2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup
In playing small, big decisions loom for Team USA
With scrimmage emphasis on small-ball, roster decisions await
LAS VEGAS — Day 3 of training camp for the US men’s senior national team brought more scrimmaging against the Select Team. And the media was able to see more of it than on Tuesday.
Both of the quarters that the media witnessed ended in ties. At the end of the first of those two, Khris Middleton got Jonathan Isaac to bite on a pump fake and then made three free throws with 0.7 seconds on the clock to tie it at 23. And with the score tied 24-24 at the end of the last 10-minute scrimmage, Derrick White missed a pull-up 3 that would have given the Select Team the win.
Some small lessons
The Senior Team had a solid lead midway through that last period, but they lost it when coach Steve Kerr went small with a lineup of De’Aaron Fox, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Middleton and Kyle Kuzma. The Select Team, playing with a frontline of Jonathan Isaac, Marvin Bagley Jr. and Mitchell Robinson for the last few minutes, scored too easily inside against the smaller Senior lineup.
Kuzma said afterward that he wasn’t surprised when Middleton checked in for one of the Senior Team centers and told Kuzma that he was now playing the 5 and guarding Jarrett Allen (before Robinson checked in).
“[Coach Gregg Popovich] and the rest of staff said that they like my defensive versatility, how I can guard multiple positions,” he explained. “With the Euro game, there’s not too many people posting up. So, it’s going to bring guys out who have to guard me. That will open penetration for our elite guards.”
— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) August 7, 2019
Kerr, meanwhile, made it clear that experimenting with the small lineup was just part of the process.
“We’re just trying stuff,” he said. “We’re looking at different players at different positions to see how they fit. [Playing small] is something that we will definitely consider, but it’s Day 3 of training camp. Who knows if it’s something we’re going to do?”
Previous versions of the national team haven’t played small (without a 4 or 5 at “center”) very often in international competitions. But it will be interesting to see which centers make the final roster. They’re all very different players.
“You’ve got an offensive guy in [Brook] Lopez,” said US team managing director Jerry Colangelo. “Fundamentally, [Mason] Plumlee is excellent in everything he does. Bam [Adebayo] is young. And [Myles] Turner, who was slow to start in the first couple of days, came to life today, I thought.”
One observation from the scrimmaging that the media has seen: The bouncy Adebayo seems to rebound everything.
Neither team has been able to run much in the scrimmages — transition defense, FTW — but Wednesday’s highlight was a fast-break alley-oop from Kemba Walker to Donovan Mitchell.
— NBA (@NBA) August 7, 2019
Brown tried to top that, but he couldn’t finish a dunk attempt over Allen.
From what the media has seen, Mitchell has been playing the 2, alongside Walker or Fox. In those last couple of quarters, Mitchell shot well, both off the dribble and off the catch. In fact, in a role-reversal situation, he hit two 3-pointers off of nice drive-and-kick feeds from Joe Harris.
Smart shelved; Roster decisions loom
Marcus Smart sat out of practice on Wednesday, dealing with a sore left calf. He’s out for the rest of this week and will be re-evaluated when the team reconvenes in Los Angeles next week.
Kyle Lowry, recovering from thumb surgery, is also on the shelf and set to be reevaluated next week. Colangelo said Wednesday that the preliminary plan is to bring 15 players to Los Angeles for three practices and an exhibition game against Spain, but that 15 number is “a moving target” (meaning that it’s not set in stone).
It’s safe to assume that two of those 15 (or so) are Lowry and Smart. So we may see two healthy players cut from the roster between Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage and next Tuesday. That will be a difficult process, both in distinguishing a group of players that seem to be on the same level and telling guys that they’re no longer needed.
“They’re all tough decisions, because you have a whole roster full of really good players,” Kerr said. “Cutting players is always hard, even in [NBA] training camp every year. We bring in guys for camp who we know aren’t going to make the team, they know they’re not going to make the team, and yet to sit down with them and say, ‘This is it,’ it’s brutal.
“We’re going to have to do that with a handful of players here, and it’s going to be even more difficult, because they’ve all cut time out of their summers to come here and try to play for their country. Everybody’s excited to be here and wants to be part of it, but we can only take 12. So it’s going to be tough.”
Colangelo said that the staff meets at the hotel after practice and evaluates every player, even those on the Select Team, every day.
Select Team standouts
Colangelo cited Bagley and White as two Select Team players who have stood out over the last couple of days. Bagley shined in the portion of practice that the media saw. He’s big, he’s skilled, and he’s athletic.
Trae Young remains a dangerous offensive player (he had one nifty dish off a baseline drive on Wednesday) and a liability defensively. Jalen Brunson seemed to be holding his own.
Isaac said afterward that he’s played almost entirely at small forward for the Select Team. Their 12-man roster (coached by Jeff Van Gundy) includes five guys — Allen, Bagley, John Collins, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Robinson — that are power forwards or centers.
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