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USA Basketball training camp begins in Las Vegas

USA Basketball packed UNLV’s Mendenhall Center with plenty of talent for its first day of training camp Monday.

Yet, despite many of the NBA’s most promising faces being present, it was impossible to notice the players who weren’t there.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis were just a few of the stars that pulled out of training camp after the initial roster was released June 10. Now the program is beginning a transition phase with its pre-FIBA Basketball World Cup camp in Las Vegas, with young players looking to fill big roles on the national team.

“This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of us,” Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker said. “I think a lot of us are happy those guys pulled out because this is our chance.

“It’s our chance to get on the big stage and showcase our talent. A chance for us to do something new. It’ll be a new-look team. Everybody is kind of doubting us but I think we’re hungry.”

Walker and 14 other players will practice all week at UNLV before scrimmaging at 7 p.m. Friday at T-Mobile Arena. They are competing for 12 roster spots at the World Cup, which will take place from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 in China.

The battle is less heated thanks to the 12 withdrawals before camp, which included Harden, Lillard and Davis in addition to players like Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap and Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond. All told, one MVP (Harden), 30 All-Star nods and 16 All-NBA honors pulled out of camp.

It’s a stark difference from last World Cup, when the preliminary roster was released two weeks before camp and only two players dropped out.

“All I care about is who’s here,” said U.S. coach Gregg Popovich, who’s been in charge of the San Antonio Spurs since 1996. “I’ve got a fine group of guys. We’re going to try to get them to form the best possible team we can.”

The U.S., which won the last two World Cup and hasn’t lost a game in the competition since 2006, knows no one is feeling sorry for it. The team still has plenty of talent, but it will be up to new faces like Walker, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton to lead the way.

“Obviously, we play with more of a chip (on our shoulders),” Mitchell said. “I think a lot of countries think they see an opening so for us we have to go out there and compete and get ready. We’re going to get every team’s best shot.”

The U.S. will still be expected to handle those shots because even with the dropouts they’ll be the most talented team on the court every night. They just need to transition new faces into the program, and that starts this week at UNLV.

“Those guys that everybody really knows and talks about and are always seeing aren’t here, so we’ve got a lot of guys that probably nobody talks about or knows,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “So being able to get our faces shown and just build that relationship inside the basketball community is something we’re looking forward to.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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