MANILA, Philippines — The 2023 FIBA World Cup tips off Friday, with group stages taking place in Jakarta, Indonesia, plus Okinawa, Japan, in addition to the host city of Manila, where the final phase of the tournament takes place at Mall of Asia Arena on Sept. 5. USA Basketball will begin with a Saturday clash against New Zealand at 8:40 a.m. ET on ESPN2.
Prior to touching down in the Philippines, the Americans, spearheaded by head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors, went undefeated during a five-game exhibition stretch across the U.S., Spain and Abu Dhabi. A 99-91 victory over Germany, considered one of USA’s leading challengers for World Cup gold, capped a critical slate of friendlies that Kerr said was vital for his young roster to adapt to the differences between international play and NBA basketball.
“We needed all five games to get used to the rules. The FIBA rules are different for us. The pace of the game is different. It’s more physical,” Kerr said Wednesday night following Team USA’s first practice at Mall of Asia Arena. “We needed every bit of experience because we know how good these teams are in the tournament.”
A greater physicality is something many World Cup teams with NBA coaching experience on their benches have noted prior to the tournament. One national team assistant likened the competition to that of NBA playoff basketball, where whistles are often swallowed, and officials allow players to fight for position with a lot more than just the strength of their lower legs and effective box-outs. Defenders have a far greater advantage to knock a ball-handler off course.
“The physicality we’ve been pretty good with,” swingman Josh Hart, the Knicks’ hustle specialist, told Yahoo Sports. “I think sometimes we forget off a free throw or layup or something, if the ball’s dangling around the rim we can knock it off, because we’re programmed not to.”
That would, of course, be ruled goaltending in the NBA. Timberwolves All-Star Anthony Edwards, who posted a game-high 34 points to power USA past Germany in exhibition play, has deduced a “super simple” way to avoid any issues around the iron. “Put the ball in the basket and then get a stop,” Edwards told Yahoo Sports. “All you gotta do is put it through the rim. Don’t make it bounce, and you’ll be alright.”
Bucks forward Bobby Portis was surprised to learn players cannot call timeout from the flow of play, a critical tool when trapped between two hounding defenders. “Then just the value in general,” Portis told Yahoo Sports. The common denominator for all these problems the FIBA rules present is 40 minutes. The four 10-minute periods net a contest that’s eight minutes shorter than an NBA affair, forcing teams to race out from the opening gates as opposed to easing into each battle. And Portis has so far noticed opponents doing what they can to stall USA’s preferred pace. “Teams shooting free throws really slows the game down and stops us from getting out in transition,” Portis said.
Familiar faces, different places (on the court)
In a tale as old as 1992, when the fabled Dream Team stormed the artificial shores of Barcelona and spread basketball around the world, NBA players comprising Team USA’s roster have been tasked with adapting to different roles than they’re accustomed to for their professional clubs.
This World Cup outfit for the Americans is no different. While Jalen Brunson, New York’s star point guard, is once again at the controls of the offense, and Edwards has stepped into his rightful part as a downhill scorer, much of the USA squad has had to adapt to altered responsibilities within Kerr’s rotation. Even as reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Memphis shot blocker Jaren Jackson Jr., starts at center for the Americans, the Grizzlies opened most contests last season with Jackson next to another frontcourt big man, whereas Team USA is starting lithe New Orleans scoring forward Brandon Ingram alongside Jackson.
Following his rookie season in Sacramento, where he still heard his name called for 20 opening lineups, Pacers All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton has started each of his 133 games since then. Here, Halliburton is tasked with relieving Brunson.
Eight fewer game minutes also means there’s far less opportunity for reserve players to see the court as well. No Team USA reserve has played much more than 20 minutes off Kerr’s bench; Haliburton has never logged less than 30 per game in each of his three professional campaigns. Supplementary players like Portis and Austin Reaves have had to adjust to seeing much shorter stints off the pine. “We all play different roles on our respective teams in the NBA,” Portis said. “So coming in for three, four, five minutes at a time, it’s new to some of us.”
The American player challenged with the biggest modification may be Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero. The No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft chose to play for Team USA over Italy, following in the footsteps of his mother, Rhonda Smith-Banchero, who played for Team USA during the 1990s. Now, instead of likely handling the ball for much of the Italian’s offense, Banchero has played mostly as a backup five when Jackson takes a seat. It is a stark contrast to much of Banchero’s award-winning rookie campaign, when Orlando often utilized their 20-year-old phenom at point guard.
“It’s been a huge adjustment for me. Obviously that’s not what I’m planning on doing in Orlando,” Banchero told Yahoo Sports. But Kerr came to him early in camp, back when Team USA first convened in Las Vegas nearly three weeks ago, and informed Banchero he envisioned the Magic centerpiece playing a lot of his minutes at the five. “I’ve just been trying to accept the role and being the best I can at it,” Banchero said. “The biggest thing for me is doing whatever I can to find my way on the floor. I really don’t care what it is, even if it’s not scoring. Having to defend, having to rebound.”
Gold is the goal, and Team USA is the presumptive favorite by a wide margin, especially after the American’s draw has seemed to be aided by the absences of several key players. USA’s opening Group C features Greece, but Giannis Antetokounmpo will be absent while he recovers from knee surgery. Other NBA stars in the Americans’ half of the overall tournament bracket that won’t be in action: Finals MVP Nikola Jokić, who’s not in the competition with his native Serbia, and Lithuanian center Domantas Sabonis, who is resting his injured thumb before another season with Sacramento. While Karl-Anthony Towns is suiting up for the Dominican Republic, veteran center Al Horford is not.
The true threats to challenge the Americans are beginning their World Cup journeys in Japan and Indonesia, complete with different time zones — another massive advantage for Team USA. The Americans, after all, will play all of their games at Mall of Asia Arena, while Groups A and B in Manila will compete during the first two group phases at nearby Araneta Coliseum.
Germany, France and Canada are widely considered the three best teams outside of the Americans. Germany features a handful of NBA players, starring Banchero’s Magic teammate, Franz Wagner, and his brother, Mo Wagner, an Orlando center, in addition to veterans Dennis Schröder and Daniel Theis. France has starting center Rudy Gobert and veterans Nic Batum, Nando de Colo and Frank Ntilikina, as well as sharpshooter Evan Fournier, who appears to be on some form of revenge tour after a season on the sidelines in New York.
Canada will be without Jokic’s pick-and-roll partner, Jamal Murray, but still boasts a strong lineup of NBA talent. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, fresh off his first All-NBA nod, will lead this group from north of the border. There’s also RJ Barrett, Lu Dort, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dillon Brooks, Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell rounding out the roster. Mammoth Purdue center Zach Edey also made the final cut of Canada’s roster under new head coach Jordi Fernández, lead assistant with the Kings.
Let’s not forget Slovenia, powered by the Mavericks All-NBA lynchpin Luka Doncic, arguably the best player in the World Cup. Finland, featuring All-Star forward Lauri Markkanen, is looking to follow a strong performance in last summer’s Eurobasket competition, where it finished seventh.