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The 2017 draft class finding its footing on the big stage for USA Basketball

LA Daily News logo LA Daily News 8/18/2019 Kyle Goon

ANAHEIM, CA - AUGUST 16:   Donovan Mitchell #53 of the USA Men's National Team goes for a basket during the game against Spain at Honda Center on August 16, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) © Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images ANAHEIM, CA - AUGUST 16: Donovan Mitchell #53 of the USA Men's National Team goes for a basket during the game against Spain at Honda Center on August 16, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) ANAHEIM — You have to understand: One-upsmanship is nothing new between Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell.

It might be possible that the dunks really had nothing to do with each other — that after Tatum rose up for a one-handed jam in the first half on Friday night against Spain, Mitchell skirted past a Spanish defender two minutes later and rocked the rim himself. But assuming that would be ignoring how long a history those two have, dating back to their days as high school prospects, and how competitive they can be.

“We grew up playing against each other,” Tatum said. “It’s cool to see how far along we’ve come.”

For a certain generation, the pace has picked up, and many of them are farther along than they expected. The 2017 draft class — which includes Mitchell, Tatum and Kyle Kuzma — has been well-represented through the process so far, thanks in part to superstars dropping out, but also thanks to strong starts to their careers in just two seasons. Before dropping out on Saturday morning, De’Aaron Fox — a noted standout from two weeks of training camp — was also in that group, one which could see a significant visibility boost if all goes well next month at the FIBA World Cup in China.

These things tend to happen in cycles. The original Dream Team is famous for how many Hall of Famers it boasted, but Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing among others from the 1984 and 1985 draft classes were in their primes. The 2003 draft class (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh) was at the heart of a operatic national team saga that saw them return from a 2004 bronze medal disappointment to the “Redeem Team” gold in 2008. The last Olympic gold medal team in Rio in 2016 was staffed chiefly by the draft classes of 2010 and 2011, and Kemba Walker on the current team hails from that class.

Could the 2017 class be one of those special groups? While they’re probably being vaulted into crucial national team roles ahead of schedule, USA Basketball has hopes of grooming them into another fertile generation.

“Those guys come in every day and work hard, despite what everybody’s saying about the team,” said P.J. Tucker, who lauded the 2017 class for their first two weeks of camp. “I think they’re gonna come in and surprise people throughout this whole process.”

“What everybody’s saying” about the team amounts to doubt. This incarnation of USA Basketball has fewer proven stars than most others in the last 25 years. Coach Gregg Popovich made special note that the Spanish team, which the US beat on Friday night 90-81 in an exhibition, had an easy flowing chemistry on offense that his own team lacks. The subtext is that many of the Spaniards have been playing together for many years, and the US group is more thrown together, still trying to find a sense of cohesiveness.

In that environment, however, close bonds might be able to stand out more. Kuzma and Mitchell, for example, are friends dating back to the summer when they were drafted, and the duo worked out together even before reporting to national team camp in Las Vegas.

“We really formed our relationship from being doubted,” he said. “It’s good to have someone who pushes you.”

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That dynamic is powerful still for Team USA, which outsiders have recognized as vulnerable after winning golds in the last two FIBA World Cups. But Olympic basketball also tends to help define and enhance the stars still to come: Players such as Anthony Davis, James Harden and yes, even James, played for the national team before earning their first All-Star berth.

While there hasn’t been an All-Star yet from the draft class, there could be one as soon as next year. But there’s a lot of steps between now and then, and proving they belong on the world stage comes first for the 2017 class with big expectations. But even though the pressure might seem on, they seem to be enjoying finding their way there.

“Playing with a team of stars, it’s actually fun,” Kuzma said. “You want to make the extra pass, you want to cheer on your team, you want to play the right way because of the USA standard. It’s been a blast.”

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