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Analysis | USA Basketball sailed through its World Cup group, but tougher tests await


The few scary moments USA Basketball encountered during the first week of the FIBA World Cup all came early.

The Americans, coached by Steve Kerr and led by Anthony Edwards, Jalen Brunson and Austin Reaves, breezed through their three opening group stage games in Manila, blowing out New Zealand on Saturday, Greece on Monday and Jordan on Wednesday by an average of 34.3 points. With the 3-0 start, they advanced to the round of 16 in the 32-team tournament and will face Montenegro on Friday and Lithuania on Sunday to claim a spot in the quarterfinals next week.

While Kerr’s team has proved cohesive, energetic and focused, its starting lineup has left something to be desired. New Zealand built a 14-4 lead in the opener, and Greece led midway through the first quarter by capitalizing on the Americans’ turnover issues and poor shot selection. USA Basketball reasserted control by halftime in both games, but the slow starts continued a trend that developed during a string of pretournament exhibitions. Rather than jump on foes, the Americans consistently found themselves playing from behind.

USA Basketball entered the FIBA World Cup favored but not infallible

That dynamic changed against Jordan on Wednesday, when Kerr adjusted his starting lineup for the first time since the team left its Las Vegas training camp early this month. With Brunson and Edwards entrenched as the starting backcourt, Mikal Bridges at one forward spot and center Jaren Jackson Jr. serving as the defensive anchor, Kerr inserted Josh Hart in place of Brandon Ingram against Jordan. The tweak paid immediate dividends: USA Basketball raced out to a 20-4 lead en route to a 110-62 victory in its most impressive result to date.

“The tricky part with FIBA is that you only have a few weeks to figure out your team, as opposed to an NBA season when you have six, seven or eight months,” Kerr said Wednesday. “We just felt like it was important to take a look at Josh with the starting group and Brandon with the next group and to see if the combinations fit. I liked what I saw. The game wasn’t competitive, but there was good flow with both groups.”

Ingram, 25, is accustomed to being a lead scoring option for the New Orleans Pelicans, and he has averaged at least 22 points per game in each of the past four NBA seasons. With USA Basketball, though, he has struggled to adapt to his tertiary offensive role and Kerr’s preference for quick ball movement in the half-court offense.

A midrange tactician who likes to work his way to his spots with deliberate dribbles, Ingram has often looked a step slow on the national team. Perhaps sensing the stylistic tension, he has occasionally forced opportunities in the half court and has struggled to maintain a rhythm. Ingram scored a total of seven points on eight shots in the first two games, and USA Basketball was plus-10 with him on the court and plus-45 with him off the court.

Hart, by contrast, has spent his entire career as an afterthought on offense. The six-year pro has bounced around four NBA teams and landed alongside Brunson on the New York Knicks at last season’s trade deadline. A quintessential glue guy who creates extra possessions with his hustle plays and offensive rebounds, Hart doesn’t take touches away from his team’s lead scoring options.

Erik Spoelstra, a USA Basketball assistant, noted that while some players have a knack for winning 50-50 loose balls, Hart “gets 30-70 balls” thanks to his well-honed instincts and willingness to hit the deck. The 6-foot-4 Hart collected 11 rebounds in the Americans’ 109-81 win against Greece and 12 against Jordan.

“[Hart] is a hard-working guy,” said Brunson, who played with Hart and Bridges at Villanova. “He takes pride in always doing the little things on a nightly basis. He brings that toughness, that effort. He’s relentless. He’s been doing that since the day I met him.”

Kerr didn’t commit to sticking with the new-look lineup, but he should. By replacing Ingram with Hart, USA Basketball was able to keep Reaves, Tyrese Haliburton and Paolo Banchero together in an entertaining second unit that has devastated opponents with few NBA-caliber players. Greece fielded Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the less-accomplished older brother of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, while Jordan was led by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 2015 first-round pick who played six seasons in the NBA before heading overseas.

What to know about the FIBA World Cup

The quality of competition will pick up in the next round. Montenegro is 18th in FIBA’s world rankings and is led by Nikola Vucevic, a four-time NBA all-star center. The eighth-ranked Lithuanians, meanwhile, went 3-0 in their group and are led by Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas.

Vucevic and Valanciunas will test a thin American front line, which relies heavily on Jackson, the reigning NBA defensive player of the year, to avoid foul trouble. The 23-year-old center fouled out in the 99-72 win over New Zealand, prompting Kerr to admit that FIBA’s allowance of five fouls, compared with six in the NBA, “is a really big deal” for his squad.

Even so, the 20-year-old Banchero has emerged as a pleasant surprise in his role as an undersized backup center. The reigning NBA rookie of the year was naturally cast as a power forward by the Orlando Magic, but he has shifted up a position at the World Cup to stretch out opposing defenses and utilize his scoring instincts in space. Though not generally regarded as an impact interior defender before this summer, Banchero has already registered several highflying blocks in and around the paint.

“I love watching these guys grow, but it’s not like they’re untested,” Kerr said. “[Reaves] kicked our butts in the playoffs a few months ago. He may be young. Paolo may be young. You go down the list, and we’ve got some young guys, but we’ve got guys who can play.”

Elsewhere in the field, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led Canada to an impressive 3-0 start by averaging 22 points, eight rebounds and 5.7 assists. Not to be outdone, Slovenia is 3-0 thanks to Luka Doncic, who averaged 30 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the opening round. Spain, Serbia, Germany and the Dominican Republic also remain unbeaten entering the round of 16.

France, which entered the World Cup as one of the favorites, was eliminated with an opening loss to Canada and a fourth-quarter collapse against Latvia, a turn of events that led forward Nicolas Batum to say he felt “ashamed” for the first time during his lengthy international career. The French, who will host the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, won the silver medal at the Tokyo Games in 2021 and finished second in last summer’s EuroBasket tournament.

Kerr said France’s stunning exit was a “good reminder … that you can’t just ease into any game” because “the level of competition is so much better now worldwide” than it was as recently as 2015. Yet Edwards, who has averaged a team-best 16.3 points, hardly sounded concerned when asked about the upcoming contests against Montenegro (2-1) and the undefeated Lithuanians.

“I think we’re going to win,” Edwards said. “We’re unbeaten also. I think we’ve got a great chance to win. Our confidence is at an all-time high. We’re not really worried about those guys.”

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POST AUTHOR: Ben Golliver

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