It was not as easy as the record looked.
The United States finished 9-0 and won the FIBA Under-19 World Championships for only the third time in its past eight tries, defeating Serbia in the gold-medal game on Sunday, 82-68.
The U-19 title has been difficult for the United States to win for a number of reasons. First of all, the rest of the world's talent level in this age group has closed the gap on the United States. That has become evident in every recent NBA draft.
Secondly, with young players in our country entering the NBA draft or heading to campus in the summer to prepare for the college season, the pool of talented players in the age group is smaller.
Finally, there is the challenge of putting together a U.S. team with very little preparation time and developing chemistry and a culture of execution.
Coach Billy Donovan was able to overcome these issues by using all 12 players in the nine games and by pressing relentlessly and forcing the pace. It worked well enough to average 96 points a game, and there were different stars in each of the nine wins.
In two years, Donovan (who coached the U.S. U-18 team to the FIBA Americas Championship last summer) has done a masterful job of using his team's strengths in preparing for the international game. When I attended the team's training camp in June, the players wisely spent the bulk of their defensive practice time working on their full-court press and their half-court screen-and-roll defensive coverages.
U.S. assistant and VCU head coach Shaka Smart, a former Florida assistant coach, implemented the full-court press at the training camp, while Donovan's other assistant, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, installed the half-court man-to-man defense.
The pressure had a dual effect. In addition to wearing opponents down, it took them out of their continuity half-court offenses, a staple of international basketball. And the U.S. was well-prepared to defend the heavy dose of ball screens it saw throughout the tournament.
While a number of players returned from the U-18 team, including the team's captain, Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, the additions of No. 1 2014 recruit Jahlil Okafor, No. 15 2014 recruit Justise Winslow and incoming Arizona Wildcats freshman Aaron Gordon were critical. "We were a good team last year, but they certainly stepped up in some key roles for us and played very, very well," Donovan said. "Having some younger guys really helped our team."
This was the best U.S. youth team I've seen play in a long time. Here is my breakdown of each U.S. player, followed by some notes on the international players I saw who could be making an impact on college basketball and/or the NBA draft in future seasons:
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State Cowboys: Smart only averaged 16 minutes a game because of some early-round blowouts and recurring foul trouble, but he was the undisputed leader of this team. You could hear his constant coaching of his teammates from the stands all week long. Defensively, he keyed the U.S. pressure defense and came up with 22 steals in his 141 minutes on the court.
Some NBA scouts were looking for more from Smart, but all he was concerned about was playing to win. Which is usually what he does.
Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke Blue Devils: Sulaimon was a presence in all nine games because of his steadiness and versatility. It's a compliment to say that he doesn't do one thing great as a guard, but does a lot of things very well.
In addition, Sulaimon's 41 percent shooting behind the arc made opponents pay for packing their defense in the lane. He hit some big shots in the semifinal win over Lithuania to help put that game away.
Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns: The little-known Payton was added to the trials after a number of players dropped out and his coach Bob Marlin called Donovan personally to recommend him. He not only made the team but he ended up becoming a starter. At 6-foot-4, he affected the game on both ends of the floor with his energy and hustle.
Payton's role was never bigger than in the early fourth quarter of the championship game, when he helped break the game open with a couple of key defensive plays and a beautiful lob feed to Gordon, who finished with the highlight dunk of the tournament. You'll be hearing from the Rajun Cajuns point guard this season.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville Cardinals: While he played a key role in the Cardinals' national championship run, Rick Pitino's team centered around veteran guards Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Luke Hancock. That's about to change.
Harrell was an absolute beast in this tournament. He averaged 10 points a game on 58 percent shooting in his 18 minutes a game. More importantly, he gave the U.S. team toughness and relentlessness inside, and the NBA people in attendance took notice. In fact, he has a lot of the Denver Nuggets' Kenneth Faried in his game. And as a bonus, he showed a deft shooting touch to 15 feet.
Michael Frazier II, Florida Gators: Donovan had an obvious comfort level with one of his own Gators players, and Frazier didn't disappoint him. In addition to understanding his coach's offensive and defensive schemes, he made the team based on his ability to shoot the ball.
While Frazier shot only 29 percent behind the 3-point line, he was always a threat to get hot and ended up making 15 shots from behind the arc.
Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee Volunteers: Stokes understands the physical nature of international play. In fact, he thrived in it, often against bigger players. The Tennessee junior shot 60 percent inside the arc and grabbed 19 offensive rebounds in only 113 minutes. He made Vols coach Cuonzo Martin proud with his performance.
Mike Tobey, Virginia Cavaliers: Tobey made the team as an insurance policy against foul trouble up front, but he didn't necessarily fit the full-court style. He still managed to average 5 points and 5 rebounds per game in limited minutes.
This experience should propel Tobey into the Cavaliers' season like a rocket. For a big man, he's got great hands, good touch around the rim and runs well for his size. He will definitely be one of the better young big men in the ACC this season.
