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Team USA's Big Problem Playing Small In World Cup

Ever since taking over as the head coach of Team USA, Mike Krzyzewski has made a philosophical commitment to playing small. The logic is simple - since the Americans have the best athletes and the most skilled players in the world, they should be playing in as much space as possible. Coach K was playing 4-out basketball before it became fashionable in the NBA, most notably in 2012, when he used a frontcourt of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.

LeBron and Carmelo were never going to play internationally in 2014, but Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George were expected to be mainstays on the roster. In a perfect world, they would have split the majority of the time at the forward positions, giving Team USA an almost unbeatable combination of size, athleticism and shooting ability. Instead, Love withdrew before training camp started, George was injured and Durant got cold feet at the last minute.

As a result, in a 95-78 win over Brazil in a scrimmage this weekend, Coach K started Kenneth Faried at power forward and brought Rudy Gay off the bench. While it’s hard to be too critical of a 17-point win over a good team, the game was closer than the score indicated. Faried and Gay are proven NBA players, but neither is likely to make an All-Star team and they don’t have the combination of skill and athleticism to blow international teams off the court.

In the modern game, power forward is the most important position on the floor. It determines your identity as a team - a traditional big man means a two-post team that wants to slow the tempo, attack the glass and play through the post, a combo forward means a four-out team that wants to speed up the game, spread the floor and slash at the rim. As a rule, bigger teams struggle with floor spacing on offense while smaller teams struggle on defense and the glass.

At the international level, where there isn’t nearly as much size as there is in the NBA, you can get away with playing smaller guys at the position. That’s the bind Team USA has traditionally put other teams in - their big men don’t have the size to exploit guys like Durant and George in the post and they don’t have the quickness to defend them on the perimeter. If they downsize and try to play with four perimeter players, they play right into Team USA’s hands.

That dynamic changes without those guys on the roster. On Saturday, the only small-ball PF’s on hand were Gay and Chandler Parsons. It’s a dramatic downgrade on both sides of the ball - they don’t have the athleticism to blitz teams on defense and they aren’t nearly as dynamic on offense. Other countries would be more than willing to have Team USA run offense through them. The talent gap is still there, but the rest of the world can match up with the Americans.

When Faried was in the game, Team USA became much more conventional. At 6’8 230, he likes to crash the offensive glass and is most effective playing in the paint. While he has received raves for his energy level and hustle in training camp, he can’t shoot and doesn’t have the skill to create a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor. In many ways, he represents the worst of both worlds at the position, since he can’t defend the pick and roll or protect the rim either.

The only reason Coach K could stick with his offensive schemes was the presence of Anthony Davis at the center position. Davis was the best player on the floor for most of the night and his ability to run the pick-and-pop and knock down the 20-foot jumper allowed Team USA to play 4-out even with Faried on the floor. While he has the size to play as a small-ball center in the international game, Davis is also the best power forward on the roster.

Given the lack of options at the forward positions, that is the adjustment that could make the most sense for Team USA. If Davis is going to play big minutes on the perimeter on offense anyway, Coach K might as well pair him with a bigger player who can protect the rim. All three of the centers still in the running to make the team - DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee - would make more sense next to Davis than Faried, Gay or Parsons.

Even before a knee injury that kept him out of the game against Brazil, Cousins was seen as a longshot to make the cut to 12 players. However, his ability to play out of the post would give the Americans a whole different dimension on offense and he can’t be any worse at defense, either on the perimeter or in the paint, than Faried. The duo of Cousins and Davis would be an absolute nightmare to defend and would give Team USA a ton of length and skill upfront.

What makes Drummond so interesting is that he is simultaneously the biggest player on the roster as well as the one reserve who would significantly improve the Americans overall athleticism. At 6’11 275, his ability to run, jump and stand at the front of the rim at would represent a huge mismatch problem for other countries. While he can’t operate outside of the paint, the shooting ability of Davis means Team USA could play Drummond and still space the floor.

Plumlee would represent a compromise choice, as he’s more athletic than Cousins and more skilled than Drummond. Of course, he isn’t nearly the player the other two are and it seems unlikely he would even be in consideration if he hadn’t played at Duke. Nevertheless, like the other two centers, he would represent a dramatic upgrade from Faried in terms of his ability to protect the rim and match up with the Gasol brothers in a game against Spain.

