The United States’ quest for a third straight FIBA World Cup championship will begin with matchups against Turkey, the Czech Republic and Japan this summer.
The Americans are in Group E for the tournament that begins in China on Aug. 31. The 32 teams that qualified for the event were all placed into one of eight groups during the draw that was held in Shenzhen, China on Saturday.
The U.S. won the World Cup in 2010 and 2014. No nation has ever won it three consecutive times.
The U.S. is the world’s No. 1-ranked team by FIBA. Second-ranked Spain will meet Puerto Rico, Iran and Tunisia in the group stage. Third-ranked France drew the Dominican Republic, Germany and Jordan as its early opponents.
“We are ready for the world,” said Yao Ming, the best Chinese player ever, the longtime Houston Rockets star and one of the global ambassadors for the World Cup.
At stake for teams in the World Cup: The Naismith Trophy, which longtime NBA star Kobe Bryant brought onto the stage Saturday and handed to Yao for safekeeping, as well as a berth in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There will be 12 teams in the Olympic field – host Japan is one, and seven other nations will directly qualify from the World Cup. The other four will reach Tokyo through qualifying tournaments over the next year.
The U.S. will be the favorites at the World Cup. Bryant said he expects competition to be stiff, even for the Americans.
“It’s a greater sense of honor to be playing for your country,” Bryant said. “When you start out the game, you hear your national anthem being played, you see everybody in the arena with their flags representing their country and color, it’s just such a great honor to be a part of that. It’s extremely special.”
It’s still unclear which NBA players will join coach Gregg Popovich in China. The Americans, who used G League players to get through the qualifying rounds, won’t even convene for World Cup training camp until early August and have a pool of 35 players to choose from for this summer’s games.
Many players aren’t expected to decide one way or another until after the NBA season. Popovich, the veteran coach in San Antonio, said even with the playoff push happening in the NBA, he often finds his mind drifting toward his new duties as coach of the national team.
“I think about that all the time,” Popovich said. “You can’t help but think about the USA thing when you’re in this situation.”
Houston star James Harden, the NBA’s reigning MVP, said the lure of the World Cup and playing for the USA is difficult to ignore.
“As a basketball player, that’s one of the highest points you can get for basketball,” Harden said. “Obviously, you’ve got the NBA and you have winning a championship and all that good stuff, but with this, you’re not just playing for your respective cities or where you’re from, you’re playing for an entire country you represent. So, it’s pretty awesome to be a part of it.”
Teams were slotted into one of eight groups.
Group A: Venezuela, Poland, China and Ivory Coast.
Group B: Argentina, Russia, South Korea and Nigeria.
Group C: Spain, Puerto Rico, Iran and Tunisia.
Group D: Serbia, Italy, Philippines and Angola.
Group E: USA, Turkey, Czech Republic, Japan.
Group F: Greece, Brazil, Montenegro, New Zealand.
Group G: France, Dominican Republic, Germany, Jordan.
Group H: Lithuania, Australia, Canada, Senegal.