James Robinson, Pittsburgh Panthers: Robinson was another player whose athletic ability didn't necessarily fit the defensive style of the team. To me, he shines as a half-court floor general and defender. But armed with playing experience last summer under Donovan, he played key minutes at key times.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona Wildcats: In a word: Wow! Donovan found a guy in Gordon who was the poster boy for his style of play. Although he has athletic ability that is off the charts, he combined it with never-ending energy and a great skill package around the basket. The lob dunk in the championship game would rival any you have seen in recent seasons.
As good as Gordon was offensively, he was equally as effective defensively. In fact, he defended all five positions during the week and was everywhere in the press.
Gordon will have an immediate impact in the Pac-12 and should be one of the best freshmen in the country. He wants to become an NBA small forward, which is understandable because he is only 6-foot-8. He just shouldn't forget that his greatest strength right now is playing offensively from the paint area out.
Justise Winslow, Saint John's High School (Houston, Texas): I had watched the 6-foot-6 Winslow in the spring at the Nike EYBL Tournament and I didn't see what the fuss was about other than the fact that he was a very good athlete. But he surprised me, like Gordon, in giving this team an infusion of infectious energy.
On offense the U.S. didn't run any plays for Winslow, but he found his way to the ball and finished with three offensive rebounds per game. He was a surprisingly effective ball mover, as well. Defensively, he pursued the ball like the Steelers' Troy Polamalu and was another one of Donovan's cookie-cutter press defenders.
There may have been more talented players who chose not to participate on this team, but I doubt they would have had the same effect on winning that Winslow did.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Washington Huskies: Here's one clue as to how important Williams-Goss was: The Huskies' freshman led the U.S. in minutes. Anyone who watched him play at Findlay Prep or on the summer circuit the past four seasons wouldn't be the least bit surprised. He is a natural leader and a terrific "under pressure" player who scored 15 important points in 29 minutes in the title game.
Williams-Goss will be the Huskies' point guard this season, but in this tournament he co-piloted Donovan's offense with Smart and Sulaimon. And he was effective off the ball, too, shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line. He's a winner.
Jahlil Okafor, Whitney Young High School (Chicago, Illinois): Okafor, ESPN's No. 1-ranked high school senior, was so good in this tournament that numerous NBA scouts here were comparing him to a young Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-11, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, gifted footwork and a soft shooting touch around the basket, he shot 77 percent from the floor over the nine games. And in the first game against Serbia, he continually scored over four talented and physically imposing post players, all of whom were 6-foot-9 or taller.
Okafor is down to eight schools, including Duke, which is the current front-runner. It should not matter which school he attends, however. There's a very good chance that he will be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft regardless of where he plays his freshman season.
• The fact that the vast majority of the players on the U.S. roster had previous international experience paid huge dividends from a continuity standpoint. Some of the players have been a part of the U.S. basketball program since they were 15 years old. So it's no wonder that the team looked very comfortable with the FIBA rules, including the 24-second shot clock and batting a live ball off the rim, and the occasionally uneven FIBA officiating.
• I understand the reasons many top coaches want their key players on campus for summer school. They are judged by how their team does during the college season rather than by how U.S. does in the summer. But you can't even come close to replicating the kind of game experience these USA players experienced in Prague.
The pressure in the gold-medal game was huge in the O2 Arena, and the competition, especially in the medal round, was incredible. Serbia's team had at least two first-round picks and at least four players that will be eventually drafted.
Ultimately, the three-week commitment will pay huge dividends for the players who did participate on the court this year. More importantly, they won a gold medal for their country. As their careers unfold in college and the NBA, that accomplishment and hearing the national anthem at the medal ceremony is something they will remember.
• I have a feeling that Donovan, one of the best teachers of ball-screen offense in college basketball, will come away from the tournament with a few new ball-screen ideas next season. The level of sophistication of some of the international coaching is outstanding, and matching wits with them is sure to stimulate his thinking.
• Canada, without Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins (No. 1 in 2013 ESPN 100), acquitted itself nicely in the tournament by finishing sixth overall. Coach Roy Rana, who also handles the coaching duties for the international team in the Nike Hoop Summit, has some excellent young players to build around.
Incoming Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis led the tournament in scoring, almost by necessity. The former Saint Benedict's Prep (NJ) product is a strong penetrator to the basket, averaging 21 points a game and getting himself to the foul line 51 times in nine games.
Rana was excited about Ennis' performance.
"He was tremendous," Rana said. "Not only by his on-court production but everything he does off the court. His leadership skills really advanced to another level. That's what you want in a point guard.
"He's ideal. He facilitates when he needs to, he can score and he did everything for this team. We're nothing but overjoyed with his performance and his future potential."
Trey Lyles, ESPN's No. 4 prospect for 2014, was also outstanding, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds, although he missed two medal-round games with an ankle sprain.
Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Lyles moved to the United States when he was 4 years old and currently attends Arsenal Tech in Indianapolis. At 6-10, he is a likely "one-and-done" guy whose NBA trajectory right now is the 2015 lottery.
Incoming Florida State freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes is a shooting guard who should contribute immediately for the Seminoles. He averaged 12 points a game.
• China was the surprise of the tournament, finishing seventh and beating Croatia, Australia and Russia to get there. While the team had some excellent guards -- something that's rarely been uttered about the Chinese team -- 7-1 Zhou Qi was the real revelation. The 17-year-old big man averaged 11 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocks and could be one of the faces of Chinese basketball the next decade or more.
• It's always good to remember that countries like Serbia and Lithuania are the size of states and have a combined population of 10 million people. Each country has its own fervor for basketball that makes them look like the state of Indiana on steroids. They live to play against the United States in these tournaments, and generally do a great job of competing.
Evaluations of international NCAA players
Here are some evaluations of current and future NCAA players who participated in the tournament:
Dante Exum, Australia high school senior: Although Exum has been an intriguing name on the international scene for a number of seasons, he had he his coming-out party at the Nike Hoop Summit in April. He threw another party in Prague.
The 6-foot-5 Exum, who missed the Adidas Eurocamp three weeks ago with a stress reaction in his leg, was electric throughout the week. Named to the all-tournament team, he averaged 18 points a game and had a number of (yes, I know this is sacrilegious to say) Michael Jordan-esque moves that had the NBA people buzzing.
Exum, whose dad, Cecil, actually played with Jordan on the 1982 UNC national title team, only turns 18 this coming week. He will graduate from high school in November. Among his choices are to go to college next September or to work out after graduation in anticipation of the entering the 2014 NBA draft. If he does opt for the draft, I think he could go in the top five picks.
Sebastian Saiz, Ole Miss Rebels: The 6-foot-8 Saiz was the only player on Spain's roster who will play college basketball, as all of his teammates are part of professional clubs in Spain. Taking the road less traveled, Saiz played last season at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan., and will attend Ole Miss in the fall.
Saiz is a relentless rebounder who already has a great basketball frame and a long wingspan. His offensive rebounding ability will come in handy as his future teammate Marshall Henderson shoots a lot of reboundable balls. I'd be shocked if the big Spaniard doesn't contribute immediately for the Rebels.
Dane Pineau, St. Mary's Gaels: The big Aussie finished the tournament with a 20-point, 17-rebound performance against Lithuania and averaged 12 points and 9 rebounds for the tournament. Pineau, a 6-foot-9 post player, is part of the pipeline from Australia to Moraga, Calif., where he'll play for coach Randy Bennett at Saint Mary's.
Mislav Brzoja, Villanova Wildcats: Brozja, who played limited minutes for Jay Wright's team as a freshman, had a good tournament for the underachieving Croatian team. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged almost 13 points a game and made 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Nick Duncan, Boise State Broncos: The 6-foot-7 forward looked like a 30-year-old stockbroker playing lunchtime pick-up ball at the YMCA, but looks can be deceiving. He is a tough, physical player with a soft shooting touch behind the arc who averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds a game for Australia. I expect him to help coach Leon Rice's Broncos immediately.
Future international NBA prospects
Dario Saric, Croatia: NBA teams have a love-hate relationship with Saric. The player many consider the greatest prospect from his country since Drazen Petrovic will be the source of constant debate about him being a lottery selection in the nest year or two.
On the one hand, the 6-foot-10 19-year-old has dominated his age group, especially in Europe, the last three summers. He's a clever player for his size and is an effective scorer and playmaker. And in this tournament he averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds and 5 steals, making the all-tournament team as a small forward.
On the other hand, he's a below-average NBA athlete who is stuck between the small forward and power forward positions, is still an alarmingly inconsistent outside shooter, and his on-court body language with his teammates leaves something to be desired. He has been affected by the sense of entitlement that I've seen in great high school stars in the United States, in my opinion.
If an NBA team likes him enough to draft him, they had better be committed to putting the ball in his hands, because without it, even at his size, he is an ineffective player. Put me down as skeptical right now.
Vasilje Micic, Serbia: Micic, the "Serbian Jason Kidd," was brilliant this week and was voted the tournament's best point guard. At 6-foot-4 and possessing deceptive athletic ability, he cleverly orchestrated Serbia's screen-and-roll offense to near perfection.
Micic, who missed an entire season with a major knee injury, will be followed closely by NBA teams in the next couple of seasons. I expect him to find his way into the first round if and when he declares for the draft.
Nikola Milutinov, Serbia: The 18-year-old 7-footer is just a baby from a basketball standpoint, but he showed flashes of his unique size and athleticism against the U.S. big men that makes him worth following the next three or four years. More strength and game experience are crucial, however.