It takes a certain type of player to do what Jameel Warney is doing.
As a member of Team USA during FIBA World Cup qualifying, Warney is representing his country while understanding that he won’t be apart of the team come the actual tournament in the summer of 2019. The USA roster, comprised of Warney and 10 other current NBA G League players, have a unique task on their hands and Jeff Van Gundy, head coach for the World Cup team, understands that.
“All we want, are the guys who come to really want to be there,” Van Gundy said. “We are playing against people who the national pride is such a driver, and motivator, and if you don’t go in with their same level of intensity and passion, you can’t win.”
Every four years, nations compete for the FIBA World Cup. With qualifying occurring during the NBA season this time around, no current NBA players are on a FIBA World Cup qualifying roster. Once 2019 comes, and the World Cup stage is set, however, household NBA names will once again have the chance to represent America. Until then, Van Gundy is leading a team of motivated NBA G League prospects.
Warney has been one of the brightest spots for Team USA and has enjoyed great success under Van Gundy, including winning AmeriCup MVP in September. While his main goal is working to advance Team USA in World Cup qualifying, he’s also grateful for what this experience could do to propel his own career.
“Definitely top three moments in my basketball career was making the roster,” said the second-year forward out of Stony Brook University. “I really didn’t think this all would be possible last year. But I am grateful for my G League experience too, and to be able to play here and hopefully move my way up.”
It also takes a certain kind of coach to do what Van Gundy is doing.
“I have been very fortunate to be in a Final Four as an assistant coach, two NBA Finals, a lot of playoff games, four Hall of Fame players I coached in my time, but nothing is as important as what I am doing now,” said USA’s head coach and veteran of 11 NBA season with the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks. “When your country asks you to do something, you don’t want to let people down. The burden is great on all of us, and hopefully we can answer the call, because it is our job to get Gregg Popovich and the great NBA players qualified for the World Cup in 2019.”
FIBA Basketball is a different game than the NBA or the NBA G League, and for the players it took a little bit to get used to some of the changes. Warney identified some of those differences.
“The rules are different, the timing is different,” said the 6-foot-7 Warney. “There’s a different time per quarter, so you have to start off fast. And it is harder to score in the post since there is no defensive three-second rule, so you have to pick and choose your spots.”
Players in the NBA G League are uniquely qualified for being that adaptable. In the G League, the only constant is change. Teammates are regularly moving up and down from the NBA club and the experience leading up to each game can vary from city to city, so to be adaptable to whatever is thrown at you is critical.
“I think that adaptability and being able to adjust is critical regardless of the league that you play in, but absolutely a necessity when it comes to FIBA basketball,” Van Gundy said. “Everything in this game is different — the rules, interpretations, atmospheres, the game itself, and when you have that ability to not worry about what you were doing in the (NBA) G League and to adapt to what is next, and not get bogged down on what you hoped it would be, that gives you a chance against these great competitors from these other great FIBA teams.”
With Santa Cruz, California being the destination for the games upcoming in February, Van Gundy understands the importance of home-court advantage for moments like these. International basketball is highly competitive and tensions can run high. Being able to have an electrifying crowd supporting the team is crucial, which is why having these games where the Santa Cruz Warriors play their G League games should be an advantage for the USA.
“These games are going to be hard fought, 50-50 type games, and we need to absolutely generate a home-court advantage to give us a chance,” said Van Gundy.
For the USA team, their Americup record (8-0), doesn’t tell the tale of how the journey has been so far through both qualifying stages. Each game has been a hard-fought contest, besides one lopsided victory over Mexico 91-55. Playing in hostile environments with substantial home-court advantages added to the challenge. In the next round of qualifying games, Team USA will be the hosting country, and Van Gundy understands the importance home-court advantage during FIBA play.
“That’s why being able to go and play in a place like Santa Cruz is so critical, that we will get the passionate crowd support that we will face on the road,” said Van Gundy. “To have that passionate home-court advantage will be huge for us, since we have to go up against teams that have been together playing for so much longer, and are used to the style of play in FIBA.”
Coming up next for Team USA, are games against Cuba and Puerto Rico to be played in February. Both are teams in which Van Gundy has a lot of respect for.
“All I know is that both games will be a battle,” said Van Gundy. “Puerto Rico is a well-balanced, exceptionally smart, very versatile, high percentage shooting team. Angel Rodriguez was unbelievable in our game against them. The ball pressure, his ball penetration offensively, coupled with the shooting they had on the court, when you get broken down by a guard like him it is hard to recover, and they really hurt us from the 3-point line.”
Van Gundy also addressed that Cuba wont be an easy out.
“I see talent,” said Van Gundy of Cuba. “They have a legit 7-footer, great offensive rebounder with great hands. They make free throws, they can pass out of double teams. They are a big team, athletic, and like all these teams in FIBA, highly competitive. You will never face a FIBA team not ready to play.”
The challenge of FIBA basketball cannot be understated, and the NBA G League stars representing the USA have realized that so far in the qualifying competition. Come February, the newest challenge will be set, and the players along with the coaches will once more attempt to make the United States proud.
It won’t be easy. It takes a certain type of person to play the role of one of the unsung heroes of American professional basketball. Thus far, Van Gundy, Warney and the rest of Team USA have proven to be just that.