In the last two Olympics, Coach K has been able to get away with going small against a much bigger Spanish team, knocking them off in the gold medal game. However, the 2008 and 2012 teams had far more athleticism and skill than the 2014 version and the Spaniards stuck with them for all 40 minutes. This time around, if he moves Davis to PF and pairs him with a C, he can have the benefits of playing small while upgrading his team on both sides of the ball.

No matter what Coach K decides to do with his rotation, the Americans will be the favorites in Madrid. Not only do they have the most talent, they have a very easy draw, as the vast majority of their potential challengers will be other side of the bracket. However, a depleted talent pool means Team USA is as vulnerable as it has been in some time. If they leave points on the board in terms of building their roster, it could come back to haunt them.

A Superstar Is Not Enough Out West

Seven years after trading Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics, the Minnesota Timberwolves had to press the reset button again, sending Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-team trade for Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and a future No. 1. Even though it’s as good of a deal as could reasonably be expected for a team in their position, they are still almost certain to extend their playoff drought to 11 seasons, the longest streak in the NBA. 

It’s a stunning record of futility, especially when you consider they had either Garnett or Love on their roster for the vast majority of that span. Players of that caliber don’t grow on trees, especially when you are a small-market franchise. Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in one of the strongest drafts in recent memory and there’s no guarantee he ever becomes as good as Minnesota’s last two franchise players. The good news is he shouldn’t have to be.

The Wolves situation isn’t nearly as dire as it was seven years ago. The franchise had to start from scratch following Garnett’s departure - they won only 32 games in his final season and they didn’t retain any of the top-5 scorers from that team. Al Jefferson, the centerpiece of the deal with the Celtics, was the only real building block on hand. They would have needed to bat 1.000 on their next few lottery picks in order to avoid a long journey in the wilderness.

Love came the following season, but it was all downhill from there. They had four first-round picks in 2009, but only one - Ricky Rubio - ended up sticking and he didn’t come over from Spain for another two seasons. They drafted Wesley Johnson in 2010 and Derrick Williams in 2011 and they traded their first-round pick in 2012 for Chase Budinger. With so many misses at the top of the draft, it’s no surprise they weren’t able to build a playoff team around Love.

The Wolves won only 40 games last season, but they had a lot more talent on their roster than most below-.500 teams. They had a point differential of +2.7, better than both the 49-win Dallas Mavericks (+2.4) and 48-win Phoenix Suns (+2.6). The four remaining starters in Minnesota - Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Nik Pekovic - are hardly perfect, but they all are proven NBA veterans capable of contributing to a winning team.

Young can’t fill Love’s shoes, but he’s a good player who gives the Wolves a starting unit that can keep them competitive on a nightly basis. While that may not translate into many wins in a Western Conference that is as stacked as ever, it means Wiggins won’t be asked to do too much too soon, as opposed to Jefferson in 2008. With Martin and Brewer entrenched on the wings, Wiggins could start his career as a reserve, where he would be groomed into a bigger role.

Nor would he be the only high-upside young player coming off Minnesota’s bench next season. In his second stint with the franchise, Flip Saunders has already proven to be a better judge of talent than David Kahn and Kevin McHale. Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III have a chance to stick in the NBA while Gorgui Dieng, the No. 21 pick in 2013, and Zach LaVine, the No. 13 pick in 2014, could end up as the biggest steals in their respective drafts.

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Dieng came on strong in the final month, posting multiple games with 17+ rebounds. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he has prototype size and athleticism for an interior defender as well as the ability to contribute in multiple ways on the offensive end of the floor. His per-36 minute averages last season - 13 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists and 1 steal on 50% shooting - mark him as a comer.

LaVine was one of the most polarizing players in this year’s draft, a walking embodiment of the “stats vs. scouts” debate made famous in Moneyball. He has about as thin a resume as any lottery pick in recent memory - in his only season at UCLA, he averaged 9 points and played only 24 minutes a game. Nevertheless, while he didn’t get many opportunities in college, he’s an electrifying athlete who doubles as a high-level shooter, passer and ball-handler.

