbers are the most objective way to rank players, and when used in conjunction with the "eye test," strengths and weaknesses of different players can be evaluated by fans, media and the coaching staff.
Lillard certainly has a good shot to make the final Team USA roster this summer -- his shooting ability should translate well to the international game -- but he's got some solid competition in the form of Irving, Wall, Curry and Rose. Sporting News NBA writer Sean Deveney predicts Lillard will make the cut, with Rose being left out possibly due to recent injury history.
What do you think Lillard's chances are of landing a spot with the U.S. national team and representing his country at the 2014 FIBA World Cup next month? Looking at the pool of available players, do you think Lillard gets in? If he shows in practice this week that he can be an effective defender while shooting and distributing the ball as well as he did last season, it'll be hard for Krzyzewski and his staff to leave Lillard off the final 12-man lineup.
For reference, here's a table comparing some key stats of the five available point guards (all statistics via NBA.com for the 2013-14 season, besides Rose's which are from 2011-12):
|Damian Lillard||Stephen Curry||Kyrie Irving||John Wall||Derrick Rose|
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter