COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The USA Basketball U18 team begins play this week as FIBA Americas tips off in Canada.
The heavy favorites to capture a gold medal in the age group, the Americans started training camp in Colorado Springs last week as I watched some of the early sessions of practice to get a feel for how the group might look in the event.
Here’s some takeaways, and storylines, to follow over the next week at FIBA Americas as the Bill Self-coached outfit features a combination of incoming college freshmen and rising high school seniors.
1. Who becomes the team’s leader and go-to player?
One of the fascinating things to watch about this U18 tryout was the lack of a clear go-to player. Two years ago for the U18 team, this was no such issue. That group featured Michael Porter Jr., Markelle Fultz and Trae Young (to name a few off of a loaded team).
But this current U18 group is a byproduct of two down years in a row when it comes to national recruiting classes. The Class of 2018 and 2019 are two of the worst back-to-back years we’ve seen in quite some time when it comes to actual star power.
So finding a leader and a go-to guy is going to be one of this team’s main goals in the early going. It might not come down to one player. The perimeter trio of Cole Anthony, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White all had strong stretches playing together during tryouts and all three showed leadership capabilities and strong abilities to score.
Kentucky commit Tyrese Maxey also falls into this category. He’s a charismatic lead guard who can really score, which means he might also take on the role of a go-to player.
It’s not as if the USA team has to have one go-to guy like this to win the gold medal. But it would certainly help in close-game situations if they knew they could turn to one particular player (or group of players) that can produce.
2. The team’s perimeter shooting — particularly Ayo Dosunmu and Quentin Grimes
Perimeter shooting will also be a significant development with this team, most notably with a couple of college-bound guards who have been inconsistent from the three-point line in the past. Also, keep in mind that FIBA rules are in play here, which means a different ball and an expanded three-point line from the college level — yet another reason why college hoops needs to expand the three-point line closer further from the basketball.
One of the intriguing storylines will involve Illinois commit Ayo Dosunmu and his re-worked perimeter jumper. A known scorer who was always streaky with his jumper in the past, Dosunmu has completely overhauled his shot since the end of March and the high school season. Now sporting a full follow through and a higher release, Dosunmu’s jumper looked way better than before as it’s a skill that has given him added confidence as a scorer. With Illinois counting on its highest-rated recruit so much for the upcoming 2018-19 season, if Dosunmu has a decent perimeter jumper, it could make him one the Big Ten’s most dangerous threats.
Future Kansas Jayhawk Quentin Grimes is another perimeter player to watch when it comes to shooting. The U18 team is a fascinating parallel to how Grimes could be used next season as Bill Self will be coaching both teams. Grimes is probably best suited to have the ball in his hands as an attacking guard, but with other steady floor generals like Anthony and Maxey on the U18 team, he could be relegated to playing mostly off the ball. Since Kansas has Charlie Moore and Devon Dotson on the smaller side of Grimes in next year’s guard rotation, Grimes might also be forced more off the ball at Kansas next season. So how will Grimes look as a catch-and-shoot option? Like Dosunmu, Grimes has been streaky with his jumper in the past.
The USA doesn’t need Dosunmu and Grimes to make perimeter jumpers in order to win. Anthony, Maxey and fellow Class of 2019 guard Mark “Rocket” Watts Jr. were three of the most prolific perimeter shooters in the Nike EYBL this spring. But Dosunmu and Grimes knocking down open shots could go a long way towards the team’s ultimate success.
3. The role of Coby White
One of the better and more consistent players during training camp was North Carolina commit and guard Coby White. An advanced scorer from multiple levels, White had it going with the perimeter jumper at times during camp as he nailed catch-and-shoot jumpers and jumpers off the bounce.
As noted earlier, there are plenty of really talented guards already playing with the U18 team, so White likely doesn’t need to play on the ball and be a facilitator. But that’s the thing North Carolina fans should probably be watching for during FIBA Americas. Somebody has to replace Joel Berry’s massive presence in the Tar Heel backcourt for next season. White looks like a prime candidate to potentially do so.
The problem lies in White’s DNA as a natural scorer. Since he’s never asked to be a true facilitator, White is learning the nuances of the point guard spot while still trying to keep his offensive aggression as a shooter.
There were some promising signs of lead guard development from White at USA. White showed a strong ability to read ball screens, changing paces and navigating into the paint whenever he felt like it. Also making basic reads and some solid one-handed passes to corner shooters, White appears to be improving at the basic functions of being a facilitator.
Finding that balance between running a team and hunting his own offense will be something to track with the U18 team because White will likely have to do the same at North Carolina. The Tar Heels will have a strong frontcourt featuring Luke Maye and fellow five-star freshman Nassir Little. Upperclass perimeter options like Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams are back as well. White will be asked to score next season, but more importantly, he’ll also need to set the table for those others to get involved as well.
4. Which big men will step up and see heavy minutes?
It should come as no surprise that this USA U18 team is a guard-driven outfit. But that doesn’t mean the big men should be ignored in this equation. While small-ball and floor-spacing lineups are the popular thing coming into American basketball at all levels, there is still a need for true big men and a rotation of frontcourt players.
Among the group’s frontcourt players, Texas commit Kamaka Hepa could be perhaps the team’s best interior defender for this event because of his advanced feel, communication skills and versatility. Others in the group could eventually be better than Hepa, but his enthusiasm for smothering ball screens and recovering back to the post was unmatched at the camp.
The Class of 2019 duo of Armando Bacot and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was also really good during camp as the duo compliments each other pretty well. Bacot is more of an old-school, ground-game big man who isn’t an elite athlete, but he has great hands and feel as he’s a natural double-double threat at the college level. Although a tad undersized as a combo forward, the 6-foot-8 Robinson-Earl makes up for it with great first and secondary leaping ability that enables him to be a demon on the glass.
Tracye Jackson-Davis was also active on the glass and defending on the interior as he’s continuing to blossom this spring. And Matthew Hurt provides a skill element the frontcourt is lacking with his floor-spacing and passing abilities.
Again, this team’s success will be driven by guard play, as Self will likely incorporate two, three or even four-guard lineups with the amount of perimeter talent he has at his disposal. But the big men will need to play a part in capturing a gold medal as well. Seeing how Self uses his lineups will be a huge part in determining which big men will shine.