Grouped with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico in the first stage of 2023 FIBA World Cup qualifying, Team USA coach Jim Boylen sets the stage in an exclusive conversation with Boardroom.
My fellow Americans, you are excused if you did not realize that Team USA is back in action today to begin the qualification for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. After all, it’s a bigger event in plenty of places around the world than it is in the United States.
Former Chicago Bulls coach Jim Boylen is the man in charge, and he will lead a team that includes NBA veterans like Isaiah Thomas, Luke Kornet, Shaquille Harrison among other notables against Cuba Sunday afternoon in Chihuahua, Mexico, as the qualifying process gets underway streaming live on Twitch.
The team is enduring bubble conditions — COVID testing, isolation at their team hotel, mask-wearing, and hyper-sanitizing — as they don the red, white, and blue uniforms and begin to pave the way for a team that will eventually be comprised of solely NBA players for the World Cup itself. The tournament will be contested in Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines, and is scheduled to take place from Aug. 25 to Sept. 10, 2023.
“You sort of become part of a brotherhood, playing for the guys on the bus, playing in places where you are outnumbered. It’s a really cool thing, because when these guys get their first package with Team USA gear it sort of changes them. We have had really great practices, with the guys going at each other especially hard,” Boylen told Boardroom in the only pre-tournament interview he has conducted to date.
It was only last summer that Team USA brought home the gold medal from the Tokyo Olympics led by Kevin Durant, the team coached by Gregg Popovich overcoming an opening loss to France (which was preceded by losses to Nigeria and Australia) before defeating France in the gold medal game in a tournament that was not televised live by NBA in the United States until the final game.
But if you think that was off the radar, it isn’t even close to what is happening now. While most of the country’s attention is devoted to the goings-on in the NBA and the NCAA, Boylen’s team of G League players, NBA castoffs, and former expat athletes is representing their country in a city in Central Mexico that’s about 425 miles south of El Paso, Texas (and if you’re into fun facts, it’s known for having one of the highest literacy rates in all of Mexico at 98%).
Team USA arrived Friday after scrimmaging in Houston against the Canadian qualifying team. They will play the Cuban national team today (in a game that sees them favored by 31.5 points) and Mexico on Monday night before returning home.
“We’ve come up with a couple of expressions, one of which is ‘get two,’ ” Boylen said of the first stage of the qualification process, which will resume in February and again in late June as the Americans begin playing home-and-home matchups against the other three teams in their group: Cuba, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. The Americans need only finish in the top three to advance to the next stage of qualifying, in which 12 teams from the FIBA-Americas region will be whittled down to seven.
Qualification games take will also next place next August, next November, and in February of 2023 to set the field of 32 teams. Currently, 80 nations from around the globe are taking part in the first round of qualification tournaments. The United States has not won the World Cup since 2014, when it was held in Spain.
Boylen coached at the 2021 NBA draft combine before taking this job after being recommended by Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs (where Boylen was an assistant in 2013-14). His roster has been changing almost daily, with the latest addition, Will Davis, coming aboard last week after he was released by Regeas Corrientes in Argentina after that team underperformed in its domestic league.
Thomas, who played for eight NBA teams including the New Orleans Pelicans last season and was an All-Star in 2016 and 2017, is the team’s elder statesman at age 32 and — like everyone on the team — is seeking the type of exposure that could eventually lead to another job in the NBA.
Thomas is among a starting five that includes Kornet, Justin Anderson, Harrison, and BJ Johnson. The roster will remain fluid throughout the qualification process, just as it was prior to the 2019 World Cup in China when Jeff Van Gundy was the coach and 65 different players donned the red, white and blue (35 of them were called up to the NBA).
For now, these are the players that Boylen has at his disposal, as well as his comments on each of those players, provided exclusively to Boardroom in a phone interview from Chihuahua:
Justin Anderson, Ft. Wayne Mad Ants: The 21st pick of the 2015 draft and standing 6-foot-6 at 230 pounds, has been out of the NBA since 2020 when he played for Brooklyn, his fourth NBA team. He is now with the Pacers’ G League affiliate in Ft. Wayne.
“He will be our starter at the four, and like a lot of our guys, he is a wing who can defend multiple positions. In our defensive scheme, we pick up guys two steps over halfcourt and try to force them to play fast when they may want to play slow. He is big on playing hard and playing together.”
