25 August, 2023
10 September
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How Kerr envisions title-chasing USA at World Cup

SAN FRANCISCO (USA) - USA coach Steve Kerr will be in a race against time to have his team ready for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

“What you look for in FIBA is versatility. You want size defensively and the ability to switch and guard multiple positions, and then you want playmaking. You want guys who can make shots but also put the ball on the floor and are good passers."

The advantages that many of his country's rivals have in terms of continuity and experience in international basketball will add to a sense of urgency for Kerr, who knows firsthand how complicated the 32-team event is going to be after assisting Gregg Popovich at the 2019 World Cup in China.

That USA team almost fell to Turkey in the Group Phase and did lose to a very experienced France in the Quarter-Finals.

Memories of those tight games serve to heighten the anticipation for Kerr, his coaching staff and the players. The World Cup tips off in just over a month.

"It's really exciting that it's here, it's upon us," Kerr said when the Naismith Trophy arrived in the USA as a part of the Trophy Tour.

"It's something that we've been preparing for a while. Until you actually feel the jitters of practice and games, and the anticipation of everything, it's still a ways away.

"So all of a sudden, we're here. Practice starts soon. The team has been named. The coaching staff has begun preparations. It's really exciting. This is what we all signed up for and we're ready to go."

Kerr is counting on the international basketball experience he does have in his team, specifically that of 2015 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup MVP Jalen Brunson, to help his team achieve its aim of lifting the Naismith Trophy.

"I will definitely go into this with a vision of Jalen Brunson taking on a pretty big role, given the way he plays, his success at the FIBA level in past tournaments," Kerr said in the Athletic.

He already has a good idea of how others like Mikal Bridges of the Brooklyn Nets will factor in, too. Bridges and Brunson were teammates at Villanova when the Wildcats won two NCAA titles in the span of three years.

After several seasons with Phoenix, the Suns gambled by including Bridges in a trade to the Nets to acquire Kevin Durant. Bridges has been excellent on defense since his college days. 

"There's no question in my mind that Mikal Bridges is going to be a huge factor for us defensively," Kerr said.

"As a coach, you go into these things and you say, 'Well, who is gonna guard Luka [Doncic], or who's gonna guard Giannis [Antetokounmpo]?’ One of the reasons we built the roster the way we did is we have multiple options for these sorts of things."

Yet, Bridges is outstanding on the other end of the floor as well. After the trade, his scoring jumped from 17.2 points per game in Phoenix to 26.1 points per game in Brooklyn, and that was not down to increased minutes. This season, he averaged less (34.2 minutes per game in 27 games) with the Nets than he did with Phoenix (36.4 minutes per game in 56 games).

When it comes to international experience for the USA, there is also Jaren Jackson Jr, a member of the USA team that won the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2016, in Zaragoza.

This past season, Jackson averaged 3.0 blocks per game for the Memphis Grizzlies, while pouring in 18.6 points and corralling 6.8 rebounds per contest.

"To have a shot blocker of Jaren's quality and a presence at the rim like him is almost a necessity if you want to win a gold medal," Kerr said.

"So we are going to rely on him for his presence at the rim, his force defensively, his ability to help from the weak side and cover up mistakes and back cuts, that sort of thing. And then on the offensive end, he's a guy who's a good pick-and-pop player. As he's shown over the years with Memphis, he can step out and make a three but also score inside, so he is really versatile."

There is also experience in the international game that Haliburton, a guard with the Indiana Pacers, has. He played for USA at the 2019 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Greece and helped the team capture the title.

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Another player that he will lean on is 25-year-old Austin Reaves, who had a breakout season in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Reaves was terrific in the Western Conference Semi-Finals against Kerr's Golden State Warriors, helping the Lakers win the series, 4-2.

Kerr said "watching him kick our butts for six straight games in the Western Conference semis, it was a pretty easy choice."

"Austin is one of the rising young players in this league," Kerr said. "What you look for in FIBA is versatility. You want size defensively and the ability to switch and guard multiple positions, and then you want playmaking. You want guys who can make shots but also put the ball on the floor and are good passers.

"Austin is just, to me, he’s a basketball player. He’s a guy who impacts winning at a really high level. His story is pretty amazing given that he was undrafted two years ago and now here he is, you know, playing for Team USA and being one of the Lakers’ top three players. But it's not an accident."

Kerr is eager to see his players work together in training and watch them in warmup games to understand how the pieces are going to fit.

It's clear that Cam Johnson, who was also dealt by Phoenix to the Nets in the Durant trade, will be important because of his ability to stretch the floor.

Kerr anticipates other contributions, particularly on offense, to come from Brandon Ingram (Pelicans) and Anthony Edwards (Minnesota).

"They are such dynamic scorers, they are obviously going to play big roles for us," he said.

The USA will hold a training camp August 3-6 in Las Vegas before taking part in a series of warm-up games as part of the USA Basketball Showcase, which begins August 7 against Puerto Rico at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.

Kerr's team will also face Slovenia on August 12 and Spain on August 13 in Malaga, Spain, and Greece and Germany on August 18 and 20, respectively, in Abu Dhabi.