Team USA’s failure to medal at the FIBA World Cup is not especially surprising. This is an event that Team USA has won just twice in six tries during the 21st century, and while it didn’t lose any exhibition games, it was clear from the outset that this roster was not exactly dominant.
The manner in which Team USA both succeeded and failed, however, is a bit more interesting. Many of the players who struggled were among the most accomplished on the roster. The players Team USA hoped to build around were, in several cases, the ones that struggled the most in high-stakes games.
This is a bit more concerning for Team USA’s long-term prospects because it suggests that the program is struggling to build rosters that make sense in a FIBA context. So let’s grade all 12 Team USA players on their World Cup performance, and in the process, we’ll hopefully learn a few lessons about how Team USA can adjust moving forward.
The Olympics tend to be won by the game’s biggest stars, but the World Cup is often a staging ground for superstar ascents. Kevin Durant announced himself as a mega star with his stellar performance in 2010, and Stephen Curry’s 2014 gold medal led to his first MVP and championship in the next NBA season. If anyone is going to experience a similar boost from this tournament, it’s going to be Edwards.
The raw stats don’t do him justice, as 19 points on 48-31-70 shooting hardly scream “breakout candidate.” But Edwards was, without any question, the player Team USA trusted in big games and bigger moments. He scored 82 points in Team USA’s three losses. The first two were by six combined points and the third came in overtime largely because Edwards nearly singlehandedly managed to keep Team USA alive while the rest of his teammates faltered. He was the only American guard to defend consistently. He is the only American player period to earn a straight “A” grade, and had Team USA won gold, it would have included a “plus.”
Oh, you want an impressive box score? How does a 63-56-82 shooting line sound? Bridges didn’t get to show off quite as much of the shot-creation he exhibited in a late-season surge with the Brooklyn Nets. Still, he slotted perfectly onto a far more talented roster as a reliable shooter and versatile role player. He was Team USA’s best defensive player in the tournament, and unlike some of his teammates, he never remotely struggled to fit into a team that didn’t need him to hoard possessions. Team USA very nearly stole a bronze medal because of his miraculous 3-pointer, generated by a rebound of his own missed free-throw, at the end of regulation against Canada. He will be more than welcome next summer in Paris if he wants to play.
Team USA frequently won games at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second. Why? Because the sluggish starting lineup was replaced with a far more comfortable reserve unit led by, you guessed it, Tyrese Haliburton. Indiana’s All-Star point guard averaged 5.6 assists in just 21.5 minutes per game. His transition brilliance in particular meshed perfectly with Team USA’s roster, as American teams almost always have an athletic advantage in international competition that the right fast-break conductors can easily take advantage of.
That was Haliburton in this tournament, and when you throw in his strong shooting and willingness to move off of the ball, this was a strong showing for a point guard who deserves a strong look for the Olympic team. His defense is the only thing keeping him from earning an “A,” and it’s not as though he was bad. It just isn’t a strength.
Josh Hart, who is 6-4 and ostensibly plays guard, led Team USA with 5.3 rebounds per game. Now, that isn’t a good thing as far as the team is concerned, but it’s not Hart’s fault he played on a roster with barely any size. In fact, to some extent, that’s his strength. Josh Hart never needs the ball. He figures out what his team needs and fills in those blanks. That was defense, rebounding and cutting in this tournament. The only problem was the same flaw that holds him back in the NBA: nobody guards him on the perimeter. Team USA can usually get away with that thanks to its superior star power. It didn’t this time around, but easily could in Paris next summer.
Reaves was among the more controversial choices for Team USA based on his short NBA resume and, let’s face it, the scrutiny any Laker role player faces when they’re commended in any way, but Reaves generally acquitted himself well in the Philippines. The mid-range scoring that helped the Lakers so much last season was there, but Reaves took to a lower-usage role quite well when circumstances demanded it. Like Hart, he filled in blanks, but he did so largely on offense.
