LAS VEGAS — As Anthony Edwards sat on a dais last month to discuss signing a five-year max contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was asked why he agreed to play for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup this summer.
“I wanted to play because it was a great opportunity,” said Edwards, who was in Vegas during NBA 2K24 Summer League, flashing his trademark smile. “It can take my game to the next level, and I think I’ll be ready.
“I don’t have to wait for preseason to get ready for the season. … It’s a big step for me.”
Edwards and the rest of Team USA will take the floor here for the first time Thursday afternoon, beginning a stretch of four straight days of practice before the team’s first exhibition game against Puerto Rico on Monday night. Training camp kick-starts a nearly four-week buildup to the team’s opening World Cup game against New Zealand in Manila, Philippines, on Aug. 26.
For a group lacking in international experience and heading into a tournament that Team USA has traditionally struggled in, winning gold could prove to be a challenge. But it also presents an opportunity for Edwards, in particular, to take a huge step forward — one that could propel him into superstardom entering his fourth NBA season in a way Kevin Durant used this same tournament to do so 13 years ago.
There are several similarities. Durant, like Edwards, is a former top pick — Durant No. 2 overall in 2007 and Edwards No. 1 in 2020. Durant agreed to a five-year max contract extension with Oklahoma City before joining the Americans in preparation for what was then the world championships. And Durant was part of a young, inexperienced group — one that, like this 2023 squad, was a completely flipped roster from the previous Olympic Games.
In 2010, Durant’s group was derided as a “B-Team” after many of the league’s top stars opted out of after leading the “Redeem Team” to a gold medal in Beijing in 2008.
“I think that was extra motivation,” Durant told reporters after the gold medal game. “It was exciting to come out here and win — and also to prove people wrong.”
The next season, Durant and the Thunder won their first playoff series, reaching the Western Conference finals. He then led the Thunder to the NBA Finals the following season and went on to become one of the dominant players in the sport for the next decade, winning an MVP, two Finals MVPs and two titles.
“He just, you know, you got him the ball and he scored,” Jerry Colangelo, Team USA’s longtime executive director, told ESPN this week of Durant’s 2010 performance. “It was as simple as that. I mean, there’s no secret sauce with Kevin.
“He has the capacity and the desire to do whatever it takes and he does it.”
It remains unclear who will take that role with this year’s American World Cup entry. Four players on the roster — Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Ingram — have earned All-Star selections, but none have made it more than once. There isn’t a single All-NBA selection on the roster.
Still, from his courtside seat calling games during the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs, Team USA executive director Grant Hill saw how impactful Edwards facing the eventual NBA champion Denver Nuggets.
“The way he played, the way he attacked, the decision-making that he made … he was unguardable,” Hill said of Edwards in the playoffs. “No one could stay in front of him. His sort of understanding and reading the situation, I felt, was exemplary.
“He just put the team on his back.”
Edwards might have to do the same with this group, one that in addition to Haliburton, Jackson and Ingram features a versatile roster stocked with young talent. It includes guards Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Austin Reaves; forwards Paolo Banchero, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson; and centers Walker Kessler and Bobby Portis. However, the roster lacks in cachet that past groups provided, thanks in part to players such as Durant, Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker, who were on the Olympic team in 2021, but are sitting out the World Cup.
The increased competition across the basketball landscape is a factor, too, even with players such as Nikola Jokic and Victor Wembanyama not participating. It is unknown if Giannis Antetokounmpo — who would play for Greece, a group stage opponent for Team USA — will play after undergoing knee surgery earlier this offseason.
But there’s plenty of talent that will be on display. The Canadians, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and possibly Jamal Murray, have the deepest team they have ever fielded. Luka Doncic will be playing for Slovenia, the Australians have a preliminary roster featuring a record 10 NBA players — along with a hunger to finally claim an elusive international gold medal — while longtime mainstays Spain and France will remain as stiff competition.
There’s also Team USA’s history in this event. Unlike the Olympics, which Team USA has won each time except once since 1992 — it finished with a bronze in 2004 — the U.S. has won just two of the past six World Cups.
And, in 2019, the U.S. team finished a disappointing seventh, with a roster featuring a similar collection of talent to this year’s group, including Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Tatum and Donovan Mitchell.
The FIBA version of the sport, with its own set of rules and rosters made up of battle-hardened veterans who have in many cases played for a decade or more together, requires unique challenges than what is needed to get through an NBA season — which has made it a proving ground for emerging young talent.
“We’re really emphasizing that it’s a different game than our game,” Hill said. “It’s played different, the rules are different, it’s officiated different. So we are really reinforcing that and educating, teaching and just making it so it can become instinctive for them when, when the games really count.”
To win the World Cup will require a deft coaching effort from Steve Kerr, who takes over the helm of Team USA from Gregg Popovich, as well as inspired play from this group.
For the last part to happen, someone will need to step up as the team’s go-to player. And Edwards, as a big, physical wing player who can impact the game at both ends, should be more than able to hold his own in the rough-and-tumble FIBA version.
“Well, it could be,” Colangelo said, when asked if he saw a similarity between Durant 13 years ago and Edwards now. “Having the capacity is one thing. Taking advantage of the opportunity is something else.
“Only time will tell. Yes, he’s got the platform, and he has the opportunity, but he has to get it done.”
No one appreciates the need to follow through on potential more than Edwards, who turns 22 on Saturday. At a news conference to celebrate his contract extension, with his family looking on from the crowd, Edwards was asked if getting to this point in his career left him feeling like it was a full-circle moment.
His response was immediate.
“No, not mission accomplished,” he said. “They love to see me win. When I was little, playing football growing up, I always won the championship in little league football or basketball. They want to see me win.
“When I win, when I get a ring or a gold medal with USA, then I think they’ll be super excited.”