Team USA at the Basketball World Cup: A mission for 12 rookies

The five-time champions are taking an untested team to the tournament under coach Steve Kerr’s idea of a collective game and with the goal of redeeming a seventh-placed finish in 2019

FIBA World Cup
Anthony Edwards (right) in action during the USA's victory over Spain in Málaga.ALBERTO NEVADO FEB
Juan Morenilla

The United States will compete at the Basketball World Cup in Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines with a completely new team: 12 rookies, and yet they are still favorites to win the tournament. None of the dozen players coached by Steve Kerr has ever featured at a major competition with the senior national team, and several have never even played in the youth ranks. Before a warm-up tour, they had never had the opportunity to test their chemistry on the court or their camaraderie in the locker room. It is a young group (the most experienced players are Bobby Portis and Josh Hart, both 28) and one with no experience in FIBA competitions. None of the NBA’s biggest stars have been included. It is the antithesis to the Dream Team, and yet the USA are the most feared team in the event and top of every pre-tournament bracket to return with the gold medal.

“They are the strongest opponent in the world, a super-team made up of 12 great players. They are above the rest,” says Sergio Scariolo, Spain’s coach. “In terms of talent, the United States can put together five teams perfectly capable of winning gold. This is a team full of top-level basketball players who do not hold the status and recognition of superstars among the less knowledgeable public, because not everyone follows the NBA like those of us who do it professionally. But it’s also true that while they’ve always had a team that can win every game by 30 points, they haven’t always been able to do so. Sometimes you find room to compete.”

Several generations of U.S. basketball players that were aiming for the top have fallen through the cracks opened up by a style that is occasionally too individualistic. At the last World Cup, Team USA dropped to its worst ranking in history after finishing in seventh place, following two consecutive victories in 2010 and 2014. And that is precisely Kerr’s great challenge: to build a collective game awareness that maximizes the performance of each component, to appease egos so that they add up to a collective goal.

More so than on the court, the star of the United States is on the bench. Kerr, 57, is a legend who has collected nine NBA championship rings: five between the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, and four as coach of the Golden State Warriors dynasty. In December 2021, he was named U.S. head coach until 2024, taking over from another legend, Gregg Popovich, who he previously served under as assistant. “I’m confident this group will represent our country well, with effort, talent and a commitment to winning together,” he said before a tune-up that included an 88-98 win over reigning champions Spain in Málaga.

In that game, point guard Jalen Brunson shone with 23 points, one of the figures on which Kerr intends to build the idea of solidarity. It is not only about being very good, and Brunson is, but also about making others better. The point guard has already turned in stellar performances, such as the 48 points he scored for the Knicks last April in Cleveland, and in his previous four-year stint with the Dallas Mavericks he drew praise from Luka Dončić, eventually earning a $100 million, four-year contract with the Knicks. But now he will take on the helm for the United State, with the challenge of making the system work. “My personality is very different if you compare it to other high-profile players. I try to be one of the guys, live a normal life and stay away from egos. I can’t run the court in two seconds and I don’t have spectacular physical conditions. I have to be smart.”

Next to Brunson will be Anthony Edwards, Minnesota’s 22-year-old, 6-foot-9 shooting guard, picked out by Kerr as “the benchmark.” “He’s unquestionably the guy. You can see he knows it. But now the team knows it, and I think the fans see it... He genuinely believes he’s the best player in the gym every single night. And he’s such a dynamic young player. I think he’s taking a leap,” said Kerr of the USA No. 10, an NBA All-Star this season for the first time, the leading scorer on the pre-World Cup tour (19.2 points per game) and another youngster who has been dipped in gold by his franchise with a $260 million, five-season contract.

Also vying for the spotlight will be shooting guard Austin Reaves, a revelation with the Lakers over the past two seasons and anointed by LeBron James, as well as power forward Paolo Banchero, named NBA Rookie of the Year with the Orlando Magic and who has chosen to play for the USA despite being pre-selected by Italy for the last European Championship.

The United States has been grouped with Greece, New Zealand, and Jordan. Five-time world champions — the same number achieved by Yugoslavia and FR Yugoslavia — the USA are driven by the goal of scoring a record sixth star and dispelling the disappointment of China 2019. Jordi Fernández, head coach of Canada and first assistant coach at the Sacramento Kings, warns: “They are a reference. Every time they compete, they are a new team. Now they have a big challenge again. If they reach a good moment as a group, it will be very difficult for anyone to beat them.”

USA World Cup roster

Guards and shooting guards: Jalen Brunson (NY Knicks), Anthony Edwards (Minnesota), Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana), Austin Reaves (Lakers).

Small forwards: Mikal Bridges (Brooklyn), Brandon Ingram (Pelicans), Josh Hart (NY Knicks), Cam Johnson (Brooklyn).

Power forwards and centers: Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis), Paolo Banchero (Orlando), Walker Kessler (Utah), Bobby Portis (Milwaukee).

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