USA Basketball hasn’t lost a major international competition since 2006, when the Americans lost to Russia in the semifinals of the FIBA World Cup (then known as the World Championship for Women).
But the Team USA that heads to Australia for the upcoming World Cup won’t look like the dominant roster that won gold in Tokyo a year ago. Seven players from that squad are not in training camp, and a few other American stalwarts will be late to arrive thanks to the WNBA playoffs. That means that the group in Las Vegas currently preparing for September’s World Cup is dramatically younger and looking for some fresh faces to fill out its roster.
Perhaps it was appropriate, then, that in Friday night’s Red-White scrimmage, the Red team — which had three 2022 WNBA rookies: Rhyne Howard, NaLyssa Smith, and Shakira Austin — came out with something to prove and earned the 72-59 victory.
Howard continued to put up the high volume of shots she got with the Atlanta Dream this past season, scoring 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting. Austin made her mark defensively and even showed off her quickness on the perimeteoften playedften playing next to another big. She also demonstrated her trademark efficiency on the offensive end.
One playerstin really struggled with, however, was Aliyah Boston, the lone collegian in camp. Boston made life difficult for Austin by stoning her in the post and deflecting entry passes; Boston also kept getting deep post position, allowing her to finish through and around contact in the paint.
The rookies couldn’t take the shine away from the leading scorer of the night, Diamond DeShields, who continued her end-of-season tear. DeShields averaged 17 points per game over Phoenix’s last seven contests, helping the Mercury secure a playoff berth, and she was unstoppable getting into the paint even against Las Vegas in the first round of the playoffs. That trend was once again at play for Team Red, as DeShields danced into the lane at will in the half court and in transition, bullying her way there on occasion but also busting out euro-steps when necessary. She led both teams with 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting despite coming off the bench.
DeShields has a real opportunity to make the World Cup team, considering her stellar run over the last month or so, and the fact that the Olympics roster didn’t include any true small forwards. Breanna Stewart played the position out of necessity, but she’ll be a power forward on this year’s squad, especially given the absence of Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles, and Brittney Griner. That leaves an opening on the wing.
Joining DeShields in competition for that spot is Kahleah Copper, who hasn’t yet arrived at camp after losing in the WNBA semifinals. Jackie Young is also in the pool, and she earned herself substantial goodwill with USA Basketball as part of the gold-medal 3x3 team last year. Howard will likely earn consideration, and it’s worth noting that she started over DeShields for the Red Team. Furthermore, Betnijah Laney had a good night for the White Team, canning 5-of-10 shots at high difficulty for 11 points.
Just to be thorough, Angel McCoughtry is also in Las Vegas with USA Basketball, but she didn’t play most of 2022 and is on FIBA’s sanctioned list. Katie Lou Samuelson, who was supposed to be on the 2021 3x3 team before contracting Covid, is around as well, but didn’t play in the scrimmage due to injury. That can’t help with such a tight timeline (nor does the anti-Sparks Olympics conspiracy! I kid, kind of.)
One other player who emphatically made her argument for a roster spot was Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu ran a mean pick-and-roll throughout, tallied six assists, and consistently set her team up well on inbounds plays. Ionescu’s case is certainly added by the fact that she is the lone point guard (or close to it) in camp, and the only other point guard in the pool is Chelsea Gray, who can’t come to Australia until after the conclusion of the WNBA Finals.
For reference, group play for the United States starts on Sept. 21 against Belgium. If the Finals go to Game 5, that would take place on Sept. 20. Cheryl Reeve and her staff will obviously leave room for Gray and A’ja Wilson, but the calculus gets trickier after that if the Americans want a larger roster in place for the start of the tournament.
At the moment, it’s probably fair to say that the five remaining Olympians are locks for this year’s squad: Wilson, Gray, Stewart, Jewell Loyd, and Ariel Atkins. Ionescu is almost assured as well, simply because the USA needs a point guard. After them, the next six players could go in several directions.
My guess is USA Basketball will favor the 3x3 Olympians as well: Young, Kelsey Plum, and Stefanie Dolson. Taking four Las Vegas Aces could be slightly problematic depending on how long the Finals go, but losing once in group play isn’t the worst outcome to maximize talent later in the competition. My final three players would be Copper, Alyssa Thomas (another WNBA finalist, so we’re basically punting the game against Belgium at this point), and one of Laney/DeShields.
The toughest exclusions for me were Austin and Boston. Austin’s a little more versatile and can function in a small role, while Boston is an unstoppable force inside. Still, neither is more deserving than Thomas, and Dolson takes up the last frontcourt spot. Howard was the Rookie of the Year, but we’ve only seen her function as the hub of an offense (and not terribly efficiently), which is harder to fit in on this particular roster.
This is an unenviable position for Reeve and her staff, complicated by the timing of the WNBA Finals. There aren’t any bad choices, but as we saw with the Olympics, it isn’t an easy job, either.