MANILA, Philippines — Statistically speaking, if you want to call this a “vulnerability” for Team USA, you’d be doing so tongue-in-cheek.
Over the Americans’ five exhibition games, they outrebounded their opponents by a substantial 234-185 margin.
And yet, as the FIBA World Cup is finally upon us and Team USA plays New Zealand at 8:40 a.m. ET Saturday, the team’s underbelly is the rebounding and, more broadly, a relative lack of size, numbers be damned.
It’s the thing that, heading into World Cup play, the Americans say is the thing they must guard against — being so badly beaten on the boards that it costs them a game.
“I hope not, I hope (that doesn’t happen),” said Jaren Jackson Jr., the man chiefly responsible for getting those rebounds for Team USA.
“We talk about it all the time,” USA coach Steve Kerr said. “Even tomorrow against New Zealand, they’re going to crash five guys at a time. They’re not as big and physical as Germany, but they’re going to have a similar mentality. So it’s a point of emphasis every practice, boxing out, making sure we recognize what we’re facing.”
New Zealand’s tallest player is Yannick Wetzell, a 6-foot-10 power forward who plays professionally in Germany, but he is hardly the point. The point is the two times the Americans were challenged at all in their otherwise perfect exhibition season, they were outrebounded — by two against Spain and by 13 against Germany.
Those two countries have NBA bigs on their teams, and New Zealand does not — there are no NBA players on its roster. Team USA is a massive favorite in this game and should be throughout pool play (there are games Monday, against Greece, whom the Americans hammered in the preseason, and against Jordan on Wednesday), but as the tournament moves onto the later stages, they could face Lithuania and/or Montenegro — two countries that both have NBA big men.
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Jackson is the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, and he is Team USA’s center, but he is so good because he is a shot blocker. Rebounding is not his strong suit. Jackson is 6-11 but averaged just 6.8 rebounds for the Memphis Grizzlies last season.
The Grizzlies played either Steven Adams (a New Zealander, by the way), or Xavier Tillman at center, so it was not Jackson’s primary responsibility to stay home and rebound, but he’s being asked to do it now. Also, the USA likes to play small, with Mikal Bridges and Brandon Ingram as forwards — neither of them known necessarily as prolific rebounders.
“The ball is much bouncier, there are a lot of longer misses,” said Jackson, whose eight rebounds led USA against the Germans. “Teams shoot a lot more 3s to beat us, so it’s a lot of long rebounds. You can’t leak out, and you gotta actually find a body and box out.”
Jackson cited Josh Hart, a reserve wing, Cam Johnson, who also comes off the bench, and Bridges as smaller players who were better rebounders than he’d given them credit for before training camp started Aug. 3. Anthony Edwards, who has emerged as USA’s leading scorer, grabbed six boards against Germany, and starting point guard Jalen Brunson recorded 12 boards in the exhibition opener against Puerto Rico.
Kerr also said he and his assistants need to “figure out lineups” to account for the Americans’ size disadvantage against certain countries (he confirmed he was starting the same five of Brunson, Edwards, Bridges, Ingram and Jackson on Saturday).
“I like the versatility that we have,” Kerr said. “We can get Bobby (Portis) or Paolo (Banchero) out there at the four if we want to, to deal with some of the rebounding stuff that we may face. It’s really a collaborative effort to be aware but also to make sure we’re putting the right lineups out there.”
Beyond the rebounds, the things that can beat the Americans are the same that make any team vulnerable, items like a hot night from 3-point range for an opponent in a shortened game (40 minutes, compared to 48 in the NBA, which leaves less room for comebacks). Or, everyone’s least favorite bugaboo: turnovers. Otherwise, USA is the deepest team that can burn opponents in transition, can knock down 3s, defend and has a player in Edwards who can dominate a game.
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But there are others in this tournament like Edwards, notably, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with Canada and perennial MVP candidate Luka Dončić, with Slovenia.
All of this is why Kerr said USA was “a favorite” to win the World Cup but not necessarily the favorite.
“I know we’re one of them and we should be, but there’s some great teams,” Kerr said. “The last time through this tournament, we finished seventh, we lost (two) games. We recognize how hard this is. These are not the days of 1992.
“There’s a reason there’s over a hundred foreign players in the NBA. There’s a reason foreign guys win MVP year after year. It’s a global game, and there’s great teams. So, we may be one of the favorites, but I don’t think anybody’s clear cut. I think there’s a lot of teams that have a shot at this thing.”
More Team USA coverage from Joe Vardon
• Spoelstra’s return to the Philippines with Team USA is a ‘pinch me’ moment
• Overseas tour is a family affair for Bobby Portis
• Steve Kerr is adding some Warriors flair to Americans’ offense
• Tour may be the height of Mikal Bridges’ hoop life
(Photo of Steve Kerr and Jaren Jackson Jr.: Juan Ocampo / NBAE via Getty Images)