In the Arena: Watching Team USA in Greece

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

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A few weeks back, I happened to be reading an article about the FIBA U19 World Championships and noticed they were taking place in Hereklion, Crete. As fate would have it, Team USA’s first two games of the group stage were scheduled for the two days I was staying in Hereklion during my vacation. It was destiny, I had to attend! Fortunately, my friends with whom I was traveling are also big basketball fans, so they were interested in going. I had also bought some goodwill with my significant other by proposing a few days prior in Athens, so she was happy to tag along. A group outing was formed.

Getting there was slightly more difficult because the Hereklion Arena does not have an actual address no matter how hard you search on the internet. With Google Maps useless to us, we had to go old school and ask for directions. Despite the arena being less than 3 km away from the hotel where we were staying, the receptionist didn’t even know it existed back in the industrial area of the city. Luckily, the porter did and he communicated in Greek to the receptionist, who relayed in English the directions to us while scribbling a hand-drawn map on the back of a piece of paper. With my friend’s wife driving stick on a rented Volkswagen van, after only two missed turns, we made it to the game.

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We arrived for the tail end of Canada-Australia (sadly, Ben Simmons was not participating in the tournament), and the first thing we noticed was that there were maybe 500 people in the 5,000+ capacity arena. Our 5 euro general admission tickets allowed us to slide into the second row at center court with an unobstructed view of the action. After a quick look around, it seemed we were the only people there from the States not traveling with the team.

FIBAFlagsAs for the game, it was the first contest the US group had played together and the discontinuity showed as Iran was able to stay with the American squad for much of the game. The key sequence was a 20-2 USA run to end the first half, as they blitzed Iran with a tenacious full-court trap. There were literally a couple minutes of game action where the Iranians couldn’t even get the ball past mid-court. That run keyed the 17-point halftime lead for the Americans and was ultimately the difference in the 83-53 victory. Here were the full stats on the game, and a handful of guys really stood out to me in person.

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Jalen Brunson

Ironically, I caught the incoming Villanova freshman on probably his worst game of the tournament, as Brunson would later score 30 points in a semifinal victory over Greece. Following the overtime victory in the gold medal game against Croatia, Brunson even received tournament MVP honors. The McDonald’s All-American averaged 14 ppg and 5.6 apg for the tournament. Still, even in the game against Iran, Brunson was clearly the on-court leader for Team USA. On one occasion when Iran was threatening to get back in the game, head coach Sean Miller quickly got Brunson back in the game to settle things down; the point guard also looked completely in control of the flow of the action.

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Despite being a tad undersized, Brunson showed a willingness to get into the lane and create contact (he was a perfect 6-6 from the line against Iran). He also showed off a sweet step-back three (although it was the only field goal he made on the afternoon) and a willingness to defend, swiping 3 steals but more generally just showing the effort to regularly fight through screens. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Brunson on a more regular basis under Jay Wright’s tutelage in the fall.

Josh Jackson

To put it simply, Josh Jackson is a stud. Already 6’7″, Jackson has the ready-made body for a NBA wing, and everything he does just looks incredibly smooth. The #1 ranked player in the 2016 high school class on a few of the recruiting services, Jackson had 20 points on 8-14 shooting, 10 rebounds, and 4 steals against Iran. He has his pick of top colleges and I’d be shocked if he isn’t a one-and-doner and a top-5 pick in the 2017 draft.

Harry Giles

Giles tore his ACL playing for the U16 team two years ago, but you wouldn’t know it based on his dominating performance in Greece. The 6’10” power forward came off the bench against Iran and completely changed the complexion of the game once he took the court (finishing with 14 points on 6-10 shooting, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks). Giles is a fluid athlete with a great touch around the basket and the potential to be an elite rim protector on the other end. Another member of the 2016 high school class, actually ahead of Jackson as the #1 ranked player on ESPN’s board, early indications have Giles heading to either Duke or UNC, with a high lottery selection surely not far behind.

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Jayson Tatum

Tatum is much more raw than the other players I highlighted, but my goodness, the sheer energy he showed on the court. The 6’8″ forward had 12 points on just 5-16 shooting, 7 boards, and 2 blocks, but he was probably the guy who made you lean out of your seat more than anyone. Tatum played with a sort of raw ferocity, going for the huge dunk or big block with little regard for his own body or any poor individual that might try to stand in his way. His outside shot looked a bit broken on his lone three-point attempt, and he could certainly use more finesse finishing around the hoop. Still, there’s just so much raw potential waiting to be molded into a dynamic force. Somebody might eventually talk themselves into Tatum ahead of Jackson, Giles, or other members of the loaded 2016 class.

Game’s Most Interesting Highlight

After shooting just 46.7% from the foul line during his freshman season at Louisville, Chinanu Onuaku is now working on shooting free throws underhanded. He went 2-4 in this game, finishing 6-10 for the tournament. Please, please, let have success with this and stick with the style. I absolutely love it.

Video evidence of Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku shooting underhanded free throws. He’s 2-4 thus far.

Posted by Ken Nedy on Saturday, June 27, 2015

The crowds started filling out the arena with the Greek team set to play after the US game, and the suddenly packed house gave the US team a loud round of applause for a job well done (certainly a nice gesture from the Greek supporters). As we exited the arena, we ran into Sean Miller’s wife and the other families of the coaching staff. ‘You guys have great American spirit, to come out for this,’ she said. With promising young talent like we saw on display that day coming through the pipeline, it’s easy to be excited.

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