FIBA World Cup Roundtable: Assessing Team USA’s chances

FIBA World Cup Roundtable: Assessing Team USA's chances

Team USA enters the 2023 FIBA World Cup looking to again stake claim to international basketball superiority.

Its seventh-placed finish at the last instalment in 2019 was the worst in the program’s 18 attempts in the competition. With a roster short on bona fide stars, there are doubts that the No. 2 team in the FIBA rankings can capture the tournament it’s won on five previous occasions.

With that in mind, theScore’s NBA editors will break down the biggest talking points for Steve Kerr’s Team USA:

Who’s the squad’s X-factor?

Jaren Jackson: The FIBA game’s high tempo, increased physicality, and live-wire rules around the rim mean the American bigs will need to be on full alert all tournament; perhaps none more so than Jackson, the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year. The Memphis Grizzlies center has been outstanding at shutting down opponents in the NBA, but his adjustment to the sport’s international playstyle will be instrumental to the team’s success. There hasn’t been reason for concern through five exhibition matchups, but against big sides with plenty of FIBA experience – like potential second-round matchups against Montenegro or Lithuania – Jackson will need to be in his best form. – Jonathan Soveta

Austin Reaves: The Los Angeles Lakers guard’s solid postseason play has carried over into the summer. Reaves averaged 11.4 points, 2.4 boards, and 2.2 assists to go along with a 57.1% clip from deep across five World Cup tuneup contests. He’s looked comfortable in a reserve role playing off Tyrese Haliburton and is more than an adequate ball-handler when the Indiana Pacers guard or Jalen Brunson needs a breather. Reaves’ size in the backcourt and ability to space the floor will be an asset in FIBA basketball. Don’t be surprised to see him on the floor in crunch time if Kerr needs a defensive stop. – Chicco Nacion

Mikal Bridges: Before Bridges was thrust into a major role following last season’s trade to the Brooklyn Nets, he was one of the NBA’s elite role players for the championship-contending Phoenix Suns. His ever-growing scoring game and ability to guard nearly every position on the floor and hit spot-up threes make him the perfect option to pair next to an elite scorer in Anthony Edwards and a top-tier rim-protector like Jackson. If Bridges hits a good number of his long balls while locking up some of the better wings in the tournament like Slovenia’s Luka Doncic and Canada’s RJ Barrett, he’d play a pretty invaluable role. – Matthew Winick

What should the closing 5 be?

Juan Ocampo / National Basketball Association / Getty

In a FIBA game where ball movement is of the utmost importance, putting Brunson and Haliburton on the floor together down the stretch makes a ton of sense, especially since they’re both capable pull-up shooters. Having Edwards on the wing is only right given his status as the team’s best scorer. Bridges’ defensive versatility and Jackson’s rim protection would perfectly complement those all-world offensive weapons and make a near impossible group for FIBA teams to beat. It also helps that Bridges and Jackson can knock down shots from deep. – Winick

While Bridges brings a level of toughness, grit, and defensive versatility, replacing him with the offensively oriented Brandon Ingram in the frontcourt alongside Jackson could yield optimal results during crunch time for Team USA. Ingram is a bucket-getter, using his size and isolation abilities to score from a variety of places on the court. The 25-year-old provides the opportunity for mismatches depending on the opponent, taking bigger and slower opponents off the dribble or shooting over smaller players. Plugging him with other scorers like Brunson and Edwards creates a three-headed attack that’ll be difficult to contain on the FIBA level – Donald Higney

Exactly who the U.S. trots out in the final minutes will predominantly hinge on whether they need stops or buckets. In either case, Brunson, Edwards, and Jackson should be undisputed members of Kerr’s close-out core on both ends. As expected, the three set themselves apart as veteran leaders on a relatively young U.S. squad. They’re also established clutch performers. Beyond them, Kerr’s selections will likely depend on the opponent’s most glaring weakness; if they struggle against size, maybe creating mismatches with Orlando Magic star Paolo Banchero is worth a look. If spacing the floor is the priority, then don’t count out Reaves among Kerr’s final five, either. – Soveta

Which opponent is the greatest threat for gold?