Even as rookies, the combination of LaVine and Wiggins should form one of the most exciting second-unit duos in the league. They are both only 19, so there will be plenty of growing pains, but you could not ask for two better athletes to run the break and catch lobs from Rubio. Minnesota will have two different identities next season - a halfcourt team built around Pekovic and an uptempo team with Dieng protecting the rim and helping to trigger the break.

It’s a best of both worlds scenario for the Wolves, as they can grow a group of promising young players for the future without sacrificing wins in the present. LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng can all start their careers in small roles on a team full of veterans, instead of being forced to carry heavy loads on one of the worst teams in the NBA. And with those three on the roster, Minnesota is the rare rebuilding team that won’t have to sweat the results of the lottery too hard.

In a best-case scenario, Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng form the core of a playoff team in a few years time, with Saunders filling the PF spot either though the draft or dealing one of the remaining vets. If he can land someone like Kentucky freshman Karl Towns, a two-way 7’0 who can protect the rim on defense and play on the perimeter on offense, the Wolves could have a future starting five of under-26 players who can excel on both sides of the ball. 

Of course, there will be plenty of bumps and bruises along the way and there are no certainties when it comes to projecting young players. Rubio has to become a better shooter, Dieng only has a month’s worth of good games under his belt and Wiggins and LaVine have proven nothing at the NBA level. There’s a lot we don’t know about each of them and the Wolves don’t exactly have a great track record of developing prospects over the last decade.

However, after years of failed lottery picks, they finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA. If a lost decade in Minnesota has proven anything, it’s that no player, no matter how talented, can single-handedly carry a franchise into the playoffs out West. Andrew Wiggins is a good start to a rebuild, but he’s far from the only thing Wolves fans have to be excited about.

Pierre Jackson's Rookie Season: Everywhere Except The NBA

Pierre Jackson had a huge opportunity ahead of him. After being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, the 5-foot-10 point guard was given a chance to receive his first NBA contract during the 2014 Orlando Summer League. With a good showing in the five-game event, Jackson would be able to impress the organization enough to earn the coveted prize of an NBA roster spot.

In Philadelphia’s opening game on July 5th, the 76ers faced the Orlando Magic. Jackson did not start and missed his first two shots when he entered during the middle of the first quarter. He started with a missed three-pointer from the left wing and then had a floater swatted out of bounds.

Jackson scored his first bucket at the 2:08 mark of the opening quarter on a fastbreak layup. Two possessions later, he hit a three from the right wing. On the next play, he converted a steal into fastbreak layup. He was starting to heat up.

But on the following possession, he went to receive a hand-off at the top of the key and pulled up hobbling, unable to put any sort of pressure on his right foot while hopping around on his left leg. He tried to limp off, but was in too much pain to stand. Play continued around him as he was on the ground wincing in pain. He had to be carried off the court while Jackson’s facial expression revealed that this was not some sort of twisted ankle.

It was soon discovered that Jackson ruptured his Achilles.

*****

Jackson grew up in Vegas, an area that isn’t known as a hotbed for NBA talent. He attended Desert Pines High School where he was a three-year letterman on the varsity basketball squad. Jackson rose onto the scene during his senior year, as he averaged 21.1 points per game and dished the most assists in the state of Nevada. He was named first-team all-state while Desert Pines finished the season 22-7. His high school career was so impressive that he had his No. 5 jersey retired in 2012.

“I tell a lot of people he is the best to come out of Vegas, and they just look at me like I’m crazy,” Jackson’s high school coach, Chancellor Davis, told Ray Brewer of the Las Vegas Sun in 2012. “I was saying that not just because I was his coach, but because I played against him every day in practice. If he was 6-2, he would have been the best recruit in the nation.”

Jackson didn’t qualify academically out of high school and attended the College of Southern Idaho for his next two seasons. In his sophomore year, he averaged 18.6 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. The explosive floor general was named the NJCAA Division I Player of the Year and led the Golden Eagles to a NJCAA National Championship.

After receiving scholarship offers from Baylor and Creighton, Jackson chose Scott Drew’s Baylor program in Waco, Texas.

“Jackson is big time,” Brad Winton of JucoRecruiting.com said in an article written by Clint Jackson of TarHeelIllustrated in 2011. “He’s definitely more of a scorer. Almost like a shooting guard type of player. He’s just so quick, 5-10 and about 175, so naturally there are questions about his size but he’s just such an explosive leaper and just blows by people with his quickness and change of direction. He can really get up and finish.”

