In the Team USA’s first real match against an opponent they were able to get back #2 ranked Spain 90-81. The game wasn’t as close as the final score suggests, but it also wasn’t the comfortable victories that many have grown accustomed to seeing from USA teams. Nonetheless, there were a lot of interesting takeaways from this game that give a blueprint into what USA can do to tighten some screws as they head to the FIBA tourney:
Simply put, USA turned the ball over way too much. The final tally was 23 of them with 6 players throwing two or more. Some of it was bad decision-making, but a bigger theme was just unfamiliarity. There were many times where guys were trying to make the right play by driving towards the hoop but when they looked to kick out, teammates weren’t properly relocated. That’s correctable with practice and game reps so as for now I’ll just pin it as something to monitor.
Minute Allocation and the De’Aaron Fox mystery
This one will obviously change when rosters are officially cut down and roles are established but the overall minute allocation was very weird. It’s unclear if we should take this as an indicator of who Pop is thinking about keeping on the team but it would make sense considering the need for the team to mesh quickly. Of the 13 guys that played, 4 of them played single digit minutes:
Jaylen Brown: 9:47
Brook Lopez: 9:23
Derrick White: 7:59
De’Aaron Fox: 6:11
Fox playing the least amongst all active players was odd. All indications were that he was having an impressive camp and he seemed to be an interesting option as a change of pace guard. However, Pop seemed more inclined to use Mitchell as the lead ball-handler when Kemba Walker sat and in the second half relied on White as the primary one when Walker and Mitchell sat rather than turn to Fox. All indications suggested that Fox was a lock to make this team, but Pop has stressed team fit over overall talent.
With that being said, it seem like risky business for Team USA to cut a player like Fox who seems destined for stardom. With so many players opting to skip this event, the last thing you want to do is alienate a potential star in the making who you’ll most likely want to bring back for the next Olympics.
Team Shamrock sharing the ball
Of Team USA’s 24 assists, Kemba Walker (8) and Jayson Tatum (4) combined for half of them. Both of them did a really good job of being ball-movers throughout the game with Walker establishing himself as the #1 playmaker on the team. The sequence that stuck out to me the most was a stretch in the fourth where Spain was threatening to get into single digits and USA was going through a rough patch offensively without a real lead ball-handler on the court. With the team looking like it was going to lose all of it’s cushion Tatum took control. He initiated the halcourt offense on consecutive possessions, threading the needle to Kyle Kuzma for an easy 2 and then busted Spain’s zone on the next posession and found Joe Harris open for three to stabilize the game for USA.
This aren’t the plays that will make SportsCenter, but it was promising to see him make those reads at those moments where some guys may have been tempted to try and make it happen on their own.
A key swing skill for USA will be their ability to shoot. Most teams are going to come into matchups understanding that they can’t matchup with this roster athletically so will counter with zones that aim to pack the paint and force USA to hit shots on the perimeter. Spain did that, and though USA did have some trouble generating offense in stretches they shot a whopping 57.9% from three with everybody who attempted a three at least hitting one sans Fox. Between Walker, Middleton, Tatum, Harris, and Lopez this team is actually a sneaky good perimeter shooting team and though this percentage may not be the norm, it could be pretty close if teams will be letting them walk into those looks playing zone.
Updated Prediction of Rosters
With reports that Team USA plans on brining the rest of the 14 guys to Australia rather than making cuts prior to the trip there’s still a lot of questions about who will make the team. Taking in the new information we have now from the two exhibition matches, here is how I have split up:
Locks: Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, Myles Turner
Likely: Joe Harris, Mason Plumlee, Brook Lopez, Marcus Smart, Harrison Barnes
Bubble: Kyle Kuzma, Jaylen Brown, De’Aaron Fox, Derrick White
For those counting, this would mean my bubble guys would be competing for the remaining two spots on the team. Those two spots can basically be condensed down to two roles. One of those spots is going to either Brown or Kuzma as a small-ball 4 candidate. The other will go to the “Third PG” role which is where both Fox and White got their limited minutes.
If minutes were any indication of who’s winning either battle, Kuzma played more than Brown and also has the size advantage. Brown has the athleticism and overall defensive versatility edge.
On the flip side, White has the advantage of being Pop’s pupil while Fox is the more talented player and as close to a pure playmaker as there is on this roster. White is going to have to show more of a willingness to take (and make) three’s otherwise his value is very limited in the halfcourt without the ball in his hands. That could be Fox’s prime advantage at showing a stronger fit as an improved shooter and superior playmaker.
Neither will be an easy decision and all four guys will need to have strong weeks or risk being the odd men out.
- Donovan Mitchell had 0 assists against Spain. He’s obviously not an advanced playmaker but if the team is going to rely on him in that role he’s going to have to do a little bit of a better job creating for others.
- Kemba Walker was the game-high guy in rebounds with 6 while Tatum and Kuzma came behind him with 5-apiece. Despite USA’s bigs not being forces on the boards, they did a good job limiting Spain’s second chance opportunities while the perimeter guys made sure to clean up.
- Joe Harris impressed with a sneaky ability to play out of the PnR. That most likely won’t be his role on this team as the resident sharpshooter but I was blown away by how comfortable he looks with the ball in his hands.
- Along with Derrick White, Harrison Barnes was the other player that did not attempt a three. The circumstances were a little different for the two players since Barnes was more about a limited opportunity whereas there was a reluctance with White. Regardless, both guys are going to have to be confident shooters if they want to keep teams honest.
- In case you wanted extended highlights from the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gm8lXgwX2zo
UPDATE: De’Aaron Fox withdrawing from Team USA
After barely playing last night and looking to be more of player on the bubble than an actual lock, Fox officially bowed out of the running. The timing of this is odd because it appears that USA was prepared to carry 14 players to Australia where guys on the bubble would have a chance to win out a spot, but it appears Fox had no interest in doing so. It was literally a week from today when Brian Windhorst declared him a lock for the team following Marc Stein who did so after the third day of camp.
As a consensus future star in this league Fox was probably mystified by his unclear standing on the roster and the fact that he was apparently competing with Derrick White who plays for Greg Popovich’s Spurs. This most likely gave the impression that the decks were stacked too far against him. Regardless, it was in USA’s best interest to frame this as Fox choosing to leave on his own since he will be a player they’ll want for the next couple Olympic tournaments as a 21yr old rising star.