FIBA World Cup 2019: Team USA ready to learn from, play for 'legend' Gregg Popovich

Players for Team USA are well aware of the opportunity they have coming up in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

Not just to represent their country, but to learn from coaching greats like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr.

“I’ve really tried to kind of pick their brains,” Team USA guard Donovan Mitchell said during training camp in Las Vegas earlier this month. “… Picking everybody’s brain, coaches that have had such impact on this game, figuring out how to be a better overall player. Whether it’s my approach to the game, whether it’s a decision I make in the game defensively, offensively, whatever it may be.”

Everyone wants to learn this year on Team USA. Mitchell said so on more than one occasion and plenty of players echoed the sentiment. Every single one of them talked about their excitement, specifically in playing for Popovich.

It’s not hyperbole to call the Spurs coach an NBA legend.

Popovich has won five NBA titles in San Antonio and three Coach of the Year awards. Only two coaches in the history of the league have more titles than him (Phil Jackson with 11 and Red Auerbach with nine) and two more have tied him in championships (Pat Riley, John Kundla).

He has as much respect as anyone in the NBA and his level of knowledge can be magnetic.

“We all grew up watching Pop, now we’re playing against him,” Celtics guard Kemba Walker said. “We know how much of a legend he is, he’s just an unbelievable coach, so for me to get the opportunity to play for him, for him to pick me to be a part of this team, it’s a blessing.”

This isn’t the first time Popovich has been in a situation to rub off on players from around the NBA. He also was an assistant for the national team in the early 2000s and was on the bench when Team USA earned a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics.

That was a tough moment for Popovich, even though he was only an assistant on Larry Brown’s USA staff. The bronze medal broke a string of three straight gold medals for Team USA at the Olympics and it’s the only time the United States has earned less than gold in the last seven Olympic Games.

Mike Krzyzewski’s decision to step down as Team USA head coach after the Rio Olympics opened up an opportunity for Popovich to take over, but he has his hands full in San Antonio and taking the head coaching job for a national team is a big decision. It wasn’t a guarantee he would coach this team this year at the FIBA World Cup in China, but eventually, he gave in.

“I thought about it,” he said earlier this month, via ESPN . “I met with Mr. (Jerry) Colangelo (Team USA’s managing director). I took a little bit of time. We talked several times. I knew what I was getting into. It’s your country. You say yes. You man up and try to surround yourself with as much brainpower as you can.”

In a way, it’s Popovich’s shot at redemption for his country. It’s a tough shot as this FIBA roster was marred by withdrawals and injuries and goes into the World Cup lacking the usual star power of a USA team.

Team USA will have to figure some things out and has dealt with some challenges on the court already with a loss to Australia last week, which broke a 78-game winning streak in international play.

Kerr put the state of this team — and Popovich’s foray back onto its coaching staff — into great perspective as the World Cup creeps closer.

“The whole game is trying to put the puzzle together,” said Kerr, the Warriors head coach who is assisting Popovich.

It’s a puzzle Popovich was willing to figure out and one his players are embracing alongside him as he shows them how to fit the pieces into place ahead of Sunday’s tournament opener against the Czech Republic in Shanghai.

“Seeing him when you play against him, you don’t get to see this side of Pop that those guys in San Antonio see,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “So being here and able to play for him, he’s a fun guy, he jokes a lot, I didn’t know he was a jokester like that.

“But he jokes a lot, but he’s about business … you know he’s really good about making sure to have fun and just staying loose and get you right, (and) he’s a guy you really want to have coach you.”