As a junior, Jackson made an immediate impact for Baylor. He averaged 13.8 points and 5.9 assists per game as the Bears reached the Elite 8. In his following season, Jackson led the Big 12 conference in scoring (19.8) and assists (7.8) per game, becoming the first player to lead a power conference in both categories since Arizona’s Jason Terry back in the 1998-99 season.

Baylor missed the NCAA Tournament during Jackson’s senior season, but he still ended his collegiate career on a high note – winning the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) after scoring 17 points and dishing 10 assists in the title game. He earned MVP honors as Baylor defeated Iowa, 74-54.

Despite proving at every level that his size wasn’t an issue, the NBA evaluation process was a much different scenario. If drafted, Jackson would be facing grown men over a foot taller than him. Even the point guards he would need to guard were usually five inches taller.

Jackson measured at the NBA combine standing 5 feet, 10.5 inches with only a 5 foot, 10 inch wingspan. It was reported that Jackson had a 42-inch vertical leap at the Brooklyn Nets’ draft combine, but his lack of size and length was a major concern for NBA teams. His 3.4 turnovers per game also made organizations question his decision making as a point guard.

In an ideal scenario, Jackson could become a similar version of Nate Robinson, the 5-foot-9 athlete who was known as a streaky scoring threat as a point guard. Like Jackson, Robinson had out-of-this-world athleticism, shown in his three NBA slam-dunk contest titles. There were similarities, but a player under six-feet tall achieving NBA success was a rarity.

The Philadelphia 76ers selected Jackson with the 42nd overall pick in the NBA Draft; however, he was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans as a part of the biggest trade that occurred in the 2013 draft. The Sixers decided to trade All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and Jackson to the Pelicans in return for rookie shot blocking center Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first round pick.

Although the trade occurred on draft night, June 27th, it didn’t become official until July 12th. This became an issue because Jackson, like most rookies, was slated to compete in his first summer league in Las Vegas. The event ran from July 12th, the day the trade became official, until July 22nd. This meant that Jackson missed all of the pre-summer league practices and the first game of the tournament.

Missing a game in the NBA may not be a big deal, but for a rookie second round pick competing in a five-game event, there was now added pressure to perform.

Jackson finally made his professional debut in the Las Vegas Summer League on July 14th against the Milwaukee Bucks, but it certainly wasn’t the homecoming he was hoping for. He made only one of his seven field goal attempts and added a pair of free throws to score four points. He finished with three assists and three turnovers in 17 minutes.

The following game against Cleveland was forgettable as well. Jackson was 1-of-4 from the floor and finished with only two points. He added five turnovers compared to two assists in 12 minutes of action.

To make matters worse, Jackson came down with pinkeye during the middle of the week, forcing him to miss another game. With only one game remaining, Jackson decided to participate despite still having clear inflammation in his left eye.

In New Orleans’ final game of the Las Vegas Summer League, Jackson had five points on 2-of-3 shooting in 11 minutes along with a rebound, assist, steal, and two turnovers. It was his best showing of the week, but still didn’t salvage his previous two performances. He finished his first summer league with a Player Efficiency Ranking in the negatives.

On July 27th, only eight days after playing his last game in the 2013 NBA Las Vegas Summer League, Jackson signed with the French team ASVEL Villeurbanne, but never actually played a game overseas. He left the team in September, citing homesickness, and returned to the United States.

Jackson entered the NBA Developmental League draft and faced a peculiar predicament. Although his rights were still owned by New Orleans, he was eligible to be drafted by any D-League team because of the contract he signed in France.

The Idaho Stampede – affiliated with the Portland Trailblazers at the time –selected Jackson as the fourth overall pick and he returned to his normal form. In his season debut, Jackson had 29 points, five rebounds, and three assists. Idaho opened the season 8-0 as Jackson averaged 30.9 points, five assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game. He also had a pair of performances in the win streak where he eclipsed the 40-point mark.

Jackson continued to excel in the D-League. He was so quick with the ball in his hands that time seemed to freeze when he used a momentary hesitation move. When he was feeling it, Jackson scored in bunches. On February 4th, Jackson broke the D-League scoring record with 58 points on 24-of-33 shooting and a 7-of-13 display from three-point range. He had eight assists, six rebounds, and only two turnovers in the same game.

