U18 and U17 Junior National Teams Assemble for Camps and Trials
One has been in the role for more than 20 years. The other is just starting but has been around USA Basketball long enough to understand the expectations.
Together, men’s national team director Sean Ford and women’s national team director Briana Weiss are responsible for bringing together players and building rosters for each five-on-five tournament in which USA Basketball competes.
Their goal is simple yet demanding: uphold the standards of USA Basketball and win every competition possible. It is a method that has produced tremendous results, with gold medals in the last seven Olympics on the women’s side and the past four on the men’s.
Those results are built on a foundation of what happens at the younger levels, which is why selections for USA Basketball Junior National Teams are done thoughtfully. This summer, USA Basketball will field four teams at the junior national level – both men’s and women’s at the FIBA U18 Americas Championships in June and both at the FIBA U17 World Cups in July. Trials and training camps – each featuring upward of 30-plus athletes vying for 12 roster spots – begin May 26 for the men’s U18 and women’s U17, with the other camps following in short order.
Ford, Weiss and their staffs are putting together junior-level teams in addition to their responsibilities on their respective senior national teams, which includes the FIBA Women’s World Cup in September.
“We always want to make sure we have a fair and equitable process,” said Weiss, who had been assistant director since May 2019 before being named to succeed director Carol Callan in October. “We want to ensure that, to the best of our ability, everyone enjoys the experience. Everyone understands that we have to get down to a roster of 12, but for a lot of athletes this is the first time that they’ve engaged with USA Basketball and we want to have a great first impression.”
The women invited 40 players to the U17 trials and 31 athletes to the U18 trials in Colorado Springs, Colorado, while the men have 27 at the U18 training camp in Houston before the to-be-announced U17 athletes descend on Colorado Springs in June.
Getting down to the final 12-player roster involves difficult decisions, but there is generally a formula used by the selection committee, coaches and other observers over the brief period the players are together.
“Usually when we have a roster of 12 players, we traditionally end up with one player that’s a true point guard and one player that’s a true center,” said Ford, who has been with USA Basketball since 1999 and ascended to his current position in 2001. “And then the other 10 typically are capable of playing at least two positions. Identifying what everyone’s primary position is and then identifying the players who can play multiple positions, that’s a lot of what the first couple of days is.”
Finalizing the roster isn’t just taking a look at recruit rankings and picking the consensus top 12 players. Instead, evaluators watch how players mesh with each other in different combinations.
“USA Basketball is team-first, that’s what we live by,” Weiss said. “You know, the old adage ‘there’s no I in team.’ We’re here for the greater good and going off to compete with the hopes of winning a gold medal. We do ask athletes to assume roles that perhaps they haven’t had an experience doing or isn’t what they obviously do with their high school teams or on their club teams. We are fortunate enough that we’re able to watch athletes embrace that, be a part of the USA Basketball goal, be part of the team goal. It’s fun to watch that unfold.”
The downside of naming 12-player rosters for events is having to tell the others they didn’t make it to the next round. Remember, for the most part, the Junior National Teams are comprised of high school players who are often the top player not only on their hometown team, but in the state.
Ford never cuts players, instead naming finalists for whatever comes next. While many could see that as semantics, it is part of the developmental process of creating a positive experience for those involved. For context, Ford said that between the NBA and the G League, there are about 800 players on rosters. Internationally, there are about another 500 “great” players, meaning there are 1,300 with the elite skills to play high-level hoops among the world’s 7 billion people.
“For me, I think I want them to feel a part of USA Basketball, because they are,” Ford said. “It’s very hard to make a USA Basketball team. You’ve accomplished something great if you are in a training camp and we want you to still be part of the program and come back and maybe come to a minicamp, where we train elite players without deciding who we like for a roster and who we don’t. Everyone’s there to get better. I just think it’s a more inclusive situation. I want people to feel pride they are at camp and not be disappointed if they aren’t selected. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t good.”
Decisions on inviting players to camps and finalizing rosters involves a selection committee that changes with each age level and gender. Generally, committees have six members and include at least two former players. Current and former coaches, from either high school or college depending on the team being selected, are also part of the process. A selection committee also vets and picks the head coach and two assistants, as well as what are known as court coaches. Court coaches play a key role with the large number of camp invitees and make sure players are properly and equally evaluated. Typically, court coaches are around for the first few days of camp until the number of players is reduced and more hands-on instruction is given to the remaining finalists.
USA Basketball likes to promote from previous teams. As an example, Tad Boyle — the coach at the University of Colorado — is the head coach of the men’s U18 this summer. He started as a court coach for the 2013 Men’s World University Games training camp, then was an assistant at the 2015 Pan American Games and the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup. That type of continuity keeps the ethics and philosophies, on and off the court, at the standard USA Basketball expects.
“Obviously, we look at the resume,” Weiss said. “But just like with our players, it also is a nuanced experience being a head coach or an assistant coach for a national team. At some point we’ve probably already engaged with these coaches before they are named to a coaching staff. They’ve come as a court coach, for instance, so we’ve been able to interact with them and they’ve been able to interact with us, they’ve had a chance to have a touch point with USA Basketball. It goes both ways.”
Even though the years go by and names change, the philosophy that Ford and Weiss are charged with carrying forward stands the test of time. And while USA Basketball continues to haul in gold medals at all the age levels, the base that is created with the junior national teams is important to keeping the standard high and creating goodwill internationally.
“It’s important that we go to these tournaments, it’s important that we play hard as we can, represent our country well and try to play to the highest level,” Ford said. “The other countries are getting better and better and that should make us better. But sometimes it’s a challenge when you’re perceived to be, on paper, we’re the No. 1-ranked (basketball) country. So everyone’s coming after us and sometimes it’s hard to improve when you’re already perceived to be on top, but you have to do what it takes to make sure you maintain that.”