Brian Bowen II, Iowa Wolves: The undrafted former McDonald’s All-American from Saginaw, Michigan is a player that Boylen, a friend of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, tried to get to play for the Spartans before be committed to Louisville, where he got caught up in a recruiting scandal. He eventually made it to the NBL in Australia where he played for the Sydney Kings before spending two seasons with the Pacers. Says Boylen:
“Very high basketball IQ, a willing passer, a great positional defender, and a sacrificial cutter — a guy who cuts to get someone else rather than himself open. Will play 2, 3, and 4 for us.”
Will Davis II, free agent: A week ago, the 6-foot-8 center was playing professionally in Argentina near the border with Paraguay. When USA Basketball got wind that Davis had been released, he was called upon as a last-minute replacement for another player, Jordan Bell, who became could not make the trip to Mexico for personal reasons. Davis also has played professionally in Bucharest, so let’s just say that FIBA rules will not be foreign to him. “He just got with us and I just met him,” Boylen said.
Josh Gray, Long Island Nets: Undrafted out of LSU, the 28-year-old 6-foot-1 guard played briefly for Phoenix and New Orleans with a stop in South Korea in between. “A really good defender who gets to the rim, a ‘yes sir, no, sir’ guy who I found sprinting on the treadmill at 9:30 p.m. at our hotel in Houston on Thanksgiving, the day before we left.”
Shaquille Harrison, Delaware Blue Coats: The 6-foot-7 guard has NBA size and has spent time in the league with the Suns, Bulls, Jazz, and Nuggets. “Another ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no sir’ guy who flies around the court and makes plays. He has a tremendous motor and great toughness and was a big-time football player, too,” Boylen said of Harrison.
Haywood Highsmith, Delaware Blue Coats: Another player the Sixers have on their G League team, he is another wing who only recently joined the Team USA squad. Undrafted out of Wheeling College, the 6-foot-4 24-year old was cited by Boylen as having the best “NBA range” on 3-point shots. “One of those guys with a great motor who seems to always be open,” Boylen said.
BJ Johnson, Lakeland Magic: Played for Orlando, Sacramento, and Orlando before going overseas a year ago and spending a season with Brisbane in Australia’s NBL. “To me, he’s an NBA player. The 6-foot-4 wing “has great positional size who has got to become a better two-way player, and he has been dedicated to improving his defense,” Boylen said. Will play shooting guard and small forward for Team USA.
Luke Kornet, Maine Celtics: Was a member of the Bulls when Boylen was the head coach, and has bounced around with the Knicks, the Celtics, and in the G League. Kornet still holds the NCAA record for most 3-pointers made by a 7-footer (150) during his four-year career at Vanderbilt.
“We brought him to the Bulls because of his ability to play, and he has not lost that. He can shoot the 3, his basketball IQ is high, and he is a low-turnover ballhandling 5, which is still of value in the NBA despite the sort of remaking of the center position,” Boylen said.
Chasson Randle, free agent: Waived by the Phoenix Suns six weeks ago, he is not currently with the team in Mexico. He has played in the NBA for the Wizards, Magic, Warriors, Knicks, and Sixers along with stints overseas in China, the Czech Republic, and Spain.
“He had some good games in Washington and scored 16 against us when I was in Chicago, so I appreciate his skills. He’s terrific defensively and we can use him against zones,” Boylen said.
Zavier Simpson, Oklahoma City Blue: A Presti stash who was the 2016 Mr. Basketball in Ohio before playing collegiately at Michigan, the 6-footer, a 24-year-old, has been a prolific scorer throughout his career.
For Team USA, “he is kind of a leader, an all-business mindset guy who leads defensively and knows how to rotate rather than scramble as we make people play faster than they want to play,” Boylen said.
Emanuel Terry, Stockton Kings: A 6-foot-9 25-year old who won the Bevo Francis Award in 2019 as the top small college player in the country as a member of the Division II Lincoln Memorial Railsplitters, Terry will back up Kornet at center.
“His motor is good, and we wanted guys we didn’t need to speed up,” Boylen said. Terry’s passport is one of the most stamped on the team as he has played pro ball in Turkey, Israel, and Serbia in between cup-of-coffee stints with the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns. “His heart, spirit, and respect make him a winning guy,” Boylen said.
Isaiah Thomas, free agent: The team’s elder statesman’s biggest asset is that “he is a ‘whatever you want, coach,’ kind of guy,” Boylen said of two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas. “He communicates well with the younger guys, and you need a leader in the locker room.”
A week or two from now, one or more of these guys may be on NBA rosters. For now, they are representing the United States in a qualifier that not every member of the general basketball public will be paying attention to, but that basketball scouts from around the world have had marked on their calendars for a long, long time.