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Our FIBA World Cup latest ... and a question: Where have all the great U.S. rebounders gone?
Team USA's loss to Lithuania didn't hurt the tournament favorites at all thanks to a favorable draw, but it sure got us thinking about how difficult board work has become for the red, white and blue
The timing of a loss and the randomness of the draw are powerful forces in the FIBA World Cup.
The United States dropped two games four years ago in China and plummeted all the way to seventh place — its worst finish in a major international tournament in program history with or without NBA players. The first loss, to France in the quarterfinals, came at the absolute worst time, ensuring that Team USA could finish no higher than fifth.
The Americans, by contrast, lost one of their first five games at the 2023 edition in The Philippines and, because they had already clinched a quarterfinal berth and with a slew of presumed top contenders meeting early disaster on the other side of the bracket, somehow landed in a more enviable position than they already were.
Losing to Lithuania on Sunday in its final group stage game amazingly led to the most favorable quarterfinal matchup possible. Tuesday's results confirmed such notions when the United States used its athleticism and aggression to cruise to a 100-63 rout of overmatched Italy. The comfortable win came soon after the team it would have faced had the United States beaten Lithuania — Bogdan Bogdanović-led Serbia — abruptly dumped the Lithuanians into the fifth-through-eighth-place bracket with an 87-68 rout of its own.
Germany looms as a very dangerous opponent for Team USA in Friday's semifinals ... provided that it puts a halt to Latvia's stunning run in the teams’ quarterfinal matchup Wednesday. Germany becomes even more dangerous if Orlando's Franz Wagner, who has missed all but Germany's tournament opener with an ankle injury, makes a successful return in the Latvia game as he will attempt.
The most notable talking point about the Americans' road to Sunday's gold-medal game, to this point, nonetheless continues to be whom they didn't see. Top medal contenders France, Spain and Australia failed to even reach the quarterfinals and Wednesday's other matchup in the final eight — Canada vs. Slovenia — will eliminate one of the two most feared individual forces in the tournament when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander duels Luka Dončić.
The United States remain favorites to win it all and a potential title game against Canada is still in play. This is despite my apparent best efforts to hit the red-and-white with a Power Rankings-esque jinx; Canada's World Cup campaign was nearly derailed last week by a loss to Brazil just four days after I had proclaimed the Canadians to be the most interesting team in the world of international basketball.
Yet I couldn't help but come away from the Lithuania game marveling yet again at what a struggle rebounding the basketball has become for Team USA. Especially when Lithuania’s best player, Domantas Sabonis, isn’t even participating.
In China in 2019, USA Basketball officials force-fed three true centers on the roster and it backfired: Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee combined to produce very little. The plan ever since has generally been to embrace skill over size when assembling international rosters, since most of the NBA's top centers do not hold a U.S. passport, but the current squad is not completely bereft of size. Walker Kessler is a 7-footer. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Paolo Banchero are 6-foot-10. Bobby Portis is 6-foot-11.
This team, even with those bigs and a slew of big guards, just doesn't rebound well.
In the two games preceding the bounce-back against Italy, Team USA was outrebounded 92-58 by Montenegro and Lithuania and smoked 39-5 in second-chance points. The United States might be able to overcome the issue in this particular tournament and win the gold anyway, but it'll surely need frontline upgrades at the Olympics next summer if, say, Serbia qualifies and has a certain Nikola Jokić back on its roster. Or if Lithuania can qualify and gets Sabonis back. Or if Joel Embiid, who does now possess a U.S. passport, decides to play for France rather than Team USA.
Jackson's career-best showing on the boards in Memphis is a mere 6.8 rebounds per game last season as he was winning Defensive Player of the Year honors. Banchero averaged just 6.9 rebounds per game in his Rookie of the Year season with the Magic. Both should be better board men than that.
But it's not fair to single those two out. I keep saying how jarring it is, season after season, to scan the league leaders and see so few Americans among the NBA's top rebounders. It feels like forever ago that Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside ranked as two of the NBA’s top three rebounders during the COVID-interrupted season of 2019-20.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis averaged 12.5 rebounds in 56 games last season, which would have topped Sabonis’ league-leading 12.3 rebounds per game, but Davis didn’t play enough to qualify. No American, as a result, officially placed higher than ninth in rebounds per game in 2022-23: New York's Julius Randle (10.0 RPG) was the lone American in the top 11.
