Grant Hill reveals surprising Team USA discoveries, names World Cup title contender

Donatas Urbonas
Senior Staff Writer
2023-09-03 05:55

Team USA managing director believes Anthony Edwards could become one of the top players in the game and was pleasantly surprised by Austin Reaves' sense of humor.

Credit: GettyImages via AFP - Scanpix
Credit GettyImages via AFP - Scanpix

When it comes to the FIBA World Cup, the Americans do things a bit differently compared to other participating teams.

Team USA has made itself at home in a hotel of their choosing, complete with a practice gym so that they don't have to adjust their practice sessions according to schedules and facilities provided by FIBA.

The Americans have settled in a complex located approximately 30 minutes away from the Mall of Asia Arena (with traffic, but there's usually always traffic in Manila). This complex boasts a top-notch hotel, a spacious basketball court, and a shared workout area nearby.

As you ascend to the sixth floor of Kerry Sports Center, you step into a world of its own.

There, you'll find the personal bodyguard of Team USA, resembling a Hollywood actor right out of a movie. The Americans are accompanied by a large group of player development coaches, staff members, and others who perform different roles.

The whole team for the Americans numbers nearly a hundred people, a stark contrast to most other national teams.

However, within this private American basketball territory, there is an open window to the world. Unlike many other teams, the Americans are open to the global media, granting access to any Team USA member within a 20-minute session.

Whether it's the most popular basketball player in Manila - Austin Reaves, or the Hall of Fame-caliber coaching staff with Erik Spoelstra, Tyronn Lue, and Mark Few, or Team USA managing director Grant Hill, they all make themselves available to the media.

BasketNews approached Grant Hill, a seven-time NBA All-Star, two-time NCAA champion, and the 1996 Olympic Games gold medalist.

After 27 years since his last participation in a FIBA competition, Grant Hill returns to a major international basketball event as one of the key architects responsible for assembling the 2023 Team USA roster.

Much has evolved since the days when he last wore the Team USA jersey.

"There's no longer the mystique of playing against the NBA players. They were still like in awe of playing against Charles Barkley or Karl Malone," said Hill.

In his early Team USA days, rival teams requested photographs with them after games. Arturas Karnisovas, the former leading scorer for the Lithuania national team and current Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Chicago Bulls, was taking pictures with an old-school camera right on the sidelines during the actual game.

"It's interesting how quickly the rest of the world caught up. There was an incredible scare in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. And then, in 2002 and 2004, we lost," Hill recalled the darkest chapter of Team USA.

"I think of someone like Sabonis, who was a pioneer in international basketball. He won the gold medal in 1988. He was a great player. He was part of that wave of international players coming to the NBA and inspired next-generation international players like Dirk Nowitzki and showed them that you could do it. And you could do it at the highest level."

"The game is different. Our game in the NBA is starting to be more like their game. The talent and shooting have improved. Now, 30% of the NBA is international players. There's still respect, but there's not the sort of fear or the awe that was there 27 years ago," Hill concluded.

Grant Hill, Men's National Team Director Sean Ford, and Head Coach Steve Kerr joined forces for a challenging mission: to build a new Team USA to reclaim the basketball throne from which the Americans were expelled in the 2019 World Cup in China.

In an interview with BasketNews, Hill shared what he has learned new about standout members of this team, such as Anthony Edwards and Austin Reaves. He also discussed another international rising star on their radar and explained why Reaves and Paolo Banchero chose Team USA over Italy and Germany.

Did you look at other FIBA national teams' strategies for success or potential matchups while assembling the current USA team?
First and foremost, you try to build a team. You want players whose skill set would translate well in international basketball. Then there are certain qualities that you need. You need shooting, you need good passing, you need specific things from your point guards. You need some diversity in terms of your bigs and styles of play.

We went through and checked the boxes. We felt like each person is here for a reason, and each person brings value because of who they are and what they bring to the table.

The challenge is to get everyone to sacrifice and think of the collective but still be who they are. It's just not always easy. And you have to accelerate the process of coming together.

Some of these international teams play together [for years], are familiar with the international officiating, and know the style.

The FIBA game is different than the NBA game. So you're looking for what you think will translate. It's a lot of talking with teams, agents, and players. You could write a book on the process of assembling the roster, which is a crazy story (smile).

I don't want to get into who's here and who's not here, but I'll say it was really refreshing that most of these guys were all in right away. Maybe someone had an injury and other factors, but I was just very pleasantly surprised that people wanted to do it and be a part of it.

Ultimately, we wanted good people. We wanted high-character guys.

