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USA Basketball’s World Cup quest off to a fast start, with bonds being forged

Getting along as a 12-man unit guarantees nothing in terms of wins, losses and medals, but it was an important first step for the Americans

United States' Mikal Bridges (5) dunks over Puerto Rico's Tremont Waters (51) during the first half of an exhibition basketball game Monday, Aug. 7, 2023, in Las Vegas.
United States' Mikal Bridges (5) dunks over Puerto Rico's Tremont Waters (51) during the first half of an exhibition basketball game Monday, Aug. 7, 2023, in Las Vegas.John Locher (AP)

They’re finishing each other’s sentences already. They’re sitting side by side at breakfast. They’re talking on defense, getting everyone involved on offense, celebrating each other’s successes as if this team has been together for years.

It hasn’t been years. It didn’t even take a week. That’s a good sign for USA Basketball’s men’s World Cup team.

Getting along as a 12-man unit guarantees nothing in terms of wins, losses and medals, but it was an important first step for the Americans. The team was leaving Las Vegas on Tuesday to start, what it hopes, is a five-week overseas odyssey — a week in Spain, followed by a week in Abu Dhabi, and then, if all goes right, three weeks in Manila for the World Cup.

“It’s an adjustment, but it’s fun,” said U.S. big man Jaren Jackson Jr., the reigning NBA defensive player of the year from the Memphis Grizzlies. “This is not an opportunity that is going to repeat itself with the same guys at the same time. You know you’ve got to embrace every opportunity and practice. We’re having a lot of fun.”

The fun was obvious Monday night when the team played its first of five pre-World Cup games, opening that stint by routing Puerto Rico 117-74. There was a moment early in the fourth quarter that might have summed the whole thing up: Tyrese Haliburton could have tried to score himself on a 2-on-1 break, but sent a little lob to Cam Johnson instead. Johnson slammed it home, Haliburton did a little leap for joy, and everyone on the bench got to their feet in unison — except for Anthony Edwards, only because he was getting held down courtesy of a giant hug from Bobby Portis.

It’s already very much looking like nobody on this team will care about stats. That’s a very good sign. The goal: Win gold.

They all knew each other — some were college teammates, a couple are teammates in New York, a couple are teammates in Brooklyn — before arriving in Las Vegas for training camp last week, but the bonds are much stronger after a few days together.

USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley saw the proof of that very early in camp. Players were in a hotel ballroom for breakfast, and usually a couple of guys sit here, a couple sit there, often eating in relative quiet. Not this group. The first batch of players to arrive filled one table, and the later arrivals filled another. No need for spacing out; the team just wanted to be together.

“It’s been really good,” Tooley said. “And I can’t stress enough the high character of the team.”

Edwards and Jalen Brunson gave another example of how in sync the team already is, simultaneously answering a question with “for sure” without knowing the other guy was going to say it. The only thing anybody has complained about so far is this: the 10-hour flight from Las Vegas to Spain is on a plane not equipped with wi-fi.

“We’re building, man,” Edwards said. “We’ve got a lot of guys from different teams, but we play against each other so we kind of know each other, and we’re getting closer and closer off the court. So, I think it’s going to make us a lot better on the court.”

Puerto Rico had only three players for Monday’s game with NBA experience, and nobody with more than 40 games. The Americans have players who’ll earn a combined $210 million or so in the NBA this coming season (and that’s even with the massive extensions that Edwards and Haliburton got this summer not kicking in until 2024), so Monday should have been a blowout, and it was.

It gets tougher from here. Luka Doncic and Slovenia, a team that has had its core together for years, await Saturday. Spain, the No. 1 ranked team in the world according to FIBA, awaits Sunday. Greece and Germany will be the opponents in Abu Dhabi. And once the Americans get to Manila, while the fans will be rooting for the U.S., nothing will get opponents more fired up than seeing NBA players in the opposite huddle.

Winning this World Cup will not be easy. But the first step toward becoming a championship team is done. A group of players is already looking like a team.

“The whole group is connected,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “And it’s really fun to watch.”

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