For the Olympics, USA men's basketball has a sizable fix to fight a bully problem

Follow our Olympics coverage in the lead-up to the Paris Games.

LAS VEGAS — On training camp eve last Friday, after all the bro hugs and posing for pictures, Team USA’s 12 star players heard a peculiar message from the coaching staff.

It was strange because of the audience. Coach Steve Kerr and assistant coach Tyronn Lue told the Olympians assembled in the room that last summer’s World Cup team was “bullied” during that tournament, especially as play inched close to the basket.

Only two players from the 2023 American team are part of the group Kerr is taking to Paris, and neither is a forward or center.

And yet …

“They feel like we got bullied last year,” said Anthony Davis, one of the 2024 Team USA superstars who had nothing to do with last summer but whose presence is expected to help stop the bullying.

Size and defensive rebounding were the Americans’ underbelly last summer. Jaren Jackson Jr. was the only traditional big in the starting lineup, but he was prone to fouls and was asked to play center instead of power forward. Generally speaking, Kerr played smaller lineups, and in losing three of their final four games at the World Cup, the U.S. was often gutted on the glass and in the paint.

The size disadvantage was so glaring last summer that in games against Montenegro, Lithuania and Germany the U.S. was outscored on second-chance points 64-13. The Americans lost two of those games and three out of their last four.

The Olympic team was always going to look different from the squad representing the U.S. at the World Cup, because that’s how USA Basketball’s men’s program works. But what American executives Grant Hill and Sean Ford came up with is almost an overcorrection — Team USA is taking to Paris perhaps the biggest, most talented frontcourt since 1996 when the Americans sent Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and David Robinson to the Atlanta Olympics.

There is Davis, who is 6-10 but has a 7-6 wingspan. He averaged 12.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks last season for the Los Angeles Lakers, en route to a first-team All-Defense honor.

Joel Embiid is 7-foot and weighs about 280 pounds. Embiid is one of the NBA’s greatest scoring threats, having averaged a career-high 34.7 points per game last season for the Philadelphia 76ers (not that Davis is a slouch; he averaged 24.7 points for the Lakers) with 11 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.

Bam Adebayo is the short straw of Team USA’s bigs, at 6-9, but was the Americans’ starting center for the Tokyo Olympics and is coming off a first-team All-Defense honor himself.

“Probably everybody knows it’s hard to bully me,” Embiid said. “And it’s hard to bully those other guys.”

“I feel like we will definitely set the tone early, no matter who is in the game,” Adebayo added. “I feel like the tone will be set from the start to the finish.”

Wednesday marks the first chance for the U.S. to prove the point. The first exhibition game of the summer is at 10:30 p.m. ET against Canada, arguably the second-most talented team in the Olympics and who defeated the Americans in the bronze-medal game at the World Cup.

Size and rebounds weren’t the chief issues in that overtime loss for the U.S., but defense in general was. Dillon Brooks erupted for 39 points and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 31.

“They’ve gotta guard. They’ve gotta play defense,” Brooks said Monday night after Canada’s first Vegas practice, when asked what he thought of the decided upgrades the U.S. made from one summer to the next.

After size was an issue at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Team USA has bulked up for the Olympics, headlined by All-Defense honoree Anthony Davis. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

On paper, at least, size in the post is not a Canadian strength. Zach Edey is a massive human, but he is not on the team this summer — choosing instead to play NBA Summer League as a rookie with Memphis. The Canadians may rely on Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell as their two NBA bigs.

But Embiid, Davis, and Adebayo have the chance to not only help the U.S. against teams that do have size (such as France, which will start 7-footers Victor Wembanyama and Rudy Gobert together, and Serbia, with Nikola Jokić), but also to establish a team identity built on toughness and defense. If LeBron James (who can be unmovable at 6-8 and 260 pounds, if he so chooses) and Kevin Durant (a 6-11 forward with rim-protecting skill) pitch in defensively, it would only reinforce the identity the three American bigs aim to create.

The 2023 World Cup team, on the other hand, was the worst defensive team in U.S. national team history.

“We feel like size, physicality, rebounding ability — we feel like we’ve addressed that,” said Erik Spoelstra, an assistant under Kerr and Adebayo’s head coach on the Miami Heat. “These are Hall of Fame rebounders that we have on this roster.”

Lue, like Spoelstra, took questions from reporters Tuesday after practice — the Americans’ last in Las Vegas for the summer. When he was asked why it was important to tell a room full of stars who largely were not on the court for the U.S. last year that the Americans had been pushed around, he shot back: “How do you know that?” When he was told the players (Davis) had ratted him out, he relented.

“Over there (internationally) the game is different,” said Lue, who is also the head coach for the Los Angeles Clippers. “Here (in the NBA), you can’t really touch guys, can’t be physical. Over there (Team USA) found out that they can be physical, they can run guys over, use your hands. It was just a different game, and we weren’t prepared for it. And (so) we talked about it (Friday night).”

Asked if he believes this iteration of USA Basketball, with Embiid’s broad shoulders, Adebayo’s tenacity, and Davis’ reach, was ready to prove it understands the point Lue and Kerr made before training camp began, Lue said with a big grin:

“Yeah, I think so.”

Every U.S. national team is going to have superior speed, 3-point shooting and ball handling compared to most opponents, with Canada as an exception (let’s face it: Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best players in the NBA, and Jamal Murray is in a lofty tier right behind him). The factor that makes the U.S. beatable has been size. Those three losses last summer, two of the three losses the Americans endured in 2021 (counting exhibition and the Olympics), and the brutal, seventh-place finish at the 2019 World Cup were all caused primarily by deficiencies in size and physicality.

Those deficiencies no longer exist.

“Do you see this team?” Adebayo said, incredulously. “I don’t disrespect any other country at all, so. So don’t let that be your headline. But, you know, you put a team together like this and you get compared to the Dream Team, it kind of puts it in perspective of how great this team can be. …

“You put a team like this together, and we play the right way, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”

(Top photo of Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid at Team USA training camp: Mercedes Oliver / NBAE via Getty Images)

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