The group phase of the 2019 FIBA World Cup is all about small victories, in one way or another. And the packed crowd at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center, all in attendance to catch the first glimpses of Team USA basketball, smelled blood. Fans were never louder than they were roughly halfway through the first quarter of USA vs. Czech Republic, when the Czechs took an early 11-7 lead over the prohibitive favorites. The fervor lasted another two minutes; the Czech national team would never lead again. But if there is a motif that may unite the world through the next two weeks of this tournament, it’s the creeping sense that the underdog might soon have its day.
Just not today. Team USA more or less cruised to an 88-67 victory in Shanghai on Sunday, giving the field its first glimpse of the myriad lineup combinations that U.S. national team head coach Gregg Popovich will trot out over the course of the tournament, and the player who has quickly risen to the top of the hierarchy.
Donovan Mitchell has become a favorite among the Team USA coaching staff over the past month, and his natural leadership abilities, despite being the third-youngest player on the roster, have made him Popovich’s pet project in China. “When you tap somebody that has leadership ability, it’s better to start it sooner,” Popovich told ESPN earlier this week. “The quicker you make them feel responsible that they can do that, the better. Then if that person grabs onto it then you know you chose the right guy.”
Mitchell led all U.S. players in minutes with just over 25, and led the team in scoring with 16 points. With 4:35 remaining in the game, Mitchell drove an ornate nail through the coffin, splitting two Czech defenders at halfcourt en route to a two-handed tomahawk jam. Mitchell finds himself in a sort of Goldilocks position among this Team USA roster: He is a lead offensive initiator who can approximate Kemba Walker’s slithery sleight of hand without giving up size on the other end; he also has the strength and length on defense of someone like Marcus Smart while being a much more reliable scorer from all levels of the floor.
There was another Goldilocks who revealed himself in the game, though his numbers were nowhere near as showy as Mitchell’s. For Team USA to advance in later rounds against stronger, deeper teams, Myles Turner will have to step up significantly. One of only three true bigs on the roster, Turner has the ideal blend of athleticism, perimeter scoring ability, and defensive acumen to play with just about any lineup configuration Pop puts on the floor; Brook Lopez is too slow, Mason Plumlee too uncomfortable on the perimeter. Turner’s versatility was on display in subtle ways on Sunday, mostly in the pick-and-roll. He scored easily in the two-man game with Spurs guard Derrick White in the second half, and his roaming behind the arc made things difficult for Czech starting center Ondrej Balvin. The 7-foot-1 Czech descended into no man’s land in a side pick-and-roll between Smart and Turner in the second half of the game. Smart easily found his way to the rim after catching Balvin on the switch; against more traditional big men, Turner can change the dynamics of the game without even touching the ball.
But as was the case in pre-tournament exhibitions, Pop opted to go super small more often than not, putting players like Harrison Barnes, Khris Middleton, or Jaylen Brown at “center,” ensuring the team would have optimal spacing with as many shot creators on the floor as possible. Barnes has the most senior-team experience on the roster, and his comfort level sliding across roles was evident, as he was the team’s second-leading scorer with 14 points on 63 percent shooting. He may have come into the league as a prototypical wing, but has emerged as an ideal big man in the international game with his strong base and upper body. His steadiness has allowed Pop to go much smaller than he’d usually go with his San Antonio Spurs. Lopez had a comical 26-second stint on the floor at one point in the first half before being yanked; in the second half, he only seemed to get in Jayson Tatum’s way as he screened and rescreened for the wing. It was a clear show of just how antithetical having a lumbering big man can be to Team USA’s overall offensive strategy; the brief, bumbling moments of miscommunication delighted the Chinese crowd.
But Lopez’s ability to shapeshift from a traditional low-post threat to an eager 3-point marksman will prove valuable soon, and the early chemistry issues figure to smooth themselves out in time. Shooting is paramount in the international game, so it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that Joe Harris, the best shooter in the game, had its highest plus-minus. Having a player like Harris, who is not only outrageously accurate, but knows how to relocate to open up the court for others and can make quick decisions with the ball, makes the game so much easier for the rest of the team, especially when the roster doesn’t have many superstar-level individual scorers.
The Czech Republic fittingly relied on its biggest NBA export, Tomas Satoransky, who had a huge box score, dropping a game-high 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, and dishing out five assists. He is a unique player at any level: a 6-foot-7 point guard with above-average athleticism and shooting ability, and a no-mistakes approach to the game. He has served as a caretaker in the NBA, but had to assume a star’s role and usage on Sunday. It isn’t the best look on him, but Chicago Bulls fans should be happy about how their new guard fared in his most intimidating individual challenge to date.
Team USA faces Turkey on Tuesday, and may find themselves opting for the same strategy they had against the Czech Republic. We may see small ball for the rest of the first round, given the lack of dominant big men in the group. Turkey’s best weapons (Ersan Ilyasova and Cedi Osman) are both perimeter players whom a player like Brown or Barnes can handily defend individually. Game 1 of Team USA’s World Cup journey was, in a way, a heartening sign of adaptation from Popovich, who, over the past couple seasons, has been on a bit of a nostalgic trip in terms of his offensive game plan. He hasn’t been afraid to shrink the kids in Shanghai. We’ll be seeing more of that in the coming days.