Tyrese Haliburton’s Team USA camp: Chats with Chris Paul, a Jalen Brunson partnership and dizzying assists

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LAS VEGAS — Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are two highly decorated Team USA alums, with multiple Olympic gold medals to their names, and Monday night they sat courtside watching the Americans’ exhibition win over Puerto Rico in what seemed to be matching, black bucket hats.

Jerry Colangelo, the architect of every Team USA squad Durant or Green ever played on, not to mention The Redeem Team, was at the game too, though he had passed the job of managing director for USA Basketball to Grant Hill.

But it was the visit of two other past Team USA greats to practice on Sunday, point guards Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, that may have had an impact on the Americans’ 117-74 thrashing of Puerto Rico.

Paul and Lowry spent considerable time after practice talking to the two point guards who will lead Team USA at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Haliburton, and Haliburton cited Paul’s words of wisdom after he’d finished off a dizzying 12-assist outing running the Americans’ second unit.

“I was talking to C.P. about it yesterday,” Haliburton began. “Just out here, you know, my job is just to get guys the ball.”

Sounds so simple, and if we’re going to stereotype a point guard, passing to teammates and setting up their shots is a skill and duty we’d assign to the position.

But Haliburton, an All-Star for the Indiana Pacers who also led them in scoring at 20.7 points per game, seemed to be singularly focused on that particular task Monday night.

At one point in the blowout win, Haliburton had 11 assists and one turnover against just two points, and he finished the game with seven points on five shots. Sharing the floor with a second unit of Austin Reaves, Bobby Portis, Cam Johnson, and Paolo Banchero, Haliburton pushed the action in his 21 minutes, forcing the Americans to get out in space and use their considerable speed advantage — something they’ll expect to have for the entire World Cup.

To be clear, Haliburton, 23, averaged 10.4 assists last season – so it’s not like looking to facilitate is anything new. But for that to be the primary action he takes, the only one he takes for most of his court time, well, on Monday night he conceded that was a new one for him.

“You know, we got so many guys that can score and I don’t really have to do that for me to succeed on the floor,” Haliburton said. “I have to keep defenses honest at the same time, but being here with these guys is more about getting them the ball and getting them easy looks, get the rhythm going and things like that, whereas with the Pacers, I’m kind of look to do both primarily. Here I am just trying to share the ball.

Of all the different spots on the court where an international team loaded with NBA talent might enjoy a decided depth advantage, for the Americans the point guard position may be their strongest.

Brunson started Monday and posted a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds, to go with three assists. USA coach Steve Kerr has raved about Brunson’s leadership and poise directing the American offense, and barring injury it appears certain Brunson will be the team’s starter throughout the World Cup. But Brunson (a 24.0 ppg scorer for the Knicks) is strong enough off the ball, and Haliburton is three or four inches taller, so the two would make a strong and intriguing pair for Kerr to employ at the same time in spurts.

“Guys who have feel and can pass, they can play with anybody,” Kerr said. “It’s fun kind of having a dual point-guard lineup out there, but honestly I feel the same way when Austin’s out there. Austin is such a good passer and sees the floor so well. So this is a time where we’re just looking at a lot of different combinations.”

If Reaves is the Americans’ third ball handler, then, you should know, he dished four assists in addition to the nine points he added off of Kerr’s bench.

Reaves, though, marvels at the way Haliburton has played for Team USA through five days of practices, scrimmages, and one exhibition game.

“The way he plays just empowers everybody,” Reaves said. “He likes to run in transition and he gets everybody involved. I don’t know if he took two or three shots yesterday (in Saturday’s scrimmage), but he probably had five, six, seven assists. And just the way that he plays and gets everybody involved is something that I enjoy.”

Haliburton agreed to a five-year, $260 million extension last month. Players don’t often sign that sort of lucrative extension and then immediately become backups — but that’s the uniqueness of the Team USA experience.

Unlike in past World Cup cycles, Team USA did not hold tryouts at any point in the run-up to camp in Las Vegas. The change provided for more practice time last week — the Americans could work more to install an offense and defense, and build some continuity — instead of trying to pick who was on the team. But the change was also made, in part, because of the ego of the modern player. Being asked to try out, and the risk of not making it, may have further limited the pool of players Hill and Kerr would’ve had to pick from.

So all 12 USA players were invited to participate, but once they said yes, they put themselves at the mercy of a coaching staff that must decide which five players should be on the floor first, and who are the next five worthy of playing time in a 40-minute game in which one or two losses can wreck an entire summer.

The Americans have not had this much well-rounded depth at point guard in years. One of their best players at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 was Jrue Holiday. Damian Lillard was on that team, and while he is a prolific scorer in the NBA, he struggled at the Olympics to shoot and defend, and played with a rib injury.

The starter for the 2019 World Cup team that finished seventh was Kemba Walker, who doesn’t have the size or two-way capabilities both Brunson and Haliburton possess.

The 2016 gold medal team in Rio had Kyrie Irving and Lowry as its point guards. The 2012 gold medalists in London employed Paul, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Deron Williams.

“I think that the more ball handlers you have, the better,” Haliburton said. “I think the way we play is kind of whoever gets it, get out and push. But I think having me and Jalen at the point guard spot, regardless of if we play together, if I’m behind him or in front of him, whatever, like it doesn’t matter because I think we’re two very capable guys and that’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball. Like everybody’s going to play. We’re all used to playing 35, 38, 40 minutes a game in the season. But with this you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity.”

(Photo of Tyrese Haliburton: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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