‘Center’ Paolo Banchero helps Team USA power past physical New Zealand in FIBA World Cup

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - AUGUST 26: Paolo Banchero #8 of USA shoots the ball during the FIBA Basketball World Cup Group C game between United States and New Zealand at Mall of Asia Arena on August 26, 2023 in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Paolo Banchero of Team USA shoots a 3 during the FIBA World Cup Group C game against New Zealand at Mall of Asia Arena on Aug. 26, 2023, in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

MANILA, Philippines — The New Zealand national team huddled at the opposite foul line from Team USA, then broke into a fiery rendition of the Kiwis’ notable haka dance. It proved more than a series of elbow thrusts and ceremonial stomps. New Zealand punched the mighty Americans’ square in their collective jaws to open Team USA’s first game of the 2023 FIBA World Cup on Saturday, commanding an early 14-4 lead over the presumptive tournament favorites.

“They came out right away and were very physical and took it to us,” said Team USA head coach Steve Kerr. “We need to feel that, because that’s what these games are going to be like.”

Team USA coughed up three turnovers in the opening two minutes. Starting point guard Jalen Brunson stutter-stepped into the lane, only to leave several floaters bouncing on the front iron. Anthony Edwards found his pocket stripped clean on several occasions. “I gotta come out a lot better, for sure,” Edwards said. “They was picking up full court all game.”

But the American reserves, particularly the zippy playmaking from Austin Reaves and Tyrese Haliburton, managed to reclaim the lead by the end of the opening quarter, took a nine-point advantage into intermission and blew the contest open in the third frame, thanks to a flurry of triples from backup big man Paolo Banchero — eventually capping a runaway 99-72 victory at Mall of Asia Arena.

“I love the way we responded,” Kerr said. “We feel like over 40 minutes, we can wear teams down. It’s hard to play that way, as physical as New Zealand was. It’s hard to sustain that for 40 minutes.”

The Kiwis scouted the Americans’ switching defensive scheme and barreled their way into the paint on possession after possession, targeting Brunson and even Team USA’s skinnier, lanky wings in Mikal Bridges and Brandon Ingram. “For the last two, three weeks, we’ve really been training those coverages,” said Reuben Te Rangi, New Zealand’s 6-foot-6 swingman, who finished with 15 points. “We knew the reads and what we wanted to get out of it.”

Eventually, Team USA managed a consistent resistance around the rim. “They were just a physical group of guys. They were really physical,” Haliburton said. “I just thought we did a good job when they were getting into the paint, just being high hands. [At first], we fouled too much.”

The American reserves had specialized in clamping down on opposing attacks and turning stops into offense throughout their five-game exhibition slate prior to the World Cup.

“That starts on the defensive end,” Reaves said. “So the intensity’s gotta be super high on that. And once we have that, it kind of makes the game easy, because we’re able to play in transition.”

Strength and size, though, are some of the bigger question marks for Kerr’s roster, which is a collaboration between the head coach and Team USA managing director Grant Hill. If there is an Achilles heel that more formidable opponents can threaten the Americans, look no further.

The only true center among these 12 players is Rookie of the Year finalist and Utah Jazz 7-footer Walker Kessler, who is only expected to play limited minutes throughout this run in the Philippines. Jaren Jackson Jr., Team USA’s starting center, primarily plays power forward for the Memphis Grizzlies, and his eagerness to swat shots around the rim has left the reigning Defensive Player of the Year susceptible to foul trouble throughout his young NBA career, despite his obvious success protecting the rim.

Sure enough, Jackson found himself in and out of the lineup against New Zealand, thanks to whistle after whistle against the soaring shot blocker. Kerr was forced to repeatedly call on Banchero, the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, and the face of the Orlando Magic franchise responded and then some. Kerr informed Banchero early in training camp he envisioned the Duke product, typically a perimeter ball-handler, as the Americans’ reserve center. It’s fair to say Banchero has taken that mantle and ran with it.

“Being in the World Cup, my role is my role. I kind of have accepted it,” Banchero said. “I just want to do it to the best of my ability. J.J., he’s a great player. I gotta be able to pick up where he left off when he comes out the game.”

Banchero was a force in the paint, rejecting four New Zealand shots throughout the contest, several of which sparked those runaway opportunities that Haliburton and Reaves were so eagerly hunting. And in the decisive third quarter stretch, Banchero came alive with the ball in his hands.

He checked into the game less than two minutes into the second half as Jackson was called for his third personal, then cashed a baseline jumper two possessions later. He drew a foul on a feed from Reaves and converted both attempts. Next, Banchero pulled up for a midrange jumper. His back-to-back 3-pointers at the end of the frame, the second a smooth step-back on the left wing, helped Team USA open an 18-point edge before the final quarter. They were the first two triples Banchero has made during live-game action with the Americans this summer after he and the rest of this roster finally took the floor in Manila on Saturday after arriving in the Philippines on Tuesday.

“I was just waiting for this World Cup to start, man,” said Banchero, who led Team USA with 21 points. “When the lights is on, I’m ready to go. I’m ready. I’m here.”

The Americans step back into the shining spectacle at Mall of Asia Arena on Monday, with an 8:40 a.m. ET tip against Greece.