2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup

Popovich helps build team camaraderie with 'Pop Quizzes'

Questions range from world geography to the periodic table

SHANGHAI — If the United States Men’s National Team is going to win gold at the FIBA World Cup, the American players are going to have rely on each other.

This team does not have the superstar bucket-getters of past USA squads. As we saw in the Americans’ overtime escape against Turkey on Tuesday, the margin for error is thin. And to keep winning against tougher competition, the players will need to help each other when it comes to identifying the opposing defense or who’s defending whom on a pick and roll.

Just like they do when it comes to identifying the Czech Republic on an unlabeled map of Europe.

That has been one of the challenges that U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich has given his players along the journey to the World Cup knockout rounds. At the beginning of some of the team’s meetings, Popovich has selected a player to answer a non-basketball question, a “Pop Quiz” if you will.

This group of Americans is probably more learned in pick-and-roll coverage than world geography. Fortunately, players, in the face of trying to distinguish the Czech Republic from Slovakia, are allowed to use a lifeline, like on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” with Popovich in the role of Regis Philbin.

Need help? Your teammate is there for you.

“Being willing to ask for help, willing to go to your teammate,” Donovan Mitchell told NBA.com, “that’s what, really, a lot of this is all about.”

It’s not all geography. Stanford alum Brook Lopez aced a Pop Quiz by recalling the periodic symbol for silver (Ag). The key was a mnemonic device that Lopez had memorized years back.

“Ahh gee, it’s only silver,” he said. “Ay you, give me that gold.

“I’m amazed at the things I do remember and the things I don’t remember from high school chemistry and high school world cultures.”

Harrison Barnes, former AP student, was cited as being the best Pop Quiz contestant.

Every day, he’s got something different. He’s got a history lesson with a quote from some general during the Civil War. Then he’s got geography. He has a different way of trying to see where you are mentally.

Harrison Barnes on Team USA coach Gregg Popovich

“Derrick White’s eliminated automatically,” Mitchell said. “because he’s used to it [playing for Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs]. I would say the best has been Harrison Barnes. We haven’t had too many guys go up yet. But we’ve all chipped in.”

“I think the only person who got one right was Harrison,” Jayson Tatum added. “Everybody else had to ask a friend.”

One player needed to call on Mitchell’s help to identify China — the third largest country in the world and the one the players are spending almost three weeks in — on the map. Mitchell wouldn’t divulge the identity of the teammate who called that lifeline, but said that it was only for confirmation.

“They just didn’t want to be wrong,” he noted. “They wanted to be sure.”

The reward for getting a question right? Popovich transforms from Regis Philbin to Oprah Winfrey.

“Pop’s handing out cars,” Lopez laughed. “He’s giving people cars for getting right answers.”

Matchbox cars, sadly. The real rewards are intangible.

“It builds camaraderie,” Lopez said. “It’s good to know that stuff, too.”

“There’s a lot of other stuff going on besides basketball,” USA assistant coach Steve Kerr added. “When you’re playing in the World Cup, it takes on a different meaning, playing against teams from all over the world. It’s good for these guys, for all of us, to learn more about the world and learn more about the teams we’re playing. It keeps guys on their toes, but I think they enjoy it too.”

Pop Quizzes get the team engaged before the basketball work begins. There’s no wiping the sleep out of your eyes upon entering the room.

“He definitely challenges you mentally,” Barnes said of Popovich. “Every day, he’s got something different. He’s got a history lesson with a quote from some general during the Civil War. Then he’s got geography. He has a different way of trying to see where you are mentally.”

These players are only under Popovich’s watch for six weeks. But even with a condensed timeline between the first day of training camp and a (likely) quarterfinal where the U.S. is facing elimination against a tough opponent, there’s a need to mix things up a little.

“You think back to who your favorite teachers were in your high school days,” Kerr said. “It’s always the ones that shook things up and made them more interesting, did things that you weren’t expecting, rather than just droned on about the same thing every day. Pop’s just a creative teacher, and I think guys really enjoy that dynamic.”

The U.S. players were not discouraged about needing Turkey to miss four straight free throws to win their first-round game on Tuesday. Similarly, Lopez takes a positive view towards the team’s performance in the classroom.

“I think we’ve fared pretty well,” he said. “We’ve missed one or two countries as a team. But our team’s general trivia, capitals, chemistry, and country knowledge is pretty formidable, I think.”

“Since the first day that we did it,” Kerr remarked, “I think guys have been preparing a little bit better.”

Alas, there is no trivia competition at the World Cup. These guys will only be going head-to-head with other nations on the basketball court. But maybe the bonds built in the face of Pop Quizzes will pay off when the single-elimination rounds begin next week.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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