Team USA a cautious FIBA World Cup favorite as Las Vegas training camp, global barnstorming tour begin

LAS VEGAS – Twenty-four thoughts for the average age of the 12 Americans (24.4 years) on Team USA as they begin training camp for the 2023 FIBA World Cup today on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

1. This is the basketball World Cup, not women’s soccer. Just wanted to clear that up.

2. For the rest of the “what you need to know” portion of this: The FIBA World Cup starts Aug. 25. Preliminary rounds are in three different countries – the Philippines, Japan, and Indonesia – with elimination rounds in the Philippines. The Americans will play every game in Manila, capital of the Philippines. Their first game is Aug. 26 against New Zealand. Greece and Jordan are also in Team USA’s pool. Got it?

3. What’s at stake this summer? Global supremacy on the hardcourt for about 11 months, because next summer are the highly anticipated 2024 Olympics in Paris. So if we can all assume that winning this tournament is the most important thing, the second is simply to play well, place high and qualify for Paris.

4. All Team USA needs to do to qualify for the Olympics is be one of the top two finishers from the Americas, which is precisely what they did at the 2019 World Cup in China. Despite finishing seventh overall, its worst-ever finish at a tournament in which it sent NBA players, Team USA still placed second among Western hemisphere teams, behind runner-up Argentina.

5. The consequences of 2019, other than some homeland ridicule (from me and most other media covering that team)? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Spain won the World Cup and is ranked No. 1 in the world, but the Americans won their fourth consecutive Olympic gold in Tokyo anyway. The Olympics seems to be the more important of the two tournaments – at least as far as NBA players are concerned. USA Basketball’s staff cares equally about both, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver said for one of the tournaments – doesn’t matter which – the Americans and other countries should send players age 23 and under. And here is where this conversation really begins.

6. The previous two-year cycle of international play – the 2019 Cup and 2020 Olympics, held in 2021 because of COVID-19 – taught us once and for all that no matter who is on Team USA’s roster, be they A-listers, B-listers or a mix, winning on a global stage is not easy and certainly not a given. When the Americans lost a stunning exhibition to Nigeria in Las Vegas two summers ago, I wrote a blistering critique under the blaring headline: “Does Team USA’s stunning loss to Nigeria prove American exceptionalism in basketball is dead?” The coach at the time, Gregg Popovich, who is going into the Hall of Fame later this month, clashed with me after the loss. Then, Team USA lost its first Olympic game, to France, and had a couple other close calls. Of course, the Americans won gold anyway, barely holding off France in the finals, behind a memorable performance from Kevin Durant. The argument between Pop and I started over a line of questioning he didn’t like, but the crux of the issue was this: what should be expected of Team USA in these tournaments? Pop’s point was that the utter dominance and undefeated tours we were used to with the 1992 Dream and 2008 Redeem teams had long faded, while I contended that the fading was a much more recent event.

7. Either way, those days are gone now, and that’s probably a good thing for both tournaments, the global game and even for U.S. fans who want something interesting to watch in the summers. For me, it means judging Team USA far more on what happens in the present, and on the end result, than on past precedent or how bumpy the journey gets.

Steve Kerr is now the head coach of USA Basketball. (Photo: Kyle Terada / USA TODAY)

8. Another quick refresher: Steve Kerr is coaching Team USA now. The players for this tournament are Jalen Brunson, Tyrese Haliburton, Mikal Bridges, Austin Reaves, Anthony Edwards, Brandon Ingram, Jaren Jackson Jr., Paolo Banchero, Bobby Portis, Cam Johnson, Josh Hart and Walker Kessler. It’s a roster with no returnees from the Olympics, and no one, in fact, with any U.S. national team experience.

9. On the surface, this team might seem like the group of Americans who went to China four years ago and struggled. But in reality, Kerr, new managing director Grant Hill and longtime general manager Sean Ford learned from that experience. This roster, on paper, is much better equipped for World Cup play. By my count, there are at least 10 legitimate two-way players on Team USA, and if you want to add in Hart’s 37 percent shooting from 3-point range, I’ll give you 11. Kessler is a competent offensive player, but he’s just getting started. There are two bona fide shot blockers in Jackson and Kessler, and Ingram, Banchero and Portis can all play defense in the middle in FIBA play, too. All the guards are tall, thick or both, so there are none of those small, slight guards who get chewed up in international play. Finally, Team USA was pieced together by invitation only. There was no tryout. No one suffered the indignity of being pitted against another player he believes he is above. Trust me: this matters when piecing together a cohesive roster with parts that fit and belong on a global stage.



Team USA unveils roster for FIBA World Cup

10. There are some star-ish players on this roster. Haliburton, Edwards and Jackson were All-Stars last season. Ingram has been an All-Star. Jackson is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Banchero is the reigning Rookie of the Year.

11. If you ask me, the top four in Kerr’s rotation will be Jackson (anchoring the defense), Brunson (running the offense), Bridges (the 3 and D man on the wing) and Ingram (perhaps the pre-eminent bucket getter). That means Edwards, Haliburton and Reaves are vying for that fifth starting spot. Edwards could be the most talented player on the roster, and certainly the most explosive with the ball in his hands, and wind up coming off the bench anyway. Remember, Dwyane Wade led the 2008 Redeem Team in scoring (with LeBron, Kobe and Melo) while coming off the bench.

