MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Through two games of this FIBA World Cup, the players who lead USA Basketball team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots all share something in common.
They’re not starters.
It’s not exactly an overwhelming sample size, but those statistical factoids — how the “bench players” are putting up a ton of numbers — shed a lot of light on what makes this U.S. team tick. Nobody cares what's on the stat sheet. Everyone plays a role, starter or non-starter, and that’s exactly how USA Basketball wanted this roster to work when it was assembled.
“When you wear this uniform, when you play for Team USA, it’s so much bigger than you,” U.S. reserve guard Tyrese Haliburton said. “So, you’ve got to understand that and understand the legends that came off the bench before us. We’re no better than them. You’ve got to understand it and understand that that’s part of building a culture here for Team USA. They’ve been able to do that over the last however-many years and so we’re trying to continue that.”
He's right. There is a history of this.
Jayson Tatum didn't start any games at the Tokyo Olympics two summers ago. Carmelo Anthony didn't start any games at the 2012 London Olympics — and still had 37 points in only 14 minutes in one of those games, against Nigeria in one of the top USA Basketball performances ever. Dwyane Wade led the 2008 Olympic team in scoring at Beijing and came off the bench in all eight of those games. Charles Barkley didn't start half the games for the original Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992.
All were huge parts of gold-medal-winning teams, and those are just a few examples. This is what USA Basketball asks of players invited to be part of the national team: Show up, leave your ego at home and be part of something bigger than you.
“I get to kind of just go out there, cause havoc and then get a rest,” said U.S. wing Josh Hart, another off-the-bench guy for this team. “I'm cool, man. I'm out here playing hard, giving out good vibes. I'll let them do the heavy-loading on offense. I don't really care if I start or not. I know I'm going to get minutes and when I get minutes it's my job to go out there and make those minutes count. It's fun.”
Again, it’s been only two games. The U.S. is hoping it has six more to play on the way to gold, but the stats to this point certainly suggest that the selflessness the Americans have talked about all summer is more than just talk.
Paolo Banchero (14.5) leads the team at the World Cup in points per game. Hart (7.5) leads in rebounds per game. Austin Reaves (6.0) leads in assists per game, as well as steals per game (2.5). Haliburton and Banchero are the blocked-shots leaders with 2.0 per game.
Combined starts from that group this summer, even including the five exhibition games: Zero.
“I mean, they're not a real second unit. They're a first unit in disguise,” U.S. starting center Jaren Jackson Jr. said. “They're doing everything that they need to be doing. Can’t really ask any more of them. When they come in, they bring energy, they go on the run. It’s like ‘Showtime’ and you’re watching a whole show. So, it’s a good show for the fans. I get to watch, too. It's real nice.”
Of the 12 players on the U.S. roster, 10 started at least half of their games in the NBA last season. The exceptions there are Reaves (who became a starter late in the year for the Los Angeles Lakers) and Bobby Portis, who plays starter-level minutes in Milwaukee and has a huge role for the Bucks — plus, is the only player on this team with an NBA championship ring.
Coming off the bench isn't something most U.S. reserves here are used to. U.S. coach Steve Kerr has used the same first five in every game this summer — Jalen Brunson, Anthony Edwards, Brandon Ingram, Mikal Bridges and Jackson Jr. — but usually has an entirely new unit on the floor later in the first quarter. It's a win-win-win for the Americans: a lot of guys play, the ‘starters’ don't get worn down (nobody has averaged even 22 minutes per game so far at the World Cup), and the U.S. gets to show off its depth.
“With the talent that we have, 1 through 12, regardless of who it is we like our chances against anybody,” Reaves said. “The first unit wears down the opponents so quick because of the type of basketball that we play. We play fast. Physical defense. So, every time we get in the game, our goal is to turn the intensity and try to wear down teams.”
NOTES: The U.S. got Tuesday off, with no formal practice. ... The team (2-0) finishes group stage play Wednesday against Jordan, then has second-round games on Friday and Sunday.