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What if USA Basketball Had Stuck With College Players

Shaq and Co. might have stll brought home the Gold in 1992.
Shaq and Co. might have stll brought home the Gold in 1992.

As the USA breezes through pool play in Men's Basketball, there are rumblings that this is the last time that the NBA will send its best for Olympic play. While, for reasons I'll get to in a minute, it is highly unlikely that the USA will ever send a team full of amateur players again, there is talk of a U23 model, similar to what is happening now (in part) in soccer. The USA managed to win gold medals in men's basketball, with one glaring (and unjust) exception, in every Olympiad up through 1984. The '84 team, which as a 13 year-old I was lucky enough to see in person twice twice, was filled with top level talent. It featured stars Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullins, Wayman Tisdale and role players like Alvin Robertson and Steve Alford. It would be the last amateur team to win Olympic Gold.

Three things changed since. First, the team of amateurs, even with a 24 year old David Robinson, lost in 1988. Second, basketball has since gone global. In 1984, few foreign players competed in the NBA. Now, the better Olympic teams all feature several guys with experience in the league. Finally, the current talent level in college basketball pales in comparison to the heyday in the mid-80s. As early entry into the draft has become the rule rather than the exception, the pool of elite amateur players has become thinner and younger.

With all that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to go back through the Dream Team era and repick the Olympic teams if the USA had continued sending only amateur players. After that, I'll examine how each team might have fared. These teams were compiled in consultation with All-American lists and NBA Draft records with an eye on team chemistry and filling certain roles. Quibble with them if you will, but they will at least give an idea of what kind of talent was available at the time. There should not be too many glaring omissions:


Name School Year
Shaquille O'Neal LSU Jr.
Christian Laettner Duke Sr.
Alonzo Mourning Georgetown Sr.
Jimmy Jackson Ohio St. Sr.
Grant Hill Duke So.
Bobby Hurley Duke Jr.
Jamal Mashburn Kentucky So.
Tracy Murray UCLA Jr.
Harold Minor USC Jr.
Walt Williams Maryland Sr.
Chris Webber Michigan Fr.
Penny Hardaway Memphis St. So.


Allen Iverson Georgetown So.
Marcus Camby UMass Jr.
Tony Delk Kentucky Sr.
Ray Allen UConn Jr.
Kerry Kittles Villanova Sr.
Erick Dampier Miss. St. Sr.
Tim Duncan* Wake Forrest Jr.
Jacque Vaughn Kansas Jr.
Stephon Marbury Georgia Tech Fr.
Antoine Walker Kentucky So.
John Wallace Syracuse Sr.
Keith Van Horn Utah Jr.

*Dual citizen, has competed for the US as a pro.


Kenyon Martin Cincinnati Sr.
Marcus Fizer Iown St. Jr.
Mike Miller Florida So.
Eddie House Arizona St. Sr.
Morris Peterson Michigan St. Sr.
Khalid El-Amin UConn Jr.
Shane Battier Duke Jr.
Troy Murphy Notre Dame So.
Stromile Swift LSU So.
MIchael Redd Ohio St. Jr.
Chris Carrawell Duke Sr.
Darius MIles East St. Louis HS


Emeka Okafor UConn Jr.
Ben Gordon UConn Jr.
Jameer Nelson St. Joe Sr.
Ryan Gomes Providence Jr.
Dwight Howard SW Atl. Christian HS
Devin Harris Wisconsin Jr.
Josh Childress Stanford Jr.
J.J. Reddick Duke So.
Chris Duhon Duke Sr.
Chris Paul Wake Forest Fr.
Deron Williams Illinois So.
Luke Jackson Oregon Sr.


Derrick Rose Memphis Fr.
Kevin Love UCLA Fr.
OJ Mayo USC Fr.
Blake Griffin Oklahoma Fr.
Russell Westbrook UCLA Fr.
Michael Beasley Kansas St. Fr.
Tyreke Evans American Christian HS
Tyler Hansbrough UNC Jr.
Stephen Curry Davidson So.
D.J. Augustin Texas So.
Roy Hibbert Georgetown Sr.
Chris Douglas-Roberts Memphis Sr.


Anthony Davis Kentucky Fr.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Kentucky Fr.
Bradley Beal Florida Fr.
Thomas Robinson Kansas Jr.
Jared Sullinger Ohio St. So.
Aaron Craft Ohio St. So.
Kendall Marshall UNC So.
Shabazz Muhammad Bishop Gorman HS.
Nerlens Noel Everett HS
Tyler Zeller UNC Sr.
Austin Rivers Duke Fr.
John Jenkins Vanderbilt Jr.

Not surprisingly, what we see here is a sort of reverse bell curve. The 1992 team would have been the strongest. With a front line featuring Shaq and Zo, several fantastic college upperclassmen, and precocious talents like Webber and Penny, this team likely would have medaled and contended for Gold. A game between this team and Croatia (featuring Toni Kukuc, Dino Rada and the late Drazen Pertovic). Wow.

In 1996, the team might have been competitive for a medal, but extremely unlikely to have taken home gold. There were transcendent players like Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan, but little depth. Chemistry would have been an issue. Lithuania would have been a tough matchup, and a Vlade Divac lead Yugoslavia would have given these guys fits.

Things seemed to bottom out in 2000. There is not one NBA star on that roster, and I was amazed at how hard it was to put together a team. The 1999 Draft featured a number of bigger named players: Elton Brand, Baron Davis, Lamar Odom and Rip Hamilton, all of whom left as underclassmen. Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady could have technically still been in college. This team might not have finished .500.

The 2004 team might have fared better. There were shooters, excellent point guards and a couple of upperclassmen to lead. But if you look at that roster, there is almost no bulk. Outside of Okafor, grown men would have pushed the entire squad around. I don't think the team would have made the medal stand. The pro team the USA haphazardly threw out that year barely did as it was. Manu Ginobili and Argentina beats them by 20.

The effect of the one and done rule is evident in 2008. The best players in college basketball that year were nearly all freshmen. It just so happens that a boatload of talent came in that year. Love, Rose, Griffin and Westbrook are among the world's best now, but were nowhere near finished products at 19. Argentina and Spain would have been way too much. The USA could have been in the next tier, but everything would have had to have fallen into place for them to get Bronze.

This years team would have been a ton of fun. A mix of Kentucky, UNC, Ohio St. players, along with a Dookie and a couple of high schoolers. Talent but no experience. A roster half full of NBA players would wear this team out. It would be a joy to watch, but looking at this team's makeup, it's easy to see while you'll never see college players, or at least a whole team of them, in the Olympics again.