In each of the past three seasons, in fact, only one American has cracked the top 10 in rebounds per game. Before Randle last season, it was Wendell Carter Jr. at No. 9 for Orlando in 2021-22 at 10.5 RPG and Russell Westbrook at No. 6 for Washington in 2020-21 at 11.5 RPG.
No country will ever generate less sympathy for its roster needs and shortcomings than the talent-rich United States. And rightfully so.
That rebounding has become such a weak spot for Team USA, on top of the continuity deficit it routinely faces with so much more roster churn than most of their opponents experience, is endlessly fascinating to me.
Perhaps Bam Adebayo will be back for the Paris Olympics to rejoin the national team after winning gold in Tokyo. I doubt Davis, who last played for Team USA at the 2014 Worlds in Spain, could be coaxed into returning a decade later, but let’s see. I’d personally be considering Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Isaiah Stewart (for an injection of bulk and nastiness) or Steve Kerr favorite Kevon Looney for a shot, too, but most of all I’d like to see more frequent discussion about the dearth of top-shelf American rebounders and how we got here.
Since talking about it more might prove to be a fine step toward fixing it.
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Seven Olympic berths alongside host nation France, for a 12-team field next summer, were up for grabs at this World Cup.
Five of those spots have already been claimed.
The United States and Canada have already secured the Americas’ two Olympic tickets as the tournament’s top two teams from the region. Australia (Oceania), Japan (Asia) and the basketball Cinderellas from South Sudan (Africa) — my former ESPN colleague Brian Windhorst has a nice piece here on South Sudan’s fairy-tale run to make Olympic history for a country that only became an independent nation in 2011 — were the top finishers from the regions afforded only one automatic Olympic spot.
Still TBD: Who will finish as Europe’s top two with Serbia, Germany, Latvia and Slovenia all still in contention entering Wednesday’s play.
The other four nations that will participate in the Paris Olympics will be decided by last-chance qualifying next summer, when 24 teams (including Team Bahamas as covered here recently) are divided into four six-team groups and the group winners advance.
Sunday's loss to Lithuania left the United States with at least one defeat in its last three major international tournaments. It lost two games at the 2019 World Cup in China en route to a seventh-place finish and lost its opening game at the Tokyo Olympics contested in 2021 to France before the 110-104 defeat to Lithuania.
The United States had won 58 consecutive games in FIBA and Olympic competition with NBA players before its quarterfinal loss to France in the 2019 World Cup.
Lithuania had only one current NBA player on its 12-man roster (Jonas Valančiūnas) when it beat the United States on Sunday. Ditto for Slovenia (Luka Dončić) when it eliminated Australia and its nine NBA players from the tournament last Friday.
Lithuania grabbed a decisive 18 offensive rebounds against Team USA … but amazingly none of them by Valančiūnas.
My fellow Substackerran another one of his "In a Box" pieces last week to take a snapshot look at the NBA in the 1970s, which is the decade I discovered the sport. Among the gems Kubatko compiled: The league went from 14 to 22 franchises in the 1970s to account for the largest amount of NBA expansion across any singular decade.
Only five teams in NBA history have won a championship after winning less than 50 games during the regular season and the 1970s featured three of them: Golden State (48-34) in 1974-75, Portland (49-33) in 1976-77 and Washington (44-38) in 1977-78. Neither the Blazers nor the Wizards (then known as the Bullets) has won championship since those titles.
When the Dallas Mavericks play an exhibition game at Real Madrid on Oct. 10, it will mark 35 years since the NBA's first games in Spain, when the Boston Celtics played a then-unified Yugoslavian national team as well as Real Madrid.
Brazil's Marcelo Huertas played in this World Cup at 40 years and 3 months old, making him the second-oldest player in tournament history. Eduardo Ings was 40 years and 7 months old in the 2019 World Cup when he played two games for Angola.
South Sudan's 7-foot-2 Khaman Malauch, widely regarded as a top prospect for the NBA’s 2025 draft, turns 17 next month and became the third-youngest player in World Cup history in this tournament behind only Georges Lath of the Ivory Coast (16 years, 3 months in 1986) and China's Guo Ailun (16 years, 9 months in 2010).
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