2023 FIBA World Cup

3 things to watch as USA faces Slovenia in FIBA exhibition

Here's everything you need to know as USA faces Slovenia in an exhibition match on Saturday.

Team USA pulled out a decisive win in an exhibition game over Puerto Rico in Las Vegas.

>> Box score: USA vs. Slovenia

After a dominant 117-74 win over Puerto Rico in Las Vegas on Monday, the USA Basketball Men’s National Team boarded a flight to continue their preparation for the 2023 FIBA World Cup in Malaga, Spain.

“Preparation is going very well,” said USA coach Steve Kerr from Malaga. “We’ve been practicing now for maybe nine days. These two games will be great for us, because we have prepared well, but we need more game experience. And we’re playing two great teams, so it will be a really good weekend for us.”

While Puerto Rico was ranked 20th in the world rankings, this weekend’s exhibition games come against seventh-ranked Slovenia on Saturday, and top-ranked Spain (the defending FIBA World Cup champions from 2019 and FIBA EuroBasket champions from 2022) on Sunday.

We’ll take a closer look at each matchup this weekend, beginning with the game against Slovenia, which tips off at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 12 and will be televised in the United States on FS1.

1. Former Mavs teammates meet in Malaga

Jalen Brunson and Luka Doncic spent 4 seasons together in Dallas from 2018 to 2022.

Update (Saturday 10:45 a.m ET): Luka Doncic has been ruled out after suffering an injury Friday vs. Spain. 

Luka Doncic (third overall) and Jalen Brunson (33rd overall) entered the NBA together in the 2018 NBA Draft, with Doncic being acquired via a trade with Atlanta and Brunson being drafted directly by Dallas. The duo spent four seasons together in Dallas, peaking with a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2022, where the Mavericks were eliminated by the Warriors.

That Game 5 elimination loss to Golden State marked the final game that Doncic and Brunson would spend as teammates, as Brunson signed a four-year deal to join the New York Knicks as a free agent. Saturday’s game would mark only the second time that Brunson and Doncic would share the court as opponents.

Last season, Doncic scored 30 points to lead the Mavericks to a 121-100 win over Brunson (13 points) and the Knicks in New York City on Dec. 3. The teams met three weeks later in Dallas, but Brunson missed the game due to injury, so his first game back against the team that drafted him will have to wait for next season. Brunson was on the Knicks bench to watch Doncic make NBA history against his current squad, posting the first 60-20-10 triple-double in league history in a 126-121 overtime win for Dallas.

While Doncic and the Mavericks swept the season series against Brunson’s new team, it was New York that found more success over the course of the season. As Dallas stumbled down the stretch and missed the playoffs, the Knicks earned the No. 5 seed in the East and advanced to the second round in Brunson’s first season.

Brunson has established himself as a go-to player in New York after constantly being the second option while playing alongside Doncic in Dallas. But that experience and the ability to thrive while playing alongside elite teammates is something that translates to play with the national team, as Brunson is lining up each game surrounded by No. 1 options on their respective NBA teams. Against Puerto Rico, Brunson finished with 11 points on eight shots, while adding a game-high 12 rebounds and three assists in 22 minutes.

The former Mavericks teammates have remained friends since parting ways back in 2022, but it will be fun to see them compete against one another this weekend, even if it is only any exhibition game.

2. Who guards Luka (if he plays)?

Anthony Edwards held Luka Doncic to the lowest FG percentage when guarding him during the 2022-23 season.

Update (Saturday 10:45 a.m ET): Luka Doncic has been ruled out after suffering an injury Friday vs. Spain.

While Saturday marks Team USA’s first game in Malaga during this FIBA World Cup warmup series between the US, Slovenia and Spain, it will be the second game in as many days for Slovenia as they face Spain on Friday. That begs the question: will Doncic play on the second day of a back-to-back, and if he does, how many minutes will he play as the Slovenian coaching staff balances the benefits of exhibition play with any potential risk of injury due to fatigue.

