MANILA, Philippines — The Americans did not accomplish what they set out to accomplish this summer, and there is nothing to be done about it now.
Yes, there is still a game to be played for Team USA at the World Cup on Sunday, against the Canadians, no less, and, for the Americans’ sake, one can only hope that pride and professionalism take over and they take this bronze medal game seriously.
But third place versus fourth? Nah, it’s not what the USAB pros shoot for. It’s first place, or take a hike, and first ain’t happenin’ after Friday night’s loss to Germany in the semifinals. However, one shouldn’t consider the USA team’s experience for 2023 a waste, by any stretch.
U.S. falls to Germany in FIBA WC semifinal
“I think I’ve been able to learn a lot from a lot of really good players, a lot of really good coaches, and basically just see that I belong,” Austin Reaves said.
For as single-minded as USA Basketball is when it comes down to deciding what “success” means in any tournament (win or else), it’s a program that’s built as much on individual career development as it is on gold medals.
Team USA has historically been a launching pad for stardom (see Kevin Durant, circa 2010), for history-altering partnerships to form (see the Heatles), and, for players and coaches who aren’t named “KD,” or LeBron, or “Coach K,” to enjoy growth opportunities that may not have otherwise existed. We have already chronicled what this tournament has meant for a rising star like Anthony Edwards.
USA Basketball deep thinkers want players of all skill levels to come to the program with the belief that they will be better for it.
Heading into Sunday’s game against Canada, Reaves is third on Team USA in scoring (12.4 ppg), tied for second in steals (1.3 steals per game), and when the games are close, Kerr has him out on the floor as one of the five guys counted on to win the game. He’s shooting 52 percent from 3-point range for the tournament, and poured in 21 points in that two-point loss to Germany.
Think this experience might help him on a deep Laker team, with title hopes, an aging LeBron James desperate for one more ring?
“I feel like I have competed at a high level,” Reaves said. “Obviously I have things to work on, but I feel like I can hit the ground running for the first of the year.”
The New York Knicks reached the second round of the playoffs last season, and gave the Miami Heat a fight in the conference semifinals. There are two players from that on this USA iteration, including Jalen Brunson, whose career trajectory was already headed due north before he signed on with Team USA.
Brunson is among the USA players who are clearly bummed out by what happened Friday, who won’t try to sugarcoat the devastation of losing a chance at a World Cup title with prose about playing Canada for third place. He’s averaging 10.7 points and 4.3 assists, and if you ask him of his opinion of how he’s played in a few of these games, his self review is somewhat critical.
But when asked what positives he would take away from his USA experience, the first thing he said was: “In my past, I’ve seen that a lot of players who have done this, going into that (next NBA) year have great years.
“I think this has been fun and it’s helped me get ready for the season,” Brunson said. “I am just taking it as positive as I can be right now. Obviously we have another game (Sunday), but, (this summer) is going to help me in the long run.”
Tyrese Haliburton is one of three USA players who was an NBA All-Star last season, and just before he started practicing for the American team he agreed to a five-year, $260 million contract extension. He’s been exclusively a reserve under Kerr, whereas he’s been a full-time starter in two of his three pro seasons, and Haliburton said coming off the bench has given him a new perspective.
Haliburton, like Reaves, is among those Kerr counts on in key moments. He is the American team’s leader in assists (5.4 per game), steals (1.6), and is second on the team in blocks per game (1.1).
“Obviously all of us are in different roles, but I think for me, coming off the bench, seeing how I can impact games differently, where I can be better defensively, I think I’ve grown on that end through this experience,” he said. “Obviously there’s still a lot of room to grow, but just seeing myself in different aspects will be interesting going into the NBA season.
“I think being the point guard with other great scorers, other great players and understand that they want to be on the court at the same time as me, they want me to be in there to get them involved,” was something he’d learned by playing for Team USA.
Any argument as to the value this knowledge could bring to the Indiana Pacers, his pro team? These are just a few examples.
The USA players and coaches are aware of the criticism they’re facing back home. From roster construction, to lineup decisions, to those who still pine for the days when the USA simply didn’t lose these games, they’re aware of the hand-wringing and of the idea that the American team at the Paris Olympics will look vastly different than the group suiting up Sunday.
But does it mean the Team USA World Tour of 2023 was a total wash? Not exactly.
From the first day of training camp on Aug. 3, in Las Vegas, through a grueling exhibition season that took the Americans to the Mediterranean Sea, and to the Arabian Desert, and a three-week World Cup in the sweltering humidity, stifling traffic, torrential rains (and pockets of stunning beauty) in Manila, the American team can take away from this a wealth of experience and memory. Just, no gold.
“Almost all of it, other than the game last night,” said USA coach Steve Kerr, when asked what he felt was positive about the whole trip. “I mean the camaraderie, the commitment of this group, the energy that they bring every day, how much they care about each other, the chemistry of the staff and the team. We just have a great group of people who put a lot into this, and part of competition is you’re not going to win every time and you’re going to compete and do everything you can to win.
“But part of competition is accepting the fact that there’s going to be some heartbreak. And the heartbreak is especially prominent when you have a group that is so permitted and that feels worthy of winning. And that’s how I feel about this group.”
(Top photo of Austin Reaves: Ezra Acayan / Getty Images)