Legendary NBA coach and USA Basketball men’s national team coach Gregg Popovich has praised the NBL, saying the league is getting “stronger and stronger”.
Popovich, who also coaches the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA leading them to five championships, believes the story of Andrew Bogut going back to the Golden State Warriors after winning NBL MVP is an example of how much the Australian league has grown.
“You probably wouldn’t have been able to say that (NBL players going back to the NBA) in the past, whether that might be 10 years ago or whatever,” Popovich said.
“It speaks volumes about the league in Australia, that the league has become stronger and stronger with clinics, coaching, player’s excitement about the game, the way it has grown.
“The fact the Australian league has become so strong that players can come over from there, it really says a lot about not just basketball in general but specifically how well Australia has grown.”
Popovich will lead a star-studded USA team into Australia this August, when they face the Boomers in a pair of FIBA World Cup warm-up games at Marvel Stadium.
USA Basketball named their extended squad for the World Cup and Boomers games this morning, a list comprised of Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Tobias Harris, Kyle Kuzma, Damian Lillard, Brook Lopez, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, CJ McCollum, Khris Middleton, Paul Millsap, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, PJ Tucker, Myles Turner and Kemba Walker.
That squad will be cut to 12 players for the World Cup and warm-up games against Australia.
Despite having a team of NBA stars at his disposal, Popovich understands the Boomers are going to push Team USA to the limit, as Australia boasts one of their most talented teams ever.
“It’s obviously a talented group,” Popovich said of the Boomers.
“They’re NBA players for a reason that goes without saying but beyond that, I think the group has a wonderful basketball IQ. They’re basketball players, they’re not just one-on-one players.
“They’re people who know how to play and they enjoy playing with each other. It’s a given all the countries that USA plays against want to beat them badly and they come together as a family to do that.
“They play together a lot and their experience and natural inclination for the game is pretty obvious. I expect the Australians to be a major factor in the World Cup.
“I’ve been watching film on various teams we may have to compete against and coach (Andrej) Lemanis’ team moves and reads each other better than most.
“I have a deep respect for players and coaches all over the world, which makes it even more exciting and challenging.”
Playing against Team USA is one of the most anticipated fixtures on the calendar for opposing countries.
A combination of the history behind American basketball and the numerous NBA All-Stars that don the USA uniform makes other nations step their game up against them.
Popovich isn’t oblivious to that fact, alluding to the pressure that comes with coaching Team USA, as they often play the best version of the opposing country.
“I’m not going to try and fool you, I’m a human being, I feel the pressure,” Popovich said.
“I’ve watched all the games for the last 12 years, some have been close, some have been blowouts, that’s how sport is.
“As a coach you’re a little bit of a paranoid person in some respect because you know that things can go one way or another. From my perspective, a 40-minute game is very different to a 48-minute NBA game.
“We need to play very well from the beginning to the end of the game to secure a victory. The pressure is there, I can definitely feel it. If I didn’t, that would be a problem.
“It doesn’t matter what game that I go into, 82 regular season games or playoff games, I feel that anxiety before every single game. I think that’s important because when that stops you should probably stop coaching.”
One of the Australian players Popovich has a direct link to is Patty Mills, as he also coaches him at the Spurs.
The three-time NBA Coach of the Year spoke glowingly of Mills’ attitude, saying coaching against him will be a unique situation.
“He is going to try and beat us, which he should,” Popovich said.
“In all honesty, it will be a little bit strange to see him play against us. He has been a brilliant player and a wonderful human being, and he has been that important to the national team in Australia.
“He is one of those special people who all of us fall in love with. It will be odd playing against him but it will be in good faith, it will be competitive and whatever the outcome, I will live with.”
The commitment of Ben Simmons to the Boomers team has bolstered Australian basketball, and Popovich thinks the Philadelphia 76ers’ star pledging his allegiance to the national team is wonderful for the sport in Australia.
“I think it’s fantastic that he is playing,” Popovich said.
“The better the competition, the better the games and the more important each one becomes, the more you value winning.
“Having Ben there is a huge addition of talent and it shows how important he and all his mates feel about this and how they want to be successful and want to come together.”
The Australian Boomers warm-up schedule ahead of the 2019 FIBA World Cup:
August 16: Boomers vs. Canada Basketball at RAC Arena in Perth. Tickets available via Ticketek
August 17: Boomers vs. Canada Basketball at RAC Arena in Perth. Tickets available via Ticketek
August 22: Boomers vs. USA Basketball at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne. Tickets available via Ticketmaster
August 24: Boomers vs. USA Basketball at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne. Tickets available via Ticketmaster