BasketballNews

No Pressure For Jalen Brunson, U.S. Men’s Hoops Team Heading Into World Cup

by Steve Drumwright

Jalen Brunson grabs a rebound in the second half against Puerto Rico in an exhibition game ahead of the 2023 FIBA World Cup on Aug. 7, 2023 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Getty Images)

Pressure is kind of a catch-all term in sports. Fans and media love to utter the word when it comes to “pressure situations” or “feeling pressure,” among other uses.


How athletes define pressure is another thing.


So when Jalen Brunson, the starting point guard for the U.S. men’s basketball national team, was asked about the Americans feeling pressure to win the 2023 FIBA World Cup that begins this weekend in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia, he says there is none for the five-time champions.


“For me personally, there’s no such thing as pressure,” said Brunson, who plays for the New York Knicks. “I have figured out that as long as I continue really working hard on my game, putting everything I can into what I do and my craft, there’s no such thing as pressure.


“Now there are different moments. There’s a situation where the stakes are higher than the others. But my confidence comes from my work ethic. So as long as I keep working hard and knowing that I’m doing something every day to get better, there’s no pressure.


“I think for the team, we’re gonna rely on each other when moments like that happen,” he continued. “We’re all we got, and that’s all we can worry about.”


The U.S., ranked second in the world, begins its quest for a record sixth World Cup gold medal Saturday (8:40 a.m. ET) against 26th-ranked New Zealand. The Americans continue Group C play Monday against ninth-ranked Greece (8:40 a.m.), then wrap up pool play Wednesday against 33rd-ranked Jordan (4:40 a.m.). All of the U.S. games will be in Manilla, Philippines.


The top-two teams in each of the eight groups of the 32-team tournament advance to the second round, where knockout games begin. The U.S. can punch a ticket for the Olympic Games Paris 2024 if it’s one of the tournament’s top-two finishers from the Americas region.


So far, Brunson has proven himself to be the player U.S. Coach Steve Kerr thought he would be when picking the roster for the World Cup. The 26-year-old averaged 12 points, 5.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game during the USA Basketball Showcase, in which they went 5-0 with games on three continents. Those stats put him among the team leaders in all three.


While the U.S. quickly forged a bond on the court, Brunson’s ability to impact games really showed in the final three exhibitions.


Facing top-ranked Spain in its home country, Brunson made all nine field-goal attempts and scored 21 points, including 16 in the first half, during a 98-88 victory.


Then, in a game against Greece in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Brunson took just one first-half shot and didn’t score until the fourth quarter, finishing with nine points, seven assists and three rebounds in a 108-86 win.

Tyrese Haliburton talking with head coach Steve Kerr during the second half against Puerto Rico in an exhibition game ahead of the 2023 FIBA World Cup on Aug. 7, 2023 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Getty Images)

In the final tune-up vs. Germany, Brunson took yet a different role when backup point guard Tyrese Haliburton caught fire as the U.S. erased a 16-point second-half deficit for a 99-91 triumph. Brunson played just 15 minutes, his lowest total of the five exhibitions, and had eight points, three assists and one rebound.


Brunson will need to maintain a similar pulse of the team as the U.S. seeks to avoid a repeat of a seventh-place finish in the 2019 World Cup in China. Brunson would do well to keep feeding shooting guard Anthony Edwards, who is averaging a team-high 19.2 points after his 34-point outburst vs. Germany.


“We were well-aware of how competitive FIBA teams were going into that tournament, just like we know this time around,” said Kerr, an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff for that 2019 World Cup as well as the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 two years later. “The only thing you can do from an experience like that is learn and try to figure out what you can do better the next time, and we’ve tried to do that in preparation for this year’s World Cup.”


While there was an unevenness to the last World Cup run, this year’s team has had a positive vibe from the first day of training camp in Las Vegas at the beginning of this month.


That has resulted in excellent shooting, with the U.S. connecting on 54.8 percent of its shots, including an amazing 65.1 percent on 2-pointers. Defensively, the Americans held opponents to 39.5 percent shooting, limiting foes to 80.2 points.


Two areas where Kerr said the U.S. needs improvement are rebounding and turnovers. The U.S. was outrebounded by Germany, 55-42,and was even with Spain, 34-34, while having two 20-turnover games. But the ability to share the ball was a big reason for the U.S. success, with the team averaging 25.6 assists on 40 made baskets. Haliburton has come off the bench to average a team-high 7.4 assists and had two 12-assist games.


Kerr gave credit to the players for quickly coalescing on the court. But Kerr and USA Basketball men’s national team director Grant Hill also deserve kudos for picking the right mix.


Nine of the 12 U.S. players are 26 or younger, and none were on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team that won gold in Tokyo, though several could be in the mix for 2024 in Paris.


“It was great for me to experience being an assistant for Pop in ’19 and ’21 because you get to feel what it’s like putting a team together for six weeks,” said Kerr, who won five NBA titles as a player and has added four more as coach of the Golden State Warriors. “It’s totally different from the NBA. You can’t build continuity and years of experience and piece together a team. …


“We wanted guys who we felt could be a team in a short period of time. We have a great feel, players with great feel on this team. They’re connected, they can all pass. They’re enjoying the experience.”


Similarly, Brunson said the U.S. players have embraced the opportunity to represent their country for international play and are dedicated to bringing home a sixth World Cup gold medal.


“Our work ethic,” Brunson said of the success so far. “We had a great practice [the other] night and I think every single day, we’ve seen growth as a team and with our chemistry, with knowing our plays and stuff like that. ... We have teams that have been playing together for a long time, and we’ve been together for a short period of time. If we continue to get better and grow and grow, the opportunities are going to be endless for us.”

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