Courtesy of USA Basketball

Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones was back on the hardwood last weekend — not for the Blue and White, but as an assistant coach for the Red, White and Blue.

The USA Basketball squad traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, last week to play their final two games in the 2021 FIBA AmeriCup Qualifiers. The team secured a 93–77 victory over the Bahamas on Friday, followed by a 96–75 win over Mexico on Saturday. Both games took place at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente, and Team USA qualified for the 2022 FIBA AmeriCup tournament, finishing the qualification round with a perfect record of 6–0.

“It was phenomenal,” Jones said of his return to the sidelines. “Obviously I’d rather be with my team [the Bulldogs], but this is a great second to be around these guys experiencing something like this together for their country. It was quite thrilling.”

Forward Paul Atkinson ’21, who was slated to make his Team USA debut over the weekend, was forced to withdraw from the team after testing positive for COVID-19, according to a USA Basketball press release. Atkinson was replaced on the roster by Brandon Bass, who has 12 years of NBA experience.

Photos: Courtesy of USA Basketball

Jones, who has been the Bulldogs’ head coach for 22 years, said that in Puerto Rico he did “the same stuff I do with my [Yale] team,” just in the role of assistant coach.

Breaking from his usual role as head coach, Jones took on preparing the scouting report, or “scout,” which entails doing research on the team’s opponents, a task that is normally assigned to one of the assistant coaches for the Bulldogs.

In the first game of the weekend, Team USA got off to a hot start as two-time NBA All-Star Isaiah Thomas made three consecutive three-pointers in the first two minutes of the game.

But the Bahamas showed their resilience and made it difficult for the United States to put the game out of reach. The Bahamas pulled out all the stops on defense, showing the Americans switch-heavy man-to-man coverages, as well as multiple zone and press coverages. Team USA head coach Joe Prunty said after the game that he thought his team responded “well, not great” to these different defensive schemes. Prunty added that improvement would come as the team became more comfortable playing with each other.

“We had a very good week of practice, but it’s different,” Prunty said. “Getting on the floor and playing in games is so important.”

At the Friday post-game press conference, both Prunty and Thomas expressed the importance of coming together and playing as a team. In a later interview with the News, Jones said that this was something that gradually happened throughout the week.

Thomas, one of the veteran leaders on the U.S. team, spoke at a press conference after his 19-point performance against the Bahamas about how well the group was able to mesh in only a few days.

“We’ve been jelling fast — we’ve only been together a little over a week, we only practiced like four or five days,” Thomas said. “So for us to play like we did today … that says a lot about everybody on this team.”

The following night against Mexico, the United States was much more dominant, taking a 31–15 lead after one quarter. By halftime, the lead had grown to 25 points, and an undefeated record in the qualifiers was all but secured.

“We did a much better job of taking care of the ball tonight than we did the first night,” Jones said. “We had far too many turnovers in that first game and tonight we lowered those.”

Photo: Courtesy of USA Basketball

The Americans had only 12 turnovers against Mexico, four fewer than their 16 giveaways in the Bahamas game.

While the improvement on the court was a welcome sight, Jones was impressed with the camaraderie of the team off the court as well.

“They care about each other,” Jones explained. ‘There are guys on the bench trying to get guys that didn’t play as much in the game. It’s just really amazing to me what a great level of person is involved with this program and how much fun it was to be around the guys.”

The FIBA AmeriCup will be held in September 2022.

James Richardson | james.richardson@yale.edu