Steve Kerr looking to 'natural leader' Jalen Brunson to head Team USA

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Sunday, August 6, 2023

LAS VEGAS -- Team USA head coach Steve Kerr expected to go through several out-of-bounds plays to end Saturday afternoon's practice here in Sin City. But on the second one, the senior national team stole the ball from their select team counterparts and Jalen Brunson found himself with no one between him and the basket.

And when the New York Knicks point guard -- who is listed at 6-foot-1 -- rose up and dunked the ball, causing the 20-plus players in the gym to leap to their feet, Kerr decided he'd seen enough.

"The Jalen dunk ended things," Kerr said afterward with a smile, "because how could you possibly top that?"

It was a lighthearted moment to end the third day of training camp here at the Mendenhall Center on UNLV's campus -- and a successful one for the national team. They responded to losing to the select team twice in scrimmages open to the media Friday by handily winning the practice battles Saturday. But it was also the latest indication of Brunson's role within the team as Kerr reiterated Saturday that he sees him as the group's natural leader.

"I think Jalen is such a natural leader," Kerr said. "Because he's a point guard, he immediately comes to mind. He's the one who's leading the '1, 2, 3 USA' chant. Some guys just, it just comes naturally to them."

"But we've got a great group. There's leadership that comes from a lot of them and it's fun to see."

Kerr's faith in Brunson is evident in the way he has deployed his lineups through the first couple of days of practice. While Kerr has repeatedly said there's nothing set in stone, Team USA has lined up with four of the same five players in the starting lineup the past two days: Brunson at point guard, Mikal Bridges and Brandon Ingram on the wings; and Jaren Jackson Jr. at center.

On Friday it was Brooklyn Nets forward Cam Johnson in the fifth staring spot while on Saturday it was Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards. Sunday is set to be a noncontact practice, according to Kerr, before Monday night's first exhibition game against Puerto Rico.

"Nothing's set by any means," Kerr said in response to a question asking about his starting lineup and rotations. "We're learning as we go. I thought we learned a lot from yesterday. We're going to learn a lot from today. It's great to have these things on tape so we can go back and look at stuff. But there'll be a lot of really interesting possible combinations just because of the skill [on the roster]."

A couple of things have stood out, however. One is the four players who started the first portion of scrimmages the past two days. Another: Team USA is clearly going to play small, as there hasn't been a single point during those scrimmages when any of the three traditional bigs on the roster -- Jackson, Walker Kessler or Bobby Portis -- have been on the court together.

Kerr has, however, played Brunson and fellow point guard Tyrese Haliburton together some, and said he's excited about the passing ability this group possesses up and down the roster.

"Yeah, we played them separately the first two quarters and then we put them together," Kerr said of his two point guards. "Guys who have feel and can pass, they can play with anybody. But it's fun. It's fun having kind of a dual point guard lineup out there. But I feel the same way honestly, when Austin [Reaves is] out there. Austin's such a good passer and sees the floor so well.

"This is a time where we're just looking at a lot of different combinations and seeing what we have."

What Kerr seems to already know, though, is that Brunson is the player he'll lean on to lead this group through the next few weeks, and to what he hopes will be a gold medal in the Philippines at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. But Brunson -- who is part of a heavy Knicks contingent on hand here this week -- said all he's focused on is doing his job.

"I have to be myself," he said Thursday. "Don't really step out of my shoes. Just be myself and lead. You got to lead by example, you got to use your voice and you got to know your audience. But I think most importantly what I've got from this group of guys within this first day is that everyone's willing to sacrifice. That's what we need to win, and we have a lot of guys who are willing to do that."

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