LAS VEGAS — There is no roster of players. No schedule for games, either. USA Basketball hasn’t even qualified for next year’s World Cup yet, and probably won’t be able to clinch one of the 32 spots in that field until November at the earliest.
The countdown is on anyway.
Thursday marks exactly one year until the beginning of the next men’s Basketball World Cup, with the first games set to be played on Aug. 25, 2023 at the event that will be hosted by Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines. It’s not the Olympics and won’t get the same attention, yet is a major priority for the Americans especially since the U.S. finished seventh — the senior national team’s worst showing ever at a major international event — at the most recent World Cup in China three years ago.
“Humility is a powerful tool,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said when asked what the Americans took away from that finish in China. “And, you know, it doesn’t hurt to have that and be reminded of it. Not that we’ve been arrogant or disrespectful to our opponents, but it’s just a reminder that we’ve got to keep working and not take it for granted.”
That work resumes on Thursday in Las Vegas. The Americans, using a roster filled by players who will likely spend the coming season either playing internationally or in the G League, play host to Uruguay to open the second round of World Cup qualifying.
A win Thursday moves the U.S. closer to qualifying, and a sweep of this two-game window — the Americans play at Colombia on Monday — would likely put them on the brink of clinching a spot. After this window, the next round of qualifying games is in November.
None of the players who will be in uniform on Thursday — names like David Stockton, Mac McClung and Langston Galloway — were there when the Americans finished seventh at the last World Cup. They won’t be there with the Americans at the next World Cup, either; those roster spots will be offered to big-name NBA players. But they are the ones tasked with doing the actual qualifying and giving the Americans a chance to erase the disappointment over finishing seventh.
“You never want to feel like you need it,” said Sean Ford, the U.S. men’s national team director. “But if you don’t learn from it, you’re really going to take a back seat a little bit. We learned a lot. We’re learning a lot because the NBA game has changed over the last seven or eight years, too. There’s much more shotmaking. It’s just unbelievable, incredible the amount of 3-point shots that are taken, the freedom of movement, the flow of the game. But the international game has stayed the physical way.”
Steve Kerr has mastered coaching one of those styles. Now, he’ll have to master the other one.
Kerr’s Golden State Warriors, the reigning NBA champions — with four titles in the past eight seasons — are the epitome of what Ford talks about when discussing the evolution of the pro game, relying on 3-pointers, movement and spacing to win. Kerr is very familiar with how the international game is different since he was with the U.S. as an assistant under then-coach Gregg Popovich for both of the last two major tournaments; the seventh-place showing in China, then the gold medal at the Tokyo Games last summer.
It was a logical progression for Kerr to take over for Popovich. And the tasks in 2023 and 2024 have been on his mind for some time now, as evidenced by him making a recruiting pitch to Stephen Curry on the night the Warriors won this past season’s NBA title.
“He’s missing an Olympic gold medal and I think he really has to focus on being on the 2024 Olympic Team,” Kerr said that night in Boston, as the Warriors were celebrating. “That’s the last thing for his career. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”
Jokes aside, this is serious business for the U.S. A win in qualifying games, or clinching a spot in the World Cup, won’t generate much attention. Losses, or failure to qualify, would. Getting the Americans into the World Cup is a task that has largely fallen on the shoulders of Jim Boylen, who will coach the U.S. again in these next two games; he’s gone 5-1 in three qualifying windows to this point.
“We have a responsibility,” Boylen said. “A great responsibility, to play as hard as we can, to play the right way, and the reason we have to do that is because the big team has got to qualify. That’s our job.”
Kerr has been resting quite a bit this summer. He’s spent some time overseas, getting plenty of downtime with his family, preparing for the challenge of once again leading the Warriors through the grind of defending a championship.
USA Basketball is hoping he doesn’t get so much relaxation next summer. Or the one after that, since the World Cup will serve as the primary qualifier for the Paris Olympics.
“When an opportunity like this comes along, you don’t stop and say, ‘I wonder what my legacy will be.’ You say, ‘I can’t wait to dive in with the players and the coaches,’ and you go for it,” Kerr said. “When all the dust settles, you keep going forward. Hopefully, we will put together a great team and a great effort and we’ll see how we do.”