Kobe cautious over US chances at World Cup

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Kobe Bryant and Yang Chaoyue, a member of idol group Rocket Girls 101, chat on stage during Saturday's FIBA World Cup draw ceremony in Shenzhen. [Photo/Xinhua]

Kobe Bryant reckons complacency could be Team USA's biggest enemy as it seeks to win a third successive FIBA World Cup title this year.

NBA great Bryant, who inspired his country to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, hopes the USA's latest squad of superstars don't think glory is a given at this year's tournament, which will take place in China from Aug 31-Sept 15.

"It's always a challenge. That's for sure," Bryant told China Daily ahead of Saturday's World Cup draw ceremony in Shenzhen.

"Make no mistake about it-it's not going to be something that they show up and they play and they win. That's just not going to happen."

As the event's global ambassador, Bryant, who retired in 2016, carried out the draw with Chinese Basketball Association chairman Yao Ming and American pop singer Jason Derulo.

Team USA was drawn in Group E with Turkey, the Czech Republic and Japan, with all those matches to be played in Shanghai.

Bryant believes rising standards in the international game mean a defeat is not inconceivable for the USA, which should have reigning NBA MVP James Harden among its ranks after the Houston Rockets ace declared his intention to play at the tournament.

"Nowadays teams not only believe that they can beat USA, but they feel like they should," said the 18-time NBA All Star. "Imagine saying (beat USA) in 1992… nobody would say it. That told you how much the game has grown internationally."

After enthralling the world with jaw-dropping performances at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the US "Dream Team" lost its luster at the turn of the century after failing to lift any trophies at three world championships (1998-2006) and the 2004 Athens Games.

Desperate to restore the country's dominance on the court, a group of A-list stars led by Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade signed up for a shot at redemption at the 2008 Olympics.

And Bryant reckons the USA's current crop could do well to model themselves on that vintage squad.

"It was just about the education from my part for them to really respect every single opponent," Bryant said of his role on the Redeem Team, which beat Spain in the Beijing final.

"The biggest thing for us was to put aside some arrogance that we are bigger, stronger and faster.

"You can't look at them and say, 'OK, let's beat them by 30'… I am like, 'Oh no, that's not going to work.'"

Bryant feels assured, though, that Team USA has the right head coach at the helm in Gregg Popovich, of the San Antonio Spurs, who has taken over from Bryant's old mentor, Mike Krzyzewski.

"Coach Pop is going to want the players with certain styles. He understands what it means to build a team that can compete at this level internationally."

Speaking about the draw, Popovich said: "We'll face three well-coached teams and a variety of playing styles.

"Selecting and preparing the USA team in a short amount of time will be a challenge and repeating as gold medalists for a third straight FIBA World Cup is something everyone associated with the USA team will embrace."

The evolving international game and the league's widening talent search has resulted in a surge of foreign players in the NBA, where 108 non-Americans from a record-tying 42 countries and regions were named on opening-night rosters this season.

The likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and Luka Doncic of Slovenia are leading lights in the league and now the World Cup is set to benefit, according to two former NBA stars who attended Saturday's draw.

"We've seen over the past years that the gap has been closed," said Boris Diaw, a 2014 NBA champion with the Phoenix Suns and a World Cup bronze-medal winner with France in the same year.

"The US is still the best team out there but the gap is not as much as it used to be. The rest of the world's teams believe they can compete as well."

Former Utah Jazz star Andrei Kirilenko, now the commissioner of the Russian Basketball Federation, echoed that sentiment.

"The US has the biggest chance, but it all comes down to the one game and in that one game anything can happen," he said.

"Other teams, like Spain and France, have good potential to beat the US."

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