Team USA found itself trailing New Zealand 14-7 midway through the first quarter of Team USA’s opening FIBA World Cup game last week. At that point, Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves assumed the backcourt spots in place of Jalen Brunson and Anthony Edwards. By the time the reserve duo departed, the U.S. led 30-26 and eventually pulled away for a seamless 99-72 victory.
Through two games and a pair of blowout wins that have the United States perched atop Group C, the bench play is dominating conversations. Head coach Steve Kerr is adhering to an 11-man rotation thus far, with Haliburton, Reaves, Josh Hart, Paolo Banchero, Bobby Portis, and Cameron Johnson supplanting the starting five of Brunson, Edwards, Mikal Bridges, Brandon Ingram, and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Lineups primarily involving the backups — namely Reaves, Hart, and Banchero — have looked much better than those largely composed of the starters. Team USA is plus-41 when Hart is on the court, plus-38 with Reaves, and plus-36 with Banchero. Its best mark including any starter is plus-22 when Bridges or Brunson is out there.
The reserves are boat racing opponents and acting as a second starting five that’s earned the trust and confidence of Kerr. The star at the heart of all this is Reaves, who’s averaging 13.5 points (81.7 percent true shooting), six assists (1.5 turnovers), three rebounds, and 2.5 steals in 19.8 minutes per game. Beyond his general superlatives, the most crucial element of Reaves’ game with the Los Angeles Lakers is his malleability. He’s equally comfortable capitalizing on the attention LeBron James and Anthony Davis command or boogying out of ball-screens, where he’s masterful and deceptive maximizing picks. That dynamic has remained at the World Cup.
Haliburton tends to captain the offense during Reaves’ minutes, but the former Oklahoma guard is enabled to initiate as well. His prepwork and savvy off the catch shine. He’s a willing and effective shooter (3-for-5 beyond the arc) whose decision-making in these quick-hitting opportunities is reliably sharp. When he orchestrates pick-and-rolls or creates for himself, his balance, pacing, and versatile, herky-jerky crossover are bewildering defenders.
He’s on a heater (8-for-13 shooting), but this is how he helped Los Angeles reach the Western Conference Finals three months ago. The entire process is replicable. It’s all why he initially earned a spot on USA and has carved out a prominent role. He continues to be a foul magnet as well, touting a .615 free-throw rate. The dude’s really good and can adapt his offensive imprint to whatever the circumstances dictate.
While Reaves is starring in a role akin to his NBA environment, Banchero has reveled in a usage unlike how he was usually deployed with the Orlando Magic as a rookie: small-ball 5. According to Cleaning The Glass, he played three percent of his minutes at center last season, yet that’s where the vast majority of his time is coming during the World Cup.
He’s functioning as a play-finisher and DHO hub for the likes of Reaves, Haliburton, and Johnson. His self-creation is a feature rather than the norm. Averaging 14.5 points (81.8 percent true shooting), 3.5 rebounds, and two blocks, Banchero is flourishing with amended offensive responsibilities and considerably more space than what Orlando offered. When he needs to roll, he converts inside or draws fouls. When he sees a mismatch, he fashions space for pull-ups or piledrives to the rim. An idealized version of Banchero is being showcased, and it’s a devastating player.
Banchero is also tasked with anchoring the second unit defensively, a lofty duty behind Jackson, the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Team USA is predominantly playing drop coverage during Jackson’s minutes and switching during Banchero’s stints. His mobility has been tested. But he’s passing the exam, staying close to ball-handlers and drivers, and providing attentive, authoritative rim protection on occasion.
While the broad scoring efficiency and game-high 21 points against New Zealand stole headlines, his defensive performance as a full-time center hammer home his impressive nature. The bench quintet’s defense is siphoning off the hoop and Banchero is an integral force behind that.
The transition from drop to switching is another vital aspect of the second unit’s prosperity. Jackson is a brilliant drop defender, but he’s often strained covering for flawed point-of-attack and screen navigators such as Brunson, Ingram, and Edwards. When he and Bridges connect, the results are tantalizing. Every other combination can leave him overextended and risk fortuitous dribble penetration. The starting five isn’t big inside beyond Jackson, so if opposing offenses reach the key, there’s a chance they generate something halfway decent (relatively speaking), whether that’s a floater, potential putback, or kickout.
Those instances are not abundant against switching coverage, which is keeping the ball in front, dissuading paint pressure, and inducing contested jumpers. Most of them prove errant and that ignites the United States’ fast-break pizazz, where both lineups have thrived. The difference, at least anecdotally, is one of them generates plenty more fast-break forays than the other.
Hart’s matchup diversity is a bedrock of this scheme’s success. He guards up or down without forging a disadvantage for his team and rebounds like a power forward (15 boards in 36 minutes!). He and Reaves — who’s been a defensive menace in his own right — instill degrees of versatility the starters beyond Jackson and Bridges lack. It eases Banchero’s burden and lets Haliburton be a playmaker instead of a point-of-attack stopper, while Johnson plugs the gaps, as he did on a couple of feisty, flustering Phoenix Suns defenses.
Another reality in the dichotomy between the starters’ fickleness and the reserves’ cohesion is the delegation of familiar roles. Haliburton is the foremost ball-handler for the Indiana Pacers and Team USA’s second unit. Reaves is a secondary ball-handler for the Lakers and Team USA’s second unit. Hart is a point-of-attack stopper, connective passer, transition dynamo, and rebounding machine for the New York Knicks and Team USA’s second unit. Johnson is a movement shooter who attacks closeouts and runs second-side actions for the Brooklyn Nets and Team USA’s second unit. Banchero is the lone member whose job doesn’t reflect his NBA circumstances, and yet he’s assimilated incredibly well. He deserves a ton of praise for that. It’s a linchpin of the bench’s dominance.
Meanwhile, the starting group is four guys accustomed to running the show for their teams. One of those four guys, Bridges, has experience as an ancillary option and seems to be accommodating himself adequately. The unit’s fifth player, Jackson, is used to picking spots organically on offense. Brunson, Edwards, and Ingram, though, are methodical players whose repertoires have rightfully earned them the leeway to enjoy lengthy touches because the impending results support it. (Ingram, it must be said, has discussed his own frustrations adjusting and is working to settle into his role.)
But the ball sticks a good deal more than when the reserves — players all acquainted to NBA roles demanding snappy reads — are pinging it around and keeping the defense in rotation. The starting offense relies more on star-laden shot-making, and they’re absolutely talented enough for the formula to pan out. It just might not be a cinematic experience all the time, which sparks some lulls.
There’s an overlap in skill-set causing diminishing returns and unveiling shortcomings in the starting unit. That’s not happening with the bench brigade, the impetus behind Team USA’s two routs and a crucial part of its chances to bring home gold in the coming weeks.