The United States has long been the center of the basketball world. Talent grows on trees. Talent grows like trees.
There has been a few hiccups over the years, but since NBA players began starring in international competition, more often than not, Team USA has dominated.
With the FIBA World Cup starting in China in just a few days, the USA is as vulnerable as they have been in decades. Kemba Walker is the lone A-list player and even he isn’t considered one of the top 10 players in the NBA.
In his first opportunity to run the program, head coach Gregg Popovich is walking into the tournament with a mix-and-match roster of young up-and-comers and a few NBA role players. They still have plenty of talent, but coming home with a gold medal isn’t going to be easy.
Team USA was reminded of this fact Friday night in Melbourne when they lost, 98-94, to Patty Mills and the Australian national team.
FIBA World Cup doesn’t have the same draw that the Olympic games have for NBA players and this year’s competition runs way too close to the start of the NBA season.
Harrison Barnes is the last man standing for the Sacramento Kings after both De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley opted to walk away from Team USA this summer. The veteran forward has been a member of the national program since 2010 and his leadership and understanding of international play is extremely valuable to the squad as they prepare for the upcoming games.
It’s a different experience for Barnes than it would have been for either Fox of Bagley. Barnes knows who and what he is as a player. His goal is singularly focused on representing his country on the hunt for a medal, not development or expanding his level of basketball experience.
Through the first couple of contests, Barnes took a backseat, allowing others to step up and shine during scrimmages and international friendlies. In the team's 98-94 loss to Australia on Saturday, that changed.
Barnes dropped in 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including three 3-pointers. He chipped in six rebounds in 26 minutes of action. It wasn't enough to get a win, but it shined a light on what Barnes brings to the table as the team prepares for their World Cup opener against the Czech Republic on Sept. 1.
In Team USA’s bounce-back 84-68 win on Monday morning, Barnes started again, scoring nine points with three rebounds, two assists and a team-best +16 in the plus minus category.
This is the value of Barnes, both with Team USA and back home in Sacramento. He has an understanding of what his team needs on a nightly basis and fills in the corresponding role.
Sacramento invested a new four-year, $85 million contract in Barnes during the offseason, making him the team’s highest paid player. He won’t hold that title for long. Buddy Hield is eligible for an extension this offseason. Fox can get paid next summer and Bagley the year after.
The Kings’ payroll is going to rise exponentially as their young core begins signing their second NBA contracts. Player improvement is both a blessing and a curse.
At 27, Barnes is young enough to connect with his Kings teammates and experienced enough to be a leader. He has an Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship under his belt, making him the most accomplished player on the roster.
Barnes’ versatility as a scorer and defender adds something that the Kings have lacked at the small forward position for years. His role shouldn’t be to lead the team in scoring. In fact, he’s likely a fourth option in the Kings’ starting lineup behind Fox, Bagley and Buddy Hield.
While he might not be flashy, Barnes is a player that can help both Team USA and the Kings win. He already has stepped into a leadership role in both places and he’s willing to bring whatever ingredient is needed when he walks onto the floor.