The challenge that Jeff Van Gundy accepted 16 months ago was a daunting one: Take a group of G League players, and turn them into a team that would be good enough to earn USA Basketball a spot in next year’s FIBA World Cup.
It was harder than he imagined.
Van Gundy hasn’t had one team for World Cup qualifying — he’s basically had five different teams, the U.S. roster changing so significantly from one round to the next that he’s had to essentially start from scratch every time. He’s made it work, and the U.S. will play at Argentina on Thursday night knowing that the job of clinching that World Cup berth is now finally within reach.
Thursday’s winner will basically be assured a spot in the World Cup. The U.S. and Argentina both have 7-1 records in their six-nation group, and would be three games ahead of the fourth-place team with three games left. The top three teams in the group are guaranteed World Cup berths.
“There’s been a lot of learning as we’ve gone along,” Van Gundy said. “You need to be adaptable in this whole thing. We’ve had a great group of coaches that have helped us and really, it’s the players that are the ones that drive it. Either you come into it for the right reasons or you don’t. This isn’t about putting up numbers. We’re all volunteers.”
He just didn’t think there would be this many volunteers.
Of the 12 players Van Gundy has with him on this trip — the Americans play at Uruguay on Sunday — only three have been part of any of the previous eight qualifying games. He’s now had 46 different players with him at various times during qualifying, and most of them have played in no more than two games to this point.
“I expected more continuity, no question,” Van Gundy said. “Some NBA teams have been incredibly helpful, incredibly helpful, and some not so much. Some agents have been incredibly helpful, and others not so much. Some G League franchises, incredibly helpful, incredibly helpful, others not as committed to the process. You sort of learn who shares your passion for this quest to qualify.”
Stockton Kings guard Reggie Hearn clearly shares that passion. When the U.S. calls, he answers.
Hearn is the most decorated player for the Americans in this process. He’s appeared in a team-high five of the eight games so far, is back with the U.S. for this trip and is embracing his role as the all-knowing veteran.
“I feel like I can somewhat give my knowledge and experience to the guys to kind of back what coach says,” Hearn said. “I can speak from personal experience, and as far as familiarity with Jeff, I feel like I can help things run a little more smoothly because I know what to expect from him and what he calls for us to do as players.”
Hearn’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. He was announced Wednesday as USA Basketball’s male athlete of the year, joining a group that in the past has included Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan and the 1992 and 2008 Olympic teams.
“Just to see that I’m included amongst that group is an incredible honor and something I never thought I’d be able to experience,” Hearn said.
The U.S. gathered for some practices in Houston before flying to Argentina, and players are aware that two wins on this trip — regardless of any other outcome — would clinch the World Cup berth.
But there hasn’t been a lot of big-picture focus.
“We’re just down here trying to go 2-0,” Hearn said.
The U.S. has used G League players throughout this process because the qualifying schedule — by FIBA design — conflicts with the NBA season. If the Americans reach the World Cup, Gregg Popovich would coach the team and his roster would be filled by NBA stars.
There will be 32 nations in next year’s World Cup. Europe will send 12 teams, the Asia-Oceania and Americas zones will each send seven, and Africa will send five. China automatically got a spot as the tournament host. So far, in addition to the Chinese, six nations have clinched a berth: Tunisia, Nigeria, Germany, Greece, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.
This the fifth of six two-game “windows” on the FIBA qualifying calendar for this World Cup, with the final one coming in late February. Many spots will come down to those games, though there are several teams in very good position to clinch their berths in the coming days. They include the U.S., France, Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, Venezuela and Senegal.