On Friday, USA Basketball was bounced out of the FIBA World Cup semifinals by Germany in a 113-111 shootout that saw the Americans unable to slow down the Germans at any level of the floor.
It was the second loss by Team USA, who dropped their last game of the second group stage to Lithuania, with both coming against opponents with big rosters that could punish them inside while also being capable shooters from long range. Size was always the concern for this USA Basketball roster, as they simply did not have much of an interior presence. Reigning DPOY Jaren Jackson Jr. was supposed to be the defensive anchor of this team, but against bigger teams his impact was muddled, particularly against Lithuania and Germany squads that deployed bigs capable of popping to the perimeter and drawing him out, leaving the rim unprotected given the lack of size throughout the rest of the USA roster. Beyond Jackson, the Americans played Bobby Portis and Paolo Banchero at center, with Walker Kessler — the lone true center on the roster — remaining glued to the bench.
With the 2024 Olympics right around the corner, USA Basketball clearly has work to do in figuring out how to construct their roster, particularly what to do at the center position where they figure to face an even stiffer test in Paris, as the likes of Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis, and others who sat out the World Cup should be in the mix. The good news for Team USA is they also should have a deeper player pool to pick from for the Olympics than they do the World Cup, as the World Cup simply isn’t enough of a draw to get top American players to put extra miles on their bodies in the already short NBA offseason.
The Olympics is, though, and while we figure to see more familiar faces on next year’s roster in the backcourt and on the wing, center depth will likely remain the biggest concern. There are a few different options and directions for Team USA to potentially go in, but it all starts with having a more coherent roster building plan than what was shown for the World Cup.
Jackson Jr. is a tremendous defender, but is at his best as a roaming agent of chaos, blowing up opposing team’s actions with his length, quickness, and anticipation. He’s freed up to do that in Memphis by playing alongside Steven Adams, who is the anchor that grounds the Grizzlies defense, providing cover for Jackson to take risks because he mitigates the potential for disaster by being a capable rim protector himself and, maybe most importantly, being an elite rebounder to clean the glass when Jackson is away from the rim hounding perimeter players.
Team USA seemed to take none of that into account when building this roster, asking Jackson to slide into that center role with no one grounding the defense to allow him to wreak havoc in the way that makes him such a nightmare to play against. The result was a lot of defensive variance, as there were times Jackson was able to erase shots at the rim and engulf driving opponents with his length, but there were also times where he’d get drawn away from the rim and there was no one home when the ball got moved and a new attack started. Against big teams, they also had few answers on the glass, with Jackson not being a dominant rebounder as is, in part because of how often he switches and defends outside the paint.
Compounding those issues was the fact that they paired Jackson with an awful lot of mediocre perimeter defenders who didn’t have the size or abilities to take on a switching, havoc-inducing defense that you’d want to try and run if you are deploying Jackson as your main center. Their best offensive lineups featured Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves, but those were fairly flammable defensively, particularly on switches where teams would happily post them up to great success.
The smaller Jalen Brunson faced similar issues in switches, and just generally the American side lacked the strength and size in the perimeter to handle some of the top teams. Simply put, there has to be a much more cohesive plan built around what bigs Team USA brings to Paris and how the guard play complements their skill set.
The one potential ace in the hole for USA Basketball is convincing Joel Embiid to play for them over France, as he has yet to make that decision and would, obviously, be the best center option available given he is the reigning NBA MVP. Embiid fixes an awful lot of Team USA’s problems, but he’s not a guarantee to be available for a couple of reasons. For one, he could choose to play for France and try and help the home side in Paris bounce back from the embarrassment of being knocked out in the first group stage at the World Cup. Beyond that, Embiid has to be coming out of the playoffs healthy enough to be able to play international ball, which is far from a guarantee for the Sixers star.
As such, they cannot put all their eggs in the Embiid basket. Beyond Embiid, the list of obvious answers for the Americans at the center position gets pretty short pretty quickly, and if any of those names can’t play for health reasons, age reasons, or don’t want to commit if they’re coming off of a deep playoff run, it could get very interesting.
Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis would be at the top of the list for Steve Kerr and Grant Hill, and I would bet Adebayo, who won gold in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, will be on the roster. Davis, on the other hand, might not be particularly interested in adding wear and tear to his body, and also just generally isn’t particularly keen on playing the center position — there’s already a report he’d like to play less at the five this coming year in L.A.
Draymond Green also figures to get the call, as he was on the 2020 Tokyo squad as well and it’s possible both he and Steph Curry decide to suit up for their guy Steve Kerr. Green would bring an obvious fit for what Kerr wants to do and he and Adebayo would be one helluva versatile center rotation, albeit a touch of an undersized one.
Finding the traditional big man to eat up minutes against bigger teams is the real question if Embiid doesn’t go. Brook Lopez would be the ideal option, but beyond him it gets a bit dicey should he not feel healthy enough coming off of the playoffs to go. The best young American centers all tend to be more of JJJ types — very lean frames, with hyper athleticism and skill, but lacking a dominant physical presence. USA Basketball doesn’t need more players who can hit crossovers into pullup jumpers, they need more players who hit the buffet line and the glass. Kessler could maybe get the call again to fill that role, but given he didn’t touch the floor against teams dominating them with size in the World Cup, it’s hard to have much confidence in a year this staff will have the belief in him to throw him out there in the Olympics.
From there you have a bunch of guys that present the same problems. Chet Holmgren, Myles Turner, Nic Claxton, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, and, of course, Jaren Jackson Jr. will all be in the potential player pool, and depending on what you want offensively (floor spacing, rim-running, screen setting) you can find someone you like and all are good rim protectors, but all are also undersized against the best international bigs.
If they can get commitments from three of Embiid, Adebayo, Green, Davis, and Lopez, this is all probably a moot point. However, as we know it’s not always a guarantee you get your top picks — JaVale McGee was the third center in Tokyo. With more veteran stars at the other positions, the issue at center is mitigated, but it is the one thing that can present real problems for Team USA on the international stage. There are so many teams that just have a ton of size to throw out there, and when those teams can combine that with shooting (as many of the best international teams can) the recipe is there to upset the Americans if they don’t have the answers inside.
All eyes will be on Embiid’s decision, whenever he makes it, and from there we’ll know where to set the panic meter going into Paris.