France: Bronze medalists in 2014 and 2019, France still poses a real threat to upset Team USA and win the whole tournament. NBA players such as Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier, and Rudy Gobert step up their games on the international stage. Former prospects in the Association like Elie Okobo and Guerschon Yabusele have found their places in Europe. Les Bleus came close to upsetting Team USA in the gold-medal match of the 2020 Olympics, losing by five points. With a similar roster loaded with veteran talent, it’s not crazy to believe that France could take down Team USA. – Higney

Slovenia: The 30-point loss to the Americans earlier this month should be taken with a grain of salt. While Team USA put forth a dominant performance in a wire-to-wire victory, it was facing a Slovenian squad missing Doncic and playing in the second half of a back-to-back. With Doncic in the fold, Slovenia’s basketball program has reached new heights. The nation captured its first EuroBasket title in 2017 and finished fourth at the Olympics two years ago. Chemistry goes a long way in international competitions. Nine of the 12 players that suited up in Tokyo are on this year’s World Cup roster, including five of the top six scorers. Slovenia has a pretty manageable path to the knockout stages and could play the U.S. as early as the semifinals. – Nacion

Spain: It might be a bit surprising to some, but the U.S. isn’t actually the No. 1-ranked men’s basketball country in the world, according to FIBA. That distinction goes to Spain – and for good reason. The country’s historic basketball tradition and fundamental way of playing the game have led to major results of late, including winning the prestigious EuroBasket last summer and taking home the U19 World Cup and U16 European Championship this year. While this Spanish squad lacks the NBA names that many of the other competing teams have, you can never count out a veteran roster and legendary bench boss in Sergio Scariolo coaching classic Spain ball movement. – Winick

What is Team USA’s biggest concern?

Joe Murphy / National Basketball Association / Getty

For all the incredible talent on the U.S. roster, there’s no escaping the fact that this is still a relatively inexperienced ensemble. Keep in mind that even the 2019 World Cup squad, which finished a hugely disappointing seventh, had four players aged 28 or older. This year’s roster features just two: Bobby Portis and Josh Hart, both 28. While Team USA’s World Cup squads usually lean younger than the star-studded Olympic teams, this iteration has zero previous experience at the senior level, a first for USA Basketball. That may not be an issue in the low-pressure environment of early group play, but it could become a visible factor once the single-elimination knockouts begin. – Soveta

While the Americans went unbeaten in exhibition play, their final tuneup tilt against Germany may have provided a blueprint for future opponents. Team USA struggled against Germany’s frontcourt size throughout the matchup. Franz Wagner, Daniel Theis, and Johannes Voigtmann each tallied at least double digits in rebounds – including a combined 10 offensive boards – as the Germans outrebounded the U.S. 55-42. That advantage on the glass led to 21 second-chance points. Inserting Walker Kessler into the rotation is the obvious counter for the Stars and Stripes. However, he hasn’t played much ahead of the World Cup. Instead, Kerr has opted to use Banchero as his backup center, leaning toward a more versatile, quick lineup that can attack in transition. – Nacion

Team USA is almost 10 years removed from its last World Cup title, when it defeated Serbia in 2014 under the guidance of Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski. In 2019, the Americans put up their worst performance in the history of the tournament, finishing seventh with a relatively inexperienced international roster and under new leadership headed by Gregg Popovich. Team USA lost to a French squad touting Gobert and Fournier in the first game outside of group play, giving up 20 points in the last seven minutes and missing seven free throws in the final three minutes. While it’s looked like a good team throughout friendly matches with Kerr as the coach, the Americans will need to continue to play with poise and minimize mistakes in crunch time to come out with a trophy. – Higney

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