With the way Jackson was playing, it was shocking that the struggling Pelicans didn’t offer a 10-day contract to its budding minor league prospect. The 10-day contract, a common deal received by D-League prospects, gives an NBA organization a chance to evaluate a prospect within its own system. At the start of February, fifteen other D-League prospects were called up to play in the NBA, but Jackson remained in Idaho.

Jackson’s situation was much different than most of the D-League prospects. Unlike most D-Leaguers, who are free to sign with any NBA team, Jackson could only receive a call-up from the Pelicans because they still owned his draft rights. Despite his averages of 29.1 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game, Jackson was stuck in the D-League.

As the February 20th trade deadline approached, Jackson grew frustrated with his situation. He was the top prospect in the D-League and a call-up did not seem on the horizon. Jackson requested a trade, but the Pelicans didn’t make a deal as the deadline passed.

Later that day, Jackson signed a contract with Fenerbahçe Ülker in Turkey. He played in six games, averaging 4.3 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per contest in only 10.3 minutes of action. Jackson and the Turkish team parted ways on April 11th.

“I came into a team that was struggling, and I was a pretty hot topic in the states, but a role was never specifically given to me,” Jackson told Gino Pilato of DLeagueDigest.com. “I wasn’t able to showcase what I wanted to do. So, ultimately the team and I decided to part ways. It was still a good experience for me, I mean, I got to meet and work with the God of coaching (Zalijko Obradovic) over there.”

After quite an eventful rookie season, Jackson was still on New Orleans’ radar. General manager Dell Demps said in an article by John Reid of Nola.com after Jackson left Turkey, “He’s an interesting one. He played really good in the D-League. I think he was the leading scorer. We’ve followed him and been in contact with him. When we made the trade last year, we knew we were giving up our draft pick and we kind of looked at him as our draft pick for this year. So we have his draft rights and he’s going to be experienced, a little bit older. Can I promise Pierre Jackson is going to be on our team next year? I can’t say that right now. But he’s definitely an asset. I want to make sure I say that. He’s done everything and exceeded expectations.” 

Seen as an “asset” without a roster spot, Jackson needed to show that his previous summer league experience was a fluke. He was training with the New Orleans Pelicans preparing for the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League.

“I didn’t have a good summer last year, not being as healthy as I wanted to and the trade deadline and stuff like that,” Jackson said during New Orleans voluntary workouts in June. “So this summer’s big for me, big for my family, and I just want to make the best of it.”

But before Jackson could make another appearance in the Las Vegas Summer League, he was traded back to the 76ers on draft night. The Pelicans exchanged Jackson for Louisville point guard Russ Smith, another undersized yet ultra athletic floor general.

“I see myself as a spark,” Jackson said in a welcoming press conference to Philadelphia. “I like to play off the crowd and I always try to get the crowd involved. A team can always use energy. I want to be that burst of energy.”

While it was comforting that Philadelphia was willing to make a move for Jackson, he still had to prove himself in the Orlando Summer League. Philadelphia had Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams starting at point guard with Tony Wroten coming off the bench to play either guard spot, but the 76ers were definitely looking for another point guard to run the offense. Jackson was given the opportunity to be that guy.

*****

Jackson suffered the injury to his right Achilles and his career remained in limbo. Philadelphia would need to offer Jackson a contract to keep his draft rights, but as a borderline player who now suffered a crucial injury, an agreement seemed unlikely.

However, on July 24th, only 19 days after his injury, Jackson was offered a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $400,000. It was Jackson’s first NBA contract.

“Lost for words! Can’t even begin to describe the feeling I have right now just knowing that I’m actually wanted to be apart of something that can be so special in the near future!!” Jackson posted on Instagram. “Out of my many reasons to get back right and back to killing on the court this just added another HUGE reason! All I got are tears of joy smh!”

Not only will Jackson receive the NBA contract, Jake Fischer of Slam.com reported that Philadelphia will also cover his costs for surgery and rehab. While Jackson may not see the floor this season, his hard work has been rewarded while the 76ers invested their faith into his return.

With the rebuilding process underway, Philadelphia has a hungry point guard ready to prove himself upon his return. He’s undersized vertically, but compensates with an unmatched passion for the game. 

Follow @Cameron_Schott

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