Once upon a time, USA Basketball's collection of college players no longer dominated the international game, so an unholy cadre of professionals was unleashed up on the world. 1992's Dream Team was Jaws, and everyone else was the unsuspecting swimmer in the waters off Amityville. Christian Laettner was the remora on the bottom of that Great White, tagging along as a nod to the shelved notion that college players could get the job done.
A lot has changed since then. The rest of the world, inspired by the sheer force of the Dream Team, caught up. No longer could Team USA just prance around the NBA giving everyone else their turn at elbowing Angolans and adding a gold medal to their trophy case. And so USA Basketball underwent another shift.
They started to select some players who seemed to fit the international game a little better. They asked for multi-year commitments from a number of pros who could build a bond with one another. The familiarity was supposed to lead to more than a chance to build super-teams on South Beach. It was supposed to cut down on the mistakes and sloppy play that came with slapping a new team together every few years.
But even that has eroded a bit. It's easy to make long commitments when you want to get your gold. It’s harder to keep that commitment when you realize that another one of your summers is gone. Factor in injuries that need summers to heal, and it's getting tougher for Team USA to keep its full squad together.
That's why it's time to consider going back to school.
International basketball is a bit of a different animal now. There's an emphasis on shooting and versatility. The passing in international tournaments is different. The back-to-the-basket game isn't as prized. Certain guys who do very well in the NBA struggle internationally because their game doesn't translate.
So why not reach into the college game, identify up to five different guys who are, in all likelihood, lottery picks, and get them involved? These young, coachable players, chosen for their specific skills to compliment the pros already in place, would be invited to train with Team USA and try out for the squad. Ideally, at least two would be carried into the Olympics as specialists off the bench.
The benefit to the team is an injection of youth unspoiled by riches and endorsements, ready to run through walls for their coaches. They bring an energy an enthusiasm to the process early on to push the pros. Sad as it may be, they do need some pushing.
They also need skilled players that have specific skills. Of course, they could go into the pro game or even the D-League to find specialists. That most certainly could work. But there are very skilled college players who can get the job done while giving an added benefit. As inspirational as some pros can be to the kids, the kids can serve as inspiration to them as well.
The benefit to the college players is an exposure to a higher level of basketball that they wouldn't normally get. They are playing for their country, but they are also getting a chance to be exposed to what the next level is like. They get a feel for the speed and the power of the game, while also seeing what how best of the best react and perform to situations and even coaching.
And this last part is important, because young players develop strong loyalties in situations like this. They will not only create lasting bonds with some players and coaches, they will create a strong bond with USA Basketball. So when 2016, 2020 and beyond roll around, these young players who had the patriotic seed planted since college will be more likely to keep that commitment USA Basketball so desires.
Hook 'em while they're young. That's the key to lasting commitments. By slowly working some of the best college players into the USA Basketball program beyond the USA "Select" team, USA Basketball can build the strong foundation they're looking for in an international program while still dominating the sport.