USA Basketball found itself trailing by double digits halfway through the first quarter against New Zealand during their first FIBA World Cup Group C matchup Saturday morning at Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines.
Enter Paolo Banchero.
The Magic‘s No. 1 draft pick from a year ago provided a spark off the bench to help guide the U.S. to a 99-72 victory over New Zealand to open World Cup group play.
Banchero quickly settled into the game with 5 points, 3 rebounds and 2 blocks in the opening frame and combined that with a strong third quarter of action which included back-to-back 3s for Team USA.
The 6-10 forward finished with a team-high 21 points on 8/10 shooting to go with 4 rebounds, 4 blocks and an assist in 19 minutes.
“Paolo came off the bench and was amazing — knocking down a couple of 3s but also the physicality and the shot blocks,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “The whole second unit really came in and righted the ship after that slow start.”
Added Banchero to ESPN: “This is what I’ve been waiting for. When you get in this tournament you know that it’s go time. I just wanted to come out and be [effective] as soon as I got in the game.”
U.S. starters Anthony Edwards scored 14, Memphis forward Jaren Jackson Jr. added 12 and Knicks guard Jalen Brunson had 10.
But it was Banchero, Lakers guard Austin Reaves (12 points, 6 assists) and Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (10 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists) that made the difference for Team USA, who finished with 54 bench points — more than half their total against New Zealand.
“The ball movement and change of pace that we have with that group is really fun to watch,” Kerr said.
That change of pace is something Banchero and the other U.S. stars aren’t accustomed to in the NBA. Banchero started every game he appeared in for the Magic during his Rookie of the Year campaign.
“This is not the NBA,” Kerr said. “This is FIBA. We’re going to need all 12. It’s going to be a different guy every night.”
Despite the poor start against New Zealand, Team USA eventually led by as many as 27 points. Kerr credited New Zealand for their early success and explained it will only help his team throughout the tournament.
“They came out, were very physical right away and took it to us,” the U.S. coach said. “We need to feel that because that’s what these games are going to be like. I love the way that we responded and we feel like over 40 minutes we can wear teams down.”
Banchero was responsible for 12 of his team’s 33 points in the third. His second 3-pointer put the U.S. in front by 16 points with less than a minute until the fourth.
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At 20 years old, Banchero is part of a youthful U.S. roster that’s the youngest in the World Cup.
Kerr isn’t worried about the age difference for Team USA, which returns to action Monday (8:40 a.m. ET, ESPN2) against Greece.
“It’s not like they’re untested,” Kerr said. “[Reaves] may be young, Paolo may be young, you go down the list we’ve got some young guys but we’ve got guys who can play and who have proven it in the NBA.
“They’re fearless. It’s been an absolute joy to coach them because of their eagerness to play together, be selfless and to compete.”