In anticipation of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, USA Basketball, at the behest of four-time gold medalists Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, organized an expanded preparation program for the US Women’s National Basketball Team, with a number of training sessions and a slate of exhibition games planned in order to ensure that Team USA would win gold for the seventh-straight Olympiad.
Of course, COVID-19 erupted, disrupting sport and society, including the Olympic Games. Despite some lingering uncertainty, the Games are expected to go on in 2021.
So how are things going fo Team USA?
Instead of enjoying the advantages of expanded training opportunities, the 2021 version of Team USA will head to Tokyo as prior Team USAs headed to Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008, London in 2012 and Rio in 2016 — with limited preparation but high expectations.
“People know that our training time is limited, so they made the sacrifice. And that’s what I love. That’s what I so appreciate." @dawnstaley— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) February 7, 2021
It was a vigorous week of reunion & improvement for the #USABWNT in South Carolina.
The road to gold in Tokyo
This past weekend, the road to Tokyo officially began, with 19 members of the US Women’s National Basketball Team player pool participating in a four-day mini-camp in Columbia, S.C., the home base of Team USA head coach Dawn Staley.
Olympic champions and/or World Cup winners in attendance were: Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, Jewell Loyd, Nneka Ogwumike, Kelsey Plum, Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson.
Other National Team pool participants were: Ariel Atkins, Napheesa Collier, Diamond DeShields, Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Arike Ogunbowale, Katie Lou Samuelson and Sydney Wiese. Kahleah Copper, who is not a member of the National Team pool, also participated.
“We had some goals set for this camp, and that is to continue to establish an identity defensively and then, to continue to gain some continuity offensively. And staying the course,” Staley said of the four days of court work.
12 players will make the Tokyo team.
Prior Olympians not present were: Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird, Tina Charles, Elena Delle Donne, Angel McCoughtry and Diana Taurasi. Other members of the 36-member player pool who did not attend were: Jordin Canada, Layshia Clarendon, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Asia Durr, Tiffany Hayes, Kayla McBride, Chiney Ogwumike, Odyssey Sims, Brittney Sykes, Jasmine Thomas, Morgan Tuck and Elizabeth Williams.
These absences, in and of themselves, make Staley’s final roster decisions difficult. Compounding her choices will be the presumed desire to honor the commitment of longtime USA Basketball devotees, headlined by Bird and Taurasi, with the need to empower the next generation of Team USA stalwarts.
Who will be heading to Tokyo?
Staley’s reflections on the mini-camp offer some insight into her roster construction considerations.
When commenting on the absence of experienced Olympians, Staley specifically named Bird, Taurasi and Delle Donne, saying:
Sometimes coaches feel like just because we don’t have the experience like Sue, Diana, Elena Delle Donne. Just because we don’t have some of those players who have helped us win (Olympic) gold medals and FIBA World Cups, sometimes you want to just say, ‘Oh, you know this is probably not going to be the team so let’s not work on our stuff.’ We did the direct opposite, which was, ‘Let’s continue to work on our stuff’ because we don’t know who we’re going to have in the future — six months, five months is a long way from now. So as long as we stay the course, everybody else will just fall in line.
Her identification of Bird, Taurasi and Delle Donne seems to certify that, if they so desire, a trip to Tokyo is theirs.
A spot on the squad also seems all but certain for the top two contenders for the 2020 WNBA MVP award — winner A’ja Wilson and runner-up Breanna Stewart, the latter of whom was the 2018 MVP.
Among the players present in Columbia, Staley praised two would-be Olympic newbies — Jewell Loyd and Chelsea Gray.
Of Loyd, Staley said:
Jewell Loyd was just really more comfortable with being here. I mean both sides of the ball. Obviously, she was a great defensive presence for us in the (2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament), but on offense now, I think she just has a better understanding, she’s more comfortable and we’re seeing all sides of her game. I thought that was on display this training camp.
About Gray, she noted, “She thinks pass first, but if you lean towards her passing first, she’ll burn you with her ability to score the ball from deep, from mid-range.”
Gray also expressed optimism about the training opportunity, sharing:
Everybody was excited to finally be back together again since it’s been a while. But the energy was great. The environment, everybody wanted to work hard, wanted to get things done but also have fun doing it. We have a goal set on a gold medal, so we’re trying to get the best out of each other throughout these days because we can only get together so many times before the Olympic Games begin. So we just want to take full advantage of it and I think everybody had a good time doing it, competing and playing hard.
It remains possible that another mini-camp or two could be held before Tokyo, giving Staley and her staff, which includes Seattle Storm head coach Dan Hughes, Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve and George Washington head coach Jennifer Rizzotti, additional opportunities to evaluate candidates for the Olympic roster.
How Olympic opponents could influence the 12-woman roster
Opponents in the Olympic Preliminary Round also could shape roster decisions. Team USA will meet host Japan, 2016 4th-place finisher France and Nigeria.
France, in particular, could expose one of Team USA’s weakness. During their exhibition games in the late fall of 2019 and early winter of 2020, dynamic scoring guards carved up Team USA. In leading Oregon to a 93-86 victory over Team USA, Sabrina Ionescu was electric, scoring 30 points with seven assists. Albeit in a loss, Chennedy Carter, then a junior at Texas A&M, lit up Team USA for 34 points.
France’s Marine Johannès, who suited up for the New York Liberty in 2019, has the potential to trouble Team USA in a similar manner. Currently playing for LDLC Asvel Féminin, Johannès dropped 38 points in a narrow loss to ZVVZ USK Praha in early December EuroLeague action.
For all their excellence and equity, Bird and Taurasi are weak perimeter defenders. As such, players who can lockdown crafty guards would seem to be smart additions to the squad. The likes of Diamond DeShields, Ariel Atkins and Allisha Gray, a member of the USA 3x3 Olympic Qualifying Team, possess versatile, two-way skillsets from the wing positions that could make them valuable assets.
Bigs with two-way versatility and malleability, such as Nneka Ogwumike and Napheesa Collier, likewise should have an edge in making the final roster. With a medal-round matchup against Liz Cambage and the Australian Opals possible, Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner, bigs with extensive international experience, can be assumed to be highly-likely selections.
Regardless who goes to Tokyo, the 12 members of Team USA will be expected to return with a seventh-straight gold medal in tow.