Kobe Bryant has a message for USA Basketball going into the FIBA World Cup: Be ready.
Bryant, the two-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. and one of the global ambassadors for this summer's World Cup, spent part of his Saturday night at the tournament draw ceremony in China with his hands on the Naismith Trophy — the one that will be presented to the nation that wins the title on Sept. 15.
The U.S. has won the last two World Cups. A third straight gold medal, Bryant warned, might not come easily.
"I think the parity is unlike it's ever been before," Bryant said in a telephone interview after the draw in Shenzhen, China. "I think it's a testament to how much the game is growing. But you can absolutely see one of these emerging countries come forward and have a big tournament. You know how tournaments go — one team gets momentum and gets hot, then off you go."
The U.S. will be coached at this World Cup — and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, should it qualify — by San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose rosters with the Spurs have usually had a certain international flair.
Popovich's understanding of the international player and the global game, Bryant said, should help the U.S. this summer.
"Pop is so well-suited for it," Bryant said. "The championship teams they had in San Antonio were predominantly international players to begin with, right? I think the challenge is getting him to have the players on this team understand that players you have never heard about, you have never seen before, are great players. We tend to think that, 'OK, if you're a great international player, I'll know you because you'll be in the NBA.' That's not true all the time.
"The guys have to be well-prepared," Bryant added. "Have them do their homework. Have them do their research."
The U.S. is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp at Las Vegas in early August. The tournament starts on Aug. 31 and if the Americans make the gold-medal game, they'll be playing in China through Sept. 15 — or roughly two weeks before NBA training camps open, half a world away.
Bryant said he hopes the relatively short time between the end of the World Cup and start of NBA practice doesn't deter potential U.S. players from participating. The U.S. has a pool of 35 NBA players under consideration for the team, including more than a dozen current All-Stars.
"You're playing for your country and that can't be understated," Bryant said. "It's our small role of doing what we can for our great nation. And on top of that, your career is going to be over before you know it. You're going to blink and you'll be retired. You'll wish you had those experiences. So don't leave anything on the table. If you're healthy enough to play, you absolutely should play."