The U.S. basketball team’s practices in preparation for the FIBA World Cup have had a striking resemblance to the Pelicans’ workouts.
The focus mainly has been on defense and intensity — much like that of the Pelicans under coach Monty Williams, a Team USA assistant under head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“We get after it every practice, every game,” Williams said. “It’s a huge thing for us, but it’s something (Pelicans forward Anthony Davis) and I are really used to because that’s what we do every day.”
Team USA tips off play in the World Cup at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Finland in the preliminary round, which runs through Sept. 4 in Spain. Qualifiers advance to the round of 16, set for Sept. 6-7 in Barcelona. The quarterfinals are Sept. 9-10, with the semifinals Sept. 11-12. The bronze medal game is Sept. 13 at Madrid, and the gold-medal game is the next day.
The top threats to the U.S., the defending champion and top seed, are No. 2 Spain and No. 4 Lithuania. But Williams, as is his custom, said he was looking no farther than the first game.
“Finland is a team that shoots the ball well, a lot like Slovenia,” he said. “They’ve got a pretty good point guard in Petteri Koponen.”
Koponen is a big point guard who made his mark in Euroleague play. Finland’s squad is not big, though. Nonetheless, the U.S. team is expected to set the tone with its pressure defense, which it used to blow away teams in four exhibitions.
“I think if you listened to (point guard) Goran Dragic after our game against Slovenia, that was the thing he talked about, that we overwhelmed them with how hard we play,” Williams said. “All of our guys have bought into that, and it’s been cool to see teams break down around the end of the third quarter. For whatever reason, we pull off a 10-2 or 12-0 run, I think just because we play hard.”
Before he left for Team USA practices last month, Williams said he was not certain what his role would be, other than doing whatever is needed to help Krzyzewski. Defense was a given, but Williams said he’d be involved in the offense, too.
One of the reasons he was invited to be on the staff is his reputation for his work in helping to develop young players. With LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and other big-time veterans not part of the World Cup team, Williams has been working with up-and-coming standouts. And he’s been enjoying it.
“I was working with (Toronto Raptors guard/forward) DeMar DeRozan on his post game,” Williams said. “I’ve been working with (Detroit Pistons center/power forward) Andre Drummond on his inside game. It’s unreal to be around that kind of talent and work ethic.”
And certainly he has been teaching individual defense. Among the U.S. team’s guards are Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and Houston’s James Harden, none of whom has made a name for himself on the defensive end.
Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis has emerged as perhaps the top player on the team and is seen as its best rim protector. After Saturday’s game, Davis will have a matchup of interest for Pelicans fans against Turkey and new Pelicans center Omer Asik, obtained in a trade with the Houston Rockets.
After that, they play New Zealand on Tuesday and the Dominican Republic on Wednesday before finishing Group C pool play against the Ukraine on Thursday.