Slovenia coach Aleksander Sekulic has indicated that he plans to play Doncic in both games this weekend, but hedged the statement by saying he wanted to see how Friday’s game against Spain went first before making an ultimate decision on Doncic’s minutes against the Americans.

Assuming Doncic does play on Saturday, which players on Team USA will draw that defensive assignment?

Let’s go to the numbers. When looking at Doncic’s matchup data from last season, three of the top 15 players in total defensive matchup time with Doncic are on this USA roster: Josh Hart, Anthony Edwards and Mikal Bridges. Here’s a look at how each of them fared against Luka last season.

Josh Hart 11:39 16 8 2 0 5-11 (45.5%) 0-2 (0%) 6-7 (4)
Mikal Bridges 11:37 16 6 1 0 6-11 (54.5%) 1-4 (25%) 3-4 (1)
Anthony Edwards 11:20 18 5 1 1 5-14 (35.7%) 3-8 (37.5%) 5-5 (2)

A few things stand out when looking at these defensive numbers. First, all three players forced Doncic to look for teammates as he racked up a combined 19 assists compared to 16 field goals made.

Edwards held Doncic to the lowest field goal percentage (35.7%), but allowed the most points, in part due to a pair of shooting fouls that sent Luka to the line. Hart also had a hard time defending Doncic without fouling as he allowed four shooting fouls in his 11:39 of matchup time.

Overall, all three USA defenders held their own against Doncic during NBA games last season. Of course, things will be a bit different during international play as Doncic is being asked to carry an even greater load of the Slovenian offense, especially after the loss of fellow NBA player Vlatko Cancar, who suffered a torn ACL during an exhibition game last week.

3. Who will emerge as USA’s go-to player?

Could Brandon Ingram become the spark for Team USA down the line?

This question didn’t need to be answered against Puerto Rico as the Americans cruised to a 43-point win behind a balanced attack: Anthony Edwards and Cam Johnson each scored 15 points to lead the way, while Mikal Bridges added 14, Jaren Jackson Jr. tallied 12, and Jalen Brunson, Brandon Ingram and Bobby Portis each scored 11 to give the USA squad seven players in double figures.

The USA squad thrived in transition and off of live-ball turnovers against Puerto Rico as steals turned into fast-break layups and alley-oop dunks. The team played fast and unselfish – racking up 29 assists on 48 made shots – as Puerto Rico was unable to overcome the USA’s advantage in overall speed and quickness.

But as the opponents gets stronger and the games get more competitive, who will be the player that has the ball in their hands when the US squad needs a bucket? There are plenty of candidates for this role. Brunson is an option as a scoring point guard as he will have the ball in his hands a lot, especially when initiating offense in the half court during a close game.

If we look to history, the spotlight should be on the wings as the go-to options for Team USA. Think back to Dwyane Wade (16.0 ppg), LeBron James (15.5) and Kobe Bryant 15.0) with the Redeem Team in 2008; or Olympic Melo with Carmelo Anthony averaging double figures in 2008 (11.5), 2012 (11.5) and 2016 (12.1). Then, there is Kevin Durant, who sat courtside for the Puerto Rico game in Las Vegas. Durant competed for Team USA four times from 2010 to 2020 and led the team in scoring every time: 2010 (22.8 ppg), 2012 (19.5), 2016 (19.4) and 2020 (20.7).

The two wings to watch entering this weekend were both in the starting lineup against Puerto Rico – Anthony Edwards and Brandon Ingram. Edwards plays with a physicality and athleticism that makes him ideally suited for international competition. He thrives on the competition, and the physical play will do nothing to deter him. Edwards just turned 22 years old last week and is set to enter his fourth NBA season in Minnesota. He is primed to make a huge leap, and playing for Team USA has been a catapult for players in the past, and a model that he could follow.

If Durant is the best example of a go-to player for the United States in international play, Ingram may provide the closest facsimile on this year’s squad. Ingram has been compared to Durant for years, both in terms of physical stature as both players are long and lean, as well as style of play as both players are elite scorers that can fill up the basket from all over the court.