LAS VEGAS – It was a campaign of action, not words. There were a number of worthy candidates who made their case as the top member of Team USA over four days on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, but the end result was a landslide.
By a vote of his peers, Jaren Jackson Jr. was selected the “best,” or “most impressive” or “stand out” player of the now-completed FIBA training camp, according to an informal poll by The Athletic of the entire Team USA roster, Jackson included.
“Jaren, particularly (Saturday), his energy and the way he went to the glass and went to the foul line every other possession,” said point guard Jalen Brunson, in articulating his support for Jackson. “He was just really a force (in the Saturday scrimmage against the U.S. Select Team).”
“I’d say Jaren Jackson, just the way he was bringing energy, toughness,” Josh Hart added.
“I thought he was a huge presence,” Paolo Banchero concluded of Jackson.
Because this is a story about a straw poll, let’s briefly review the methodology. The Athletic approached all 12 American players Sunday at the conclusion of training camp for the FIBA World Cup. With the team’s first exhibition game looming Monday against Puerto Rico, we asked one simple question: Who was the best player in camp?
The body of work voters had to consider included one intrasquad scrimmage, two scrimmages against the U.S. Select team, and also team drills on Thursday and Sunday. As previously mentioned, this was a straw poll, so players were permitted to vote for multiple teammates if they chose.
Team USA’s best day by far was Saturday in the scrimmage in which it manhandled the group of younger NBA players, and Jackson made a noticeable difference on both ends of the court. On Sunday, coaches (not knowing about the straw poll) showed players tape of the scrimmage before practice, and Jackson’s highlights clearly made an impression.
Hart, Brunson, and Tyrese Haliburton each received two votes, while Brandon Ingram, Paolo Banchero, Bobby Portis, Anthony Edwards, and Cade Cunningham, who was on the Select Team, each had their names mentioned once.
“I’d say Josh Hart,” Edwards said. “He’s just always consistent, you know he’s going to bring that energy every day.”
Everything you need to know about Team USA at the FIBA World Cup
In voting for Brunson, Johnson said “It’s the point guard. He leads the team. Big communicator, big connecting piece (to the team). He’s a real glue to the team.”
Johnson asked how his answer compared to other responses, and when he heard Jackson was going to win, he said “yeah, that’s a good pick.”
Jackson is arguably one of the most important pieces to Team USA’s fortunes because of the role he’s going to play as a shot-blocking, post-scoring center. Rim protection and offensive production from the post has been lacking on American international teams for at least the last two iterations, and Jackson enters FIBA play as the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and the league leader in blocked shots at 3.0 per game. He also averaged 18.6 points for the Grizzlies last season and will get touches for the Americans not only on the block, but in lob situations off of pick and rolls.
“Just size-wise,” Jackson said, when asked if he recognized the magnitude of impact he could make for Team USA. If you’re wondering, Jackson voted for Edwards in the poll.
“Physicality is the biggest thing in FIBA, it’s a huge thing, and also you’ve just got to be able to get everyone open,” Jackson said.
The difference in game rules between FIBA and the NBA should help Jackson in at least a few different ways. Zone is permitted, so Jackson, who is 6-foot-11 and about 240 pounds, can sit in the middle and hunt shots if opponents get to the rim. Also, once the ball touches the rim, any player may knock the ball off of it, which could make him even more of a threat.
Jackson also said initiating contact on defense by leading the chest is permissible, which is good for him because he led the NBA in fouls last year, too, averaging 3.6 fouls per game. Players foul out after five fouls in the FIBA game, compared to six in the NBA.
“It’s more physical in FIBA,” he said. “You can use your chest a lot more. You can’t really use your hands, so that’s the similarity (with the NBA), but you can use your chest in FIBA just to get him off you or whatever the case. The defense gets a lot of benefit of the doubt, for the most part.”
Jackson said coach Steve Kerr has drilled him on using his chest on defense, and he also blamed his leading the league in drawing fouls, in part, on committing offensive fouls because he handles the ball at times for the Grizzlies.
“I do a lot of different things,” Jackson said. “I’m guarding a lot of guards on the perimeter, I can get caught in those switches. I have to pretty much protect the rim every single time (for Memphis). You’re going to run into that. You just have to manage it. I think I’ll be fine. I’ve never cared about (not fouling).”
Team USA coaches, by the way, were not given votes in the straw poll. But Kerr and various U.S. staff members said they thought the team was on solid ground heading into the first of five exhibition games, and a global barnstorming trip that begins this week with a flight to Malaga, Spain. Kerr declined to name his starting five for the Puerto Rico friendly because he said he hadn’t informed the players yet, but Jackson, Ingram, Brunson, and Mikal Bridges were starters in both scrimmages against the Select Team.
“It couldn’t have been a better four days,” Kerr said. “Guys handled things beautifully. We put in a lot of stuff, but we’re trying to keep things simple at the same time. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but you just have to find that balance. You have to prepare for FIBA, you have to have an offensive plan, a defensive plan, but if you overload them, it’s just too much.
“It felt like we found the right medium of installing stuff and keeping it short and sweet.”