LOS ANGELES -- Team USA is a complicated jigsaw puzzle that head coach Gregg Popovich has to figure out on the fly. How do you fill a roster with players that complement each other, have them compete for a roster spot over two weeks and then unleash them against teams on a world stage?
Adding to the equation, Popovich doesn’t have a roster of perennial All-Stars that fit into some complex pecking order. His core group will consist of NBA role players and then a group of young guys who still are finding their way in the league.
In Sacramento, De’Aaron Fox is the ring leader of one of the fastest teams in the league. While he averaged 17.2 points per game in his second season, he also is the primary distributor for a squad that scored 114.2 points per game last season.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to project where Fox might end up as a player and his tour of duty with the national team under Popovich might help him reach his ceiling faster than if he spent the summer working on his game on his own.
The legendary Spurs coach is one of the most respected minds in the game. He ranks third all-time in wins, he’s led San Antonio to 22 consecutive playoff appearances and he has five championship rings. When he speaks, players listen.
“He doesn’t even like using the term aggressive, because, what does that mean?,” Fox told NBC Sports California about his conversations with Popovich. “But he’s definitely staying on me about continuing to attack.”
After a dismal day for Team USA on Wednesday that saw the group fall in back-to-back games to a collection of G-Leaguers brought in to scrimmage, the mood was different Thursday. While the scoreboards were left at 0-0, it was clear that Fox and the other 14 players vying for spots on the team that will represent the USA at the FIBA World Cup made strides.
“It’s really just continuing to put pressure on the rim,” Fox said. “It could be selfish, because when you go in to attack, that’s the first option, to try and score the ball. But when you have that mentality, guys are going to come in because you draw the defense and that’s when you’re able to make plays for others.”
It’s not that Dave Joerger didn’t ask Fox to attack last season in Sacramento or that Luke Walton hasn’t already handed his starting point guard a road map for the upcoming campaign. They both think highly of Fox’s talent and consider him one of the franchise’s cornerstones.
But Popovich is an outside observer of sorts. He is trying to push the right buttons and get the most out of his talent in a limited amount of time. He sees where Fox can dominate the game and he’s demanding something very specific from the explosive guard.
“He stays on me,” Fox said of Popovich. “With him, he wants guys to do one, two, maybe three things and continue to do it well, continue to do it great."
The 21-year-old guard was a member of the Select Team before last week. He quickly has become one of the standouts through camp and appears to be a lock for the World Cup roster. Not only is he the fastest player on the team and possibly the entire league, but he also has the ability to play defense at an elite level.
During last week’s scrimmage against the Select Team, he was a disruptive force, finishing with three steals and two blocks in just 15 minutes of action.
“For him, defense is his priority right now,” Fox said. “We know we have the talent to score the ball, but we know we’ll win games with defense.”
Team USA has a friendly against Spain on Friday evening which might give a glimpse into how Popovich and his staff intend to use Fox moving forward.
Even if his Team USA experience ends before the squad jumps on a plane for Australia and then China, it’s clear that Fox is taking to the coaching, absorbing as much as possible and trying to improve his game through this process.