It’s safe to say that the 2019 FIBA World Cup did not go how Team USA was hoping. Instead of winning the tournament and automatically qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games next summer, USA Basketball will instead play against Poland for seventh place on Saturday.
The absence of so many NBA All-Stars from the tournament surely contributed to that finish, but those weren’t the only losses felt by the team. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo revealed after the U.S. lost to Serbia on Thursday that he thinks the absence of Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma — who left the team after sustaining an ankle injury in exhibition play — also hurt the roster he put together (via the Associated Press/ESPN):
Colangelo felt ankle injuries sustained by Jayson Tatum during the World Cup and Kyle Kuzma just before the tournament hurt the U.S. chances in China, noting that the team felt Kuzma was going to be a big help. Colangelo insisted that he didn’t fault the effort of the players who made the commitment this summer.
Kuzma was just as disappointed as Colangelo that he couldn’t finish the tournament with Team USA, but in the same tweet he also noted that he’s excited about the extra time he has to prepare for the Lakers’ season, so him missing out wasn’t a total loss (which is doubly true if he wasn’t fully healthy).
Also, Kuzma getting to spend a few weeks around Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and the rest of one of the best coaching staffs in the world could still be a net benefit for him and the Lakers, even if he didn’t get to finish his time there. While Kuzma did fly to Australia for the exhibition, this also saves him from multiple flights to and from China in just slightly over a month’s time — the Lakers also play preseason games there — which is probably a good thing heading into what looks set to be the longest season he’s ever played.
And while Colangelo saying this could be a self-serving way to blame the team’s losses on the U.S. not having some of their best guys, he’s also fairly well-known for his candor and likely means what he says here. All this is to say that if he’s telling the truth, the conspiracy theories that Kuzma was allowed to say he was injured instead of being the final cut would seem to be debunked by Colangelo’s statement here.
Now, would Kuzma have been the difference between Team USA medaling or ending up fighting for seventh place? Probably not. But Lakers fans should be excited that their most-promising young player has evidently made such a good impression on a guy who regularly is tasked with picking who the best players in the country are.