The United States senior men’s national team enters the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup with the weight of the world on its shoulder.
Being the hunted is a familiar position for Team USA after being so dominant for nearly 20 years. But the rest of the world is catching up, and winning a gold medal is no longer a sure bet.
The 58-game winning streak for the Americans in FIBA and Olympic competition came to a crashing halt in 2019 when the Gregg Popovich-coached squad — headlined by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — finished seventh at the World Cup held in China. It was the worst finish by an American squad in an Olympic or World Cup tournament, and it was the first time the U.S. failed to medal in basketball’s biggest international stage since the 2002 debacle in Indianapolis. We still haven’t forgiven George Karl for that mess.
Popovich did find some redemption in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo as he coached the U.S. — led by Kevin Durant and Draymond Green — to a gold medal.
Durant and Green are sitting out this year’s World Cup. The 12-man unit USA Basketball is sending to the Philippines — which co-hosts this year’s tournament with Japan and Singapore — is untested and doesn’t have a single All-NBA performer.
“For us, we have a lot of young guys this year, so we all feel like we have something to prove,” point guard Tyrese Haliburton told ESPN’s Kendra Andrews during the NBA summer league in Vegas.
Haliburton is one of the many new faces on Team USA that may be short on name recognition and international experience but loaded with promise. Haliburton (Indiana Pacers) is one of three players on the national team who earned NBA All-Star nods this past year. The other two were shooting guard Anthony Edwards (Minnesota Timberwolves) and forward-center Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies).
The rest of the squad includes Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic), Mikal Bridges (Brooklyn Nets), Jalen Brunson (New York Knicks), Josh Hart (New York Knicks), Brandon Ingram (New Orleans Pelicans), Cameron Johnson (Brooklyn Nets), Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz), Bobby Portis (Milwaukee Bucks) and Austin Reaves (L.A. Lakers).
“I don’t think the expectations are what they usually are for USA Basketball, but that’s not changing for us guys who are playing,” Haliburton said. “We are really excited to get to it.
“It’s gonna be a lot of fun,” he added. “A lot of guys are around the same age as me.”
Even though expectations are a bit muted this time around, Haliburton said it doesn’t change the primary objective: bring home the gold and reestablish American dominance.
“All the young guys feel like we have something to prove on the national level and obviously on the world level as well,” Haliburton said.
Following the Tokyo Games, USA Basketball underwent a period of transition.
Grant Hill, the former Duke standout and No. 3 overall pick in the 1994 draft by the Detroit Pistons, took over for Jerry Colangelo as managing director of the U.S. senior men’s national team. Steve Kerr, the four-time NBA championship coach of the Golden State Warriors, took the baton from Popovich as the head coach. Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat), Ty Lue (L.A. Clippers) and Mark Few (Gonzaga) round out Kerr’s coaching staff.
Kerr is tasked with leading a group that is about as raw as they come in terms of international competition. Portis, 28, is the oldest player on the roster while Banchero, 20, is the youngest American to compete at a FIBA World Cup event since Dwight Howard in 2006. The average age on Team USA is 24, and the team is desperately searching for an alpha dog to take charge.
Kerr started with the combination of Brunson, Edwards, Bridges, Ingram, and Jackson Jr. in the exhibition game against Puerto Rico on Aug. 7 in Las Vegas. Barring injuries or a major surprise in camp, this will likely be the starting lineup for Team USA when it arrives in Manila to take on New Zealand in its World Cup opener on Aug. 26.
After what assistant coach Spoelstra described as a “sloppy” first half that kept the game close, the U.S. overwhelmed Puerto Rico in the second half en route to a dominant 117-74 victory in the first of five USA Basketball showcase games in preparation for the World Cup.
Brunson is the steady hand Kerr needs to run point, and he’s also emerged in training camp as the vocal leader. Haliburton came off the bench in the win over Puerto Rico and looked comfortable in that role. He may be better suited to be the secondary playmaker, with his ability to push the pace on the second unit.
Jackson Jr. is the clear starting center and there’s a huge gap between him and his backups Portis, Banchero, and Kessler. Jackson Jr.’s ability to impact the game on both ends is what makes him an invaluable piece.
The surprise of training camp has been Reaves.
His inclusion on the squad raised a few eyebrows. But after a solid debut wearing the USA colors, those doubts were put to rest. Kerr called Reaves “a connector” and “enhances any lineup that he plays with.”
“He fits in wherever we put him. That’s the beauty of Austin,” Kerr told reporters about the L.A. Lakers guard, whose efficiency from 3-point range (40%) and effective play-making are two vital skills he can bring to the table. Reaves is a solid compliment to Edwards, who is more of a volume shooter and slasher.
Throughout the showcase games, it is becoming clear that Reaves is one of the five indispensable players on the squad. It’s a list that includes Brunson, Edwards, Jackson Jr., and Bridges. This is Reaves’ freshman season on the FIBA stage and he’s soaking in every moment.
“I didn’t play much AAU growing up, so I don’t really know many of [my USA Basketball teammates],” Reaves told Fox Sports. “But this is a cool opportunity for me to play with a bunch of guys that are really talented. A bunch of good guys, honestly.”
One position this squad has plenty of depth is at the wing. Bridges is the ideal 3-and-D forward while Ingram, who is more for a natural small forward, is the ideal 4-man in the world of FIBA. Johnson can play either forward position and Hart — the third member of the Villanova Boys on the squad — will bring plenty of hustle off the bench.
The exhibition game against Puerto Rico wasn’t much of a game, but it did give us a sense of what style of play Kerr wants this group will run. It’s the same pace-and-space philosophy Kerr employs as headmaster of the Warriors. He wants his point guards to push the pace and he wants ball movement and man movement off the ball.
Kerr is one of the brightest minds in basketball. He and his outstanding coaching staff will figure out how to make this untested group play the right way and compete for gold.