USA Looking For a U17 Three-Peat, But It Won’t Be Easy
This summer will mark the third edition of the FIBA U17 World Championship for Men, which takes place every other year. In the first two U17s, USA Basketball claimed gold medals with perfect 8-0 records. Further, Bradley Beal earned tournament MVP honors in 2010 and Jahlil Okafor was tabbed MVP in 2012.
“It’s completely different from playing high school basketball or AAU, or a camp, because it’s really all about the name on the front of your chest – USA Basketball,” said Okafor, who suited up for his fourth USA Basketball team in the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit. “When you travel to those countries, when you walk into the gym or your walking around the streets, wherever you are at, all the eyes are on you, and that’s because you have USA across your chest. So, you have to forget the name that’s on the back of your jersey and just go all out and try to represent USA Basketball in the best way possible.”
In addition to the USA’s talented athletes, continuity on the coaching staff played a huge factor in the golden repeat by the red, white and blue. Don Showalter, head coach at Iowa City High School (Iowa), served two two-year terms as the USA Basketball Developmental National Team head coach in leading teams to gold medals at the 2010 and 2012 FIBA U17 World Championships and the 2009 and 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championships. He returned last summer to head up the U16 squad as it qualified for the 2014 U17s by claiming the Americas U16 gold medal and is set to again head up the coaching staff at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship, which will be held Aug. 8-16 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Of the 24 athletes who have competed for the USA in the first two U17s, six are now in the NBA, 13 competed for top NCAA programs this past season -- two of whom were selected in the 2014 NBA Draft, while the remaining five have signed to play in NCAA Division I starting next fall.
Last summer the USA U16 National Team made sure that USA Basketball would be represented at the third FIBA U17 World Championship. Led by 2013 FIBA Americas U16 Championship MVP Malik Newman, the U.S. squad bested all comers by a record-setting 53.4-point margin of victory June 11-15 in Maldonado, Uruguay.
However, the competition this summer will increase immensely, a fact that prior USA U17 team members quickly found out.
"It was more difficult, just because we were playing teams from all across the world,” said three-time USA Basketball gold medalist Tyus Jones, who dished out a USA-high 5.4 assists at the 2012 U17s and will play for Duke University next year. “It’s not the Americas. Teams like Australia and Lithuania, those teams were really tough. Our competition had another year to develop, so they were bigger and stronger and more skilled. The difficulty in the level of play was definitely increased going to the U17s from the U16s.”
“I did something with an AAU club team in Italy before I played with USA Basketball, so that was the first time I played with international rules, but it is a transition,” added Justise Winslow, who earned gold at the 2012 FIBA U17 and 2013 FIBA U19 World Championships and most recently at the 2014 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. “The game is definitely different. The referees are different. The goal-tending rule makes it different. The 3-point line is further back. So, there are a lot of things you have to transition to when you go from basketball in the states to overseas. It’s kind of awkward at first, adjusting to traveling, the time change and the differences in the game.”
The good thing for the USA squad that will head to Dubai this summer is that many of the athletes who played on the 2013 U16 squad should matriculate to the U17 team if the past is any indication. Nine of the 12 players from the 2009 USA U16 team captured gold at the 2010 FIBA U17 Worlds, while seven from the 2011 U16 team advanced to the 2012 U19 squad, and knowing a little bit about the international game and everything else that comes with traveling to different countries makes it less of a culture shock.
Okafor agrees. “I think having experience with each other does help, because there is a bond that you already have,” he said. “You already know what to expect with those guys, and you are pretty familiar with them. Being off the court in a whole different country really forces you to have a tight bond. Nobody really speaks your language, and you don’t have your cell phone, so I think it does matter that you do have some of the same group of guys, just to have that bond. But either way, I think the USA guys will be fine. The coaches will have those guys ready to represent USA Basketball in the best way possible.”
Another important factor in the USA’s gold-medal runs the past two U17s has been its stingy defense.
How good was the defensive-minded American squad through its eight games in 2012? The USA averaged a tournament-best even 100.0 ppg., while holding teams to a low of 60.1 ppg. The U.S. also forced teams into shooting lows of 33.8 percent from field overall and 21.8 percent from 3-point, while swatting a third-best 4.75 bpg., nabbing a high of 13.6 spg., and forcing opponents into a high of 22.3 turnovers a contest.
“I think the most important piece was our defense,” said Joel Berry, who is headed to University of North Carolina in the fall. “Everybody on the team could score the ball, but what separated us was our defense. Once our defense picked up, no team could get the ball past half court, and we were just running the score up. You could just tell that the defensive side was transitioning over into our offense. That’s why we were so successful.”
So, what kind of advice do Berry, Jones and Winslow have for this year’s team as it attempts a three-peat?
“One thing I would tell them is that you have to be unselfish and think more about the team than yourself,” stated Berry. “That’s one thing that really helped us in Lithuania. Even though all of the guys on the team were top ranked in the nation, we had the No. 1 and the No. 2 player in the country on our team, we never let that get to us. Everybody on the team was ranked high, but we put that aside, and we all bought in to the system. That is how we were so successful. We put ourselves aside and thought about the team and thought about each other.
“That’s one thing I would tell someone trying to make a USA team. You have to be unselfish. You have to think more about the team more than yourself. As far as on the defensive end, that is what they are looking for. They are looking for guys who can play defense because anyone can score, but it takes a lot for somebody to play defense.
"Just make the most of it,” said Jones. “Have fun, but at the same time, learn as much as possible. You will have a great coaching staff. Coach Showalter is a great coach, so just learn as much as possible. And work hard every day, because it goes by fast. You will wish you could go back and redo it. So just learn as much as possible and make the most of those moments. "
“All I would say is to just really buy into the whole U-S-A thing and play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back,” said Winslow. “Everything else will take care of itself.”