12. Banchero is 6-10 and 250 pounds, the perfect frame for FIBA play. He can score in the post and in the mid-range, and is a versatile rebounder and passer. Also, he had basically committed to play for Italy before changing his mind and joining Team USA. What was he promised or told to make that decision? Maybe nothing, but I have him penciled in as a rotation player.

13. When Kerr and Hill held a press conference during NBA Summer League, Kerr said Team USA would “need everybody.” Which means the last four players we haven’t mentioned – Johnson, Portis, Hart and Kessler – should have a chance to contribute. At the same time, in these close games against the best teams, Kerr will shrink his rotation and there will be odd men out. It takes players with patience, character and discipline to handle such a role when they’re used to playing major minutes for their NBA teams. Johnson can defend and knock down 3s, as can Portis. Kessler can block shots if Johnson gets in foul trouble, and Hart is an excellent defender who is willing to sacrifice his body for wins.



Weights, protein shakes and Team USA prep: How Walker Kessler spent his summer

14. What’s the rest of the world look like? Team Canada is loaded with NBA talent. Luka Dončić makes the Slovenians an immediate threat. Victor Wembanyama is sitting out the World Cup for France, but the French didn’t have him when they nearly won gold in Tokyo. Nikola Jokić is out for the Serbians, which is a major blow. We still don’t know about Giannis Antetokounmpo with Greece; he’s on the roster, but missed the team photo Monday (apparently vacationing with his mother in Africa) and is still recovering from minor knee surgery. The Australians have a bunch of NBA players, including Josh Giddey, Patty Mills and Joe Ingles. The defending champs, Spain, have fewer NBA players than we’re used to seeing, though Ricky Rubio is suiting up again. Karl-Anthony Towns is playing for the Dominican Republic. The Germans will have NBA talent. It’s a deep tournament.

15. There are two basic themes at the outset of the World Cup, as far as the Americans are concerned: How does this team jell and fare when the games count, and who from the 2023 American team makes it onto the 2024 Olympic roster? There is so much speculation about who will be on that team – Steph Curry? Durant again? Jayson Tatum? LeBron? Anthony Davis? – but I can promise that the best players for an American team that wins the FIBA World Cup would get a serious look next summer. It’s a long way from here to there.

16. Kerr is a winner of four NBA rings as coach of the Warriors, a Popovich disciple and worldly man who lived as a boy in the Middle East. His first assistant is Erik Spoelstra, a two-time champion coach of the Miami Heat, who is coming off two finals losses in three years and may well be promoted to succeed Kerr whenever he steps down (which won’t be until after Paris, at minimum). Tyronn Lue is a champion coach for the 2016 Cavaliers, now directs the Clippers, and thrives on game planning for individual opponents in a playoff setting. The other Team USA coach is Mark Few of Gonzaga, who’s guided the Bulldogs to two NCAA Final Fours. I’ll leave the Few analysis to college experts, but Kerr, Spoelstra, and Lue are three of the best coaches in the NBA, each with slightly different strengths who should mesh well with each other. Can they get the most out of the players Hill and Kerr assembled? I bet yes, but obviously we’ll see.

17. Training camp in Vegas is five days, and concludes Aug. 7 with an exhibition game against Puerto Rico. We go to Malaga, Spain, a beach community on the southern Spanish coast, across the Alboran Sea from Africa. (I’m not on the team, but am on the beat, so where Team USA goes, I go). While there, Team USA will practice and play two exhibition games: against Dončić and Slovenia on Aug. 12, and against Spain on the 13th. Then, it’s on to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, for another week of practice and games against Greece (Giannis?) on Aug. 18 and Germany on Aug. 20.

18. This is a much longer incubation period for Team USA than either the 2019 or 2021 teams had. Why do I bring this up? A common complaint/excuse/reason offered when the Americans struggle in international play is a lack of continuity compared to other countries. That’s still an issue for USAB, but the Americans have at least a little more time to get on the same page this summer.

19. In my two years covering Popovich on Team USA, I loved to write about the “wine soaked dinners” for which he is famous. What will the team-bonding activities be this time? Pickleball? Maybe, but I suspect Kerr has better ideas. You know what brings a new team together faster and better than anything? Winning.

20. Team USA’s record against Greece, Jordan and New Zealand is 6-1 all time, with its lone loss coming against Greece in 2006. So long as the Americans advance from pool play (they will), they’d play one of the top two teams out of Mexico, Lithuania, Montenegro and Egypt in the next stage.

21. Should anything happen to force any of the American 12 to depart (injury, COVID, family matter), a replacement would likely come from the U.S. Select Team, which will also be at training camp in Las Vegas. Those players include Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren, Quentin Grimes, Chet Holmgren, Payton Pritchard, Naz Reid, Herb Jones, Trey Murphy, Keegan Murray and Jalen Williams.

22. Langston Galloway, John Jenkins, and Eric Mika are also on the Select Team, but are not currently NBA players. What’s cool about their presence on the Select Team? They were among the 52 players who played for the U.S. during the lengthy, two-year qualifying process for the World Cup. While we were vacationing in the summer and worrying about the NBA in the fall, winter, and spring, there was a U.S. national team, coached by former Chicago Bulls head coach Jim Boylen, playing in sparsely populated gyms on two continents, that scratched out enough wins to qualify for the World Cup.

23. Bridges, Brunson, Edwards, Jackson, Haliburton and Ingram were all on past U.S. Select teams.

24. The U.S. has won five World Cups. I am predicting a sixth, on Sept. 10 in Manila.

(Top photo of Steve Kerr and Grant Hill: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)

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