It really starts now, it gets more intense. But so far, we've looked out, we've done well, and we had a great group. We gave ourselves every opportunity to have success here as we go forward.

What was the idea behind bringing Austin Reeves to the team, especially when he admitted he was surprised to receive the offer? How surprised were you at how quickly he adapted within the group, becoming one of the key players and also creating such a buzz here in Manila?
I think the excitement here in Manila speaks to his game and talent, but it also speaks to the Lakers and just sort of the value of that brand and really resonates here in Manila.

I watch a lot of basketball. I cover basketball. I just felt his skill set would complement. Initially, I thought he was just a shooter. But then, upon watching him play this past year in the second half of the season when LeBron went out, his playoff run, I saw he's a ball player. He's just a ball player.

He's tough. I found out he's funny, and I didn't realize he's got a sense of humor (smiles). But I also liked his path. He didn't come in as a top high school player that was drafted high. He had to fight to gain respect on a team with LeBron James. So, his journey also played into the thought process.

He's been great, and he told me the other day, like, he didn't know any of these guys. He didn't know anybody on the team. But right away, he's taken to them, they've taken to him, and he's been part of that culture and chemistry that I think has made this group really special.

You have a couple of international players, such as Austin Reaves and Paolo Banchero, who had the option to represent other countries like Germany and Italy.

Currently, there's also talk about Joel Embiid. What do you believe is the most significant advantage that the USA Basketball program offers, luring these players to choose Team USA over other countries?
I haven't seen Italy up close, but we had an exhibition game against Germany. And they are as good as any team we faced. They could be there and win it. I mean, they're that good. 

But I think our advantage is that those guys may have roots or family ties to those countries. But they grew up in the States. So they've seen the international play. They've seen LeBrons, Kobes, Jason Kidds, all those that have come before. They want to be a part of that legacy. They want to be a part of that program. So that's the advantage, I guess.

Maybe the thing that worked in our favor is that they're young. Both of them play well, and we need them to continue to play well. And both will certainly be deserving to be a part of this again in years to come.

Can you verify if it's true that you recruited Paolo Banchero to avoid facing him as an opponent in the future?
No, I can't confirm that (laughs). I booked him because he could help us win, and he did that. He's done it. He's going to continue to do that.

He brings a certain skill set that we need. In the Olympics, we had Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo. Two bigs that could handle the ball. Steve [Kerr] likes that. They gave us a bit of a weapon against other bigs.

Banchero is like a guard in the center's frame. He's got a unique talent, a unique skill set that we just felt would really give us an advantage in this World Cup. And his defense has been even better than advertised. So no, that's not the reason at all. The reason is he can help us.

Another emerging international star player, Matas Buzelis, was born in the United States but is willing to play for Lithuania. He's projected to be a Top 2 pick in the 2024 NBA draft. Do you follow his case, and do you see a possibility of including him in your program in the future?
Yes, I've heard a lot of great things about him. I haven't seen him play in person yet.

The beauty of my work at TNT is that I'm calling games once a week. So I see all these guys. I watch film and study their teams. I watch them in person.

You see a lot in person, you see things, how they interact with their teammates, how they respond to adversity. You pick up certain things in person that you don't necessarily get on tape. I covered all of these guys' games. I speak to their coaches, I know the training staff, they tell me about them. So you're doing your due diligence, if you will.

I hope to get an opportunity to do that with him. If he's eligible and wants to be a part of it, it's another candidate that we will consider. I don't want to make promises, but we'll certainly consider it (smiles).

Speaking of the strong relationships your team and program are known for building, what new insights have you gained about Anthony Edwards and his character getting to know him in person?
He's very funny. I knew he was a competitor. I don't know if I knew he was as good as he is.

He has a chance to be one of the top guys. He's on that trajectory. He's really, really good.

He's a good guy, a good kid, a country boy from Georgia. Really funny (smiles). But don't mistake the humor. He'll cut your heart out.

An absolute joy to be around him. 

What do you like and dislike about the FIBA basketball?
I don't like the 40 minutes. I wish it was longer, 48 minutes.

I like the physicality. I like that. It's a little bit more physical. Reminds me of the nineties in the NBA—good old days.

I love the passion. Playing for their country means more. You almost see a difference between some of the guys who play in the NBA and then go and play for their respective countries. They become Superman. They play at another level and have a certain pride that is hard to put into words.

I think the thing that I enjoy the most is the experience of seeing these young men come together in a short period and accelerating the process of becoming a team and the challenge that comes with that. And most importantly, as we go out of it, the bond, the connections, and the relationships that will last, this experience will forever unite this group for years to come.

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