BUENOS AIRES -- There now is an additional reason for the United States to put NBA players on its teams for international competition.
Besides greatly improving U.S. chances for victory, NBA players may be the only ones capable of keeping Yugoslavia from becoming the international dynasty of the 1990s.
Yugoslavia began to justify such a label Sunday night with its 92-75 victory over the Soviet Union in the gold medal game of the 11th World Championships. The win was as easy as the score indicates -- Yugoslavia led by 15 before the game was 10 minutes old and kept the Soviets at a safe distance the rest of the way.
As for the NBA challenge, which is likely to come in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Yugoslavia's players welcome it. Curious and respectable they are, but they aren't scared.
'I would like to see how we would do in a series against one of the good NBA teams,' said guard Drazen Petrovic, who scored a game-high 20 points against the Soviets after getting 31 in the 99-91 win over the United States in the semifinals.
'Our team is a very good one, and it's still young and can get better.'
It also wasn't as strong at the World Championships as it could be. Dino Radja, a 6-10 center who is maybe the best inside scorer in Europe, missed the tournament with a stress fracture in his right foot. Stojan Vrankovic, a 7-2 shotblocker, was a no-show because of a dispute with the national coach, Dusan Ivkovic.
With everybody available, the consensus is that Yugoslavia is good enough as an entry to make the NBA playoffs. Petrovic said he believes Yugoslavia could win at least 35 games in an NBA regular season.
Petrovic isn't just whistling high hopes. He was a backup guard last season on the Portland team that reached the NBA Finals, so he has some idea of the competition.
So does Vlade Divac, who made the NBA's all-rookie team with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Zarko Paspalj, who was on the roster of the San Antonio Spurs.
Then there is Toni Kukoc, a second-round pick of Chicago in the most recent NBA draft and the Yugoslavia player with the most potential. Kukoc, who plays some point guard at 6-9, is an exceptional athlete who can dominate through his ability to penetrate and set up others with his passing. Kukoc wants to makemoney in Europe before trying to play in the NBA, but his performance in the World Championships may accelerate his move.
Beyond the four stars, Yugoslavia had solid support players, led by 6-5 guard Zurij Zdovc. Though overshadowed by his celebrated teammates, Zdovc has a knack for making plays and shots at critical junctures in a game. When the Soviets rallied to within seven in the second half, Zdovc promptly hit two straight baskets, the second a 3-pointer.
While Yugoslavia is a veteran team in terms of international experience -- eight were members of the 1988 Olympic squad that finished second -- it also is considerably younger than any of its rivals, save for the U.S. college players.
Petrovic, Paspalj, Zdovc and Vrankovic are 25 or 26. Divac, Radja and Kukoc are 22. Promising reserve forward Arian Komazec is 20.
Yugoslavia's team will be in its prime for the '92 Olympics and the next World Championships, which appropriately will be in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1994. Even by the '96 Olympics, the team essentially should still be together.
By then, of course, Yugoslavia's team may be as NBA tested as any that the United States puts together.