Inexperienced Team USA embraces FIBA shot

NBA

MANILA, Philippines — Basketball gear is on offer everywhere at the Mall of Asia, a massive expanse of commerce in a roundball-crazed nation, next door to where Team USA opens the FIBA World Cup on Saturday against New Zealand.

There are displays featuring signature shoes from Jayson Tatum, LeBron James and Ja Morant. Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team Greece jersey is for sale, even though he had to withdraw because of a knee injury. At the expansive NBA Store, Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson‘s jersey for Gilas Pilipinas, the nickname for the national team, is in a display case. If you have a few thousand disposable pesos, you can get a replica Michael Jordan No. 9 jersey from the 1992 Dream Team.

As for the current edition of the U.S. team? Well, you can buy an official uniform that will be worn by the likes of Anthony Edwards, Brandon Ingram and Austin Reaves as they compete for the world title over the next three weeks. But there’s no number or name. Generic down the line.

Steve Kerr has repeatedly said how much he is enjoying coaching this version of Team USA. Players down the line are saying how much fun they are having on what has become a round-the-world journey that included weeks in Las Vegas, Spain and Abu Dhabi before reaching Manila. They were unbeaten in the warmup games, an unblemished 5-0, the first time that has happened since before the 2016 Olympics.

Yet the lack of worldwide star power has some believing Team USA is vulnerable. Team Canada is loaded. France has beaten the U.S. in the past two major international tournaments. The biggest star in the event, Luka Doncic, plays for Slovenia. Spain, the defending champ, has won two of the past four World Cups.

The sportsbooks have installed the Americans as favorites, but they haven’t won the World Cup since 2014.

“Last time through this tournament, we finished seventh, we lost [two] games,” Kerr said. “We recognize how hard this is. These are not the days of 1992. … We may be one of the favorites, but I don’t think anybody’s clear cut. I think there’s a lot of teams that have a shot at this thing.”

The truth is Team USA is in excellent position. Unlike other leading contenders like Canada, Australia or France, the U.S. won’t have to travel during the event. Once Antetokounmpo withdrew, its group became much weaker. New Zealand and Jordan, two teams it will play over the next week, have no current NBA players on their rosters. Greece, which the U.S. handled last week in an exhibition in the United Arab Emirates, has one: Thanasis Antetokounmpo.

But Team USA doesn’t have any members of the 2021 team that won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. No one has ever played on the senior national team before. Only three — Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyrese Haliburton and Edwards — were NBA All-Stars last season. The U.S. is not even the top-ranked team in the world according to FIBA’s ranking system, sitting behind No. 1 Spain.

“There’s a lot of great players in the United States, so it’s tough to say who’s who and who isn’t a superstar. They kind of change that definition of what it means to be that every year,” said Jackson, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year. “So however we figure out a way to win games, you got to stop it.”

The way Kerr and USA Basketball executive director Grant Hill have designed the team is to play nimble, flexible and fast. Kerr and Hill assembled a team that prioritized length, toughness and moving the ball. Kerr has committed to playing lineups that are light on bulk — Jackson is the only center who regularly plays and even that’s out of position because he is a power forward with the Memphis Grizzlies — but heavy on speed.

Kerr wants the ball and bodies moving. When the U.S. fell down to Germany by 16 points in the second half last weekend, Kerr rode bench players Haliburton and Reaves because they were not only defending but also moving the ball. Mikal Bridges and Edwards aren’t wide, but their wingspans are huge and Kerr is playing them the most minutes because of it.

Next year at the Olympics in Paris, assuming the U.S. scores one of the two berths available for teams from the Americas at the World Cup to qualify, you may see some superstar names like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and perhaps even James in an Olympic swan song. But that doesn’t mean this version doesn’t have teeth.

“We feel like we’re the best team,” Bridges said. “Every team probably feels like they can beat anyone, and they can think that all they want.”

There is a long history of why pulling upsets in FIBA play is common. The game is eight minutes shorter than the NBA game. Officiating can sometimes get shaky. The ball feels different and bounces differently. Playing for country tends to uplift players who otherwise aren’t seen as stars.

Team USA’s margin for error is thinner than is preferred, and one reason is because they don’t have the established megastars to carry them. Last time out in Tokyo, the gold may not have come home had Durant not been first-ballot Hall of Fame brilliant.

But Kerr still likes his chances and loves his team.

“I love the way these guys are playing together, the way the ball moves, the energy,” Kerr said. “These guys are hungry. They’re committed every practice. They’re going hard. So I just know it from a coaching standpoint. This is a great team to coach, and I’m really impressed with what I’m seeing every day.”

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