Defense is where the problems arose. The FIBA game emphasizes size and post-play more than the NBA does, and those aren’t the strengths of Reaves. Lithuania in particular really punished him, but Canada and Germany had success against him as well. Team USA’s small roster didn’t help here, as his NBA team has the best defender in the world to clean up his mistakes. Reaves probably won’t get a serious look as an Olympic candidate given Team USA’s guard depth at full strength, but he more than justified his selection in the World Cup.
Expectations were sky-high for Brunson coming into the World Cup. Steve Kerr pronounced him leader of the team before the tournament began. He was the starting point guard. And he was… fine. The numbers were a bit better than fine, but as the point guard, a lot of the starting lineup’s inconsistency falls on his shoulders. Like Reaves, he was picked on defensively, which wasn’t too surprising since we just watched it happen in the NBA playoffs and he was Team USA’s smallest player. Brunson might ultimately be a player better-suited for an NBA environment more reliant on individual shot-creation than the de-facto All-Star group Team USA represents. More on that a bit later.
Banchero’s grade is somewhat circumstantial. He largely played well as a backup center, and the Orlando Magic should be pretty happy with what they saw out of him as a perimeter defender in that role, but he never should’ve been playing backup center in the first place. It says quite a bit about Banchero’s future that he managed to hold his own as a 20-year-old playing against international stars at the wrong position, but he just wasn’t big enough to effectively rebound or protect the rim against teams that emphasize the low-post far more than NBA teams do. Overall, Banchero’s performance was encouraging. He’ll probably play on the Olympic team someday even if 2024 is probably a tad optimistic. But Team USA asked too much of him this time around.
Cam Johnson: C-
Cam Johnson was in the starting lineup at one point early in training camp. He wound up shooting 24-31-60 for the tournament in what turned out to be a relatively minor role. Shooting slumps happen in small samples, but Johnson was on this team entirely to provide shooting, which is critical in FIBA play thanks to the shortened 3-point line. He didn’t do the one thing Team USA needed him to do,
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The last few games obscured the positives for Jaren Jackson Jr. His rim protection was genuinely impactful. Opponents dreaded driving on him. But he averaged nearly as many fouls per game (2.7) as he did rebounds (2.9). A lot of that was on Kerr. Jackson has never been able to play center consistently in the NBA. Not only did Kerr ask him to play center in this tournament, he did so without even giving him a reliable, traditional backup center to fall back on. Team USA’s options were essentially Jackson or small-ball. It’s up to the coaches to put players in a position to succeed. Kerr clearly didn’t with Jackson. And yet, Jackson is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and Team USA allowed 350 points in its three losses—with a 40-minute clock! Those defensive issues start with him. Even if Team USA should’ve done a better job supporting him, he didn’t exactly hold up his end of the bargain either.
Ingram is one of the most accomplished players on this roster. He was the only multi-time All-Star on the team and arrived as a starter. He lost that spot to Josh Hart in large part because his game doesn’t really translate to a FIBA setting. Though he is a dynamic scorer, he’s inconsistent in virtually every other area. Team USA rarely needs one-on-one scorers because, ironically, it has so many to choose from. Anyone hoping to contribute to Team USA needs to do so as an all-around player. Ingram couldn’t do that, and without frequent touches, his scoring suffered. Ingram himselfwith these struggles even when Team USA was winning, and it now appears unlikely that either side would want to revisit the partnership next summer in Paris.
It wouldn’t be fair to grade Team USA’s reserve big men because Steve Kerr simply didn’t use them. Portis played double-digit minutes in two blowouts and then, finally, the bronze medal game. Kessler played 28 minutes in the entire tournament. It’s a shame because both probably could’ve helped out more than they had a chance to. Kessler could have been the traditional center that made Jackson’s life easier. Portis can fit next to almost anyone given his shooting range. Instead, they largely rode the bench, so through no fault of their own, they can’t really be graded.