After weeks of seemingly every able-bodied NBA player dropping off the roster, and after a somewhat surprising exhibition loss to Australia, USA Basketball kicked off the 2019 FIBA World Cup with a fairly run-of-the-mill, 88-67 win over the Czech Republic on Sunday. Donovan Mitchell scored 16 points to lead the States, while the Czech Republic never really threatened after a brief first-quarter spurt, despite an impressive effort from Tomas Satoransky.
Although there was some bit of bored-in-the-summer induced hysteria surrounding this USA team, their opening win followed the script of many international games you’ve seen before. The other team comes out with a ton of energy and takes an early lead. USA weathers the storm and eventually the NBA talent proves to be too much, and the team wins comfortably. The opening group match was quite literally a snoozer, taking place at 8:30 a.m. ET on a Sunday. It would be hard enough to get NBA fans to watch a Satoransky-Kemba Walker duel in primetime. Sunday’s game was only a little bit more compelling, if only for the fun, multi-colored basketball.
If there’s anything worth discussing after Game 1, it’s Mitchell, who played a team-high 25 minutes while leading the squad in scoring. I’m still not convinced Gregg Popovich isn’t planning some kind of jedi mind trick to somehow sabotage the Jazz, but for now it appears Mitchell could be emerging as something of a leader after one game, and that bodes well for a Utah team with high expectations for this NBA season. It’s a very convenient narrative and it’s one you’ll probably see often, but Mitchell entering his day job at peak performance with a completely new basketball experience under his belt could pay dividends for the Jazz. Mitchell has never shied away from being a leader, but there’s actually a little bit of pressure on this makeshift USA squad to live up to expectations, and that kind of environment could spur growth.
Elsewhere, new Celtics teammates Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker scored 10 and 13 points respectively, while Harrison Barnes added 14 of his own. Perhaps illustrating how strange this experiment really is, the three-headed center monster of Myles Turner, Mason Plumlee, and Brook Lopez combined for six points. It was nice to see the Nets’ Joe Harris play 19 minutes in his first World Cup action though, a pretty big glow up for a guy who had averaged only three minutes per game in the NBA season before the Rio Olympics.
Right now, although it’s obviously only been one game, the takeaway seems to be that all the stars (and also the not-quite stars!) who chose not to play for Team USA can breathe a sigh of relief. The wheels aren’t coming off the program. The talent gap is still big enough that USA Basketball can exert its dominance in a sleepy, 21-point win against an inferior opponent. Whether this B-squad (C-squad?) can go all the way is a different story, and whether that even matters is an actual question worth considering. But at least for one game, even without all the players considered to be the very best in the sport, Team USA looked very familiar to anyone who has watched an international tournament since 2004.