Having already qualified for the 2024 Olympics in Paris due to their triumph at the 2022 World Cup, Team USA’s participation was a formality.
The Americans, intent upon earning an eighth-straight gold medal this summer, used it as an opportunity to prepare for Paris. After a three-day training camp at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn during the first weekend of February, head coach Cheryl Reeve and her staff tapped 12 players for the three-game qualifying tournament in Antwerp, Belgium.
Team USA collected three victories abroad, although the first one, a two-point win over the host Belgians off a buzzer-beating tip in from Breanna Stewart, possibly should have required an extra period. Before missing the shot that Stewart would tip in, Kelsey Plum appeared to step out of bounds. The Americans won their second and third games in expectedly dominant fashion, defeating Nigeria and Senegal.
However, the process, rather than the results, is more important, not necessarily for evaluating the favored Americans’ prospects in Paris but for trying to determine who the 12 players wearing red, white and blue will be. Based on minutes, performance and any other minutiae, who appears best positioned to claim a spot on the Olympic team?
Here’s a game-by-game assessment of the evidence:
USA 81, Belgium 79: Reeve trusts her gal Phee
Although Stewart earned the highlights with her winning tip, Napheesa Collier was the offensive engine for Team USA. In a game where the Americans could not hit a shot, especially from behind the arc, Collier came off the bench and carried the scoring load from the midrange. With 23 points, she outscored all her teammates by at least nine points; Alyssa Thomas had 14 points. Collier and Thomas also lead Team USA in rebounding, with seven boards a piece.
The two combine to make an intriguing frontcourt tandem, capable of playing together or alternating time on the court. Collier has the silky-smooth, increasingly refined offensive game with a smart, steady defensive presence. Thomas, in contrast, bounds and bullies her way to the basket, while serving as relentless and disruptive multi-position defender. Thomas got the start against Belgium, with Collier sliding into the first five against Nigeria.
In the backcourt, Plum emerged as Reeve’s leading option, playing more the 24 minutes. While Jewell Loyd, Diana Taurasi and Kahleah Copper started, they all played around 16 minutes, as did Sabrina Ionescu. It is worth noting that Plum did not play in either of Team USA’s November exhibition games at Tennessee and Duke. Possibly, Reeve gave her extended time to get an improved understanding on how she might fit with the Olympic team. Plum, like most all of the American guards, did not shoot particularly well, making only two of her nine shot attempts.
USA 100, Nigeria 46: Rhyne makes her case
Whereas Plum saw the most backcourt minutes against Belgium, it was Ionescu against Nigeria. She was 3-for-5 from deep in her almost 28 minutes of action, finishing with nine points. She also added eight assists, while Plum, in less than 17 minutes of time, dished nine dimes.
The star of this game, however, was Rhyne Howard, who marked her debut with the senior national team with a 4-for-8 performance from 3 and 14 points. Loyd led the Americans, making three triples on her way to 18 points. Collier also had another strong game, with 12 points, six rebounds, three assists and four steals in more than 21 minutes of playing time.
USA 101, Senegal 39: Phee and Rhyne, once again, star
Collier and Howard again impressed in the Americans’ final game. Starting alongside Loyd, Taurasi, Stewart and Thomas, Collier had 22 points, four assists and four steals is almost 25 minutes. Off the bench, Howard saw just more than 15 minutes of time, but she poured in a team-high 25 points, again draining four 3s. She also got to the line for five free throws and grabbed five boards. Both Collier and Howard made FIBA’s “All-Star 5 of Antwerp.”
Aliyah Boston, in approximately 20 minutes of action, lead Team USA with eights boards, which she matched with eight points. Thomas tossed a team-best five assists.
Who’s in, who’s out and what’s next for Team USA?
Before the final squad is selected, the national team will host another training camp, coinciding with the Final Four in Cleveland in early April. There, three 2020 Olympians who did not travel to Antwerp—Chelsea Gray, Brittney Griner and A’ja Wilson—presumably will participate, confirming themselves as near locks for the final roster. Despite a muted role in Antwerp, Diana Taurasi is unlikely to be denied an opportunity to make more history with a sixth gold medal. Stewart, likewise, is assured a third-consecutive trip to the Olympics.
As evidenced above, Reeve’s understandable and well-earned trust in Collier strongly situates her for one of the 12 spots. Loyd’s ability to score efficiently in bunches, as she demonstrated against Nigeria, makes it likely that she, like Collier, will make a second-straight Olympic team. The status of another 2020 Olympian, Ariel Atkins, appears less certain. She would seem to be competing with Jackie Young for a spot, as both are rock-solid defenders with scalable offensive games; neither received a significant run in Antwerp. In contrast to the more strength-based defense and methodical offense of Atkins or Young, Kahleah Copper would provide the Americans with an injection of speed on both ends of the floor.
Despite Howard’s successful display of her versatile skill set, it would be surprising if, barring injuries, she earned a nod over more experienced players. The same goes for Boston, especially considering Team USA sports a deep frontcourt with Griner, Wilson, Stewart, Thomas and Collier. If Plum and Ionescu are pitted against each other for a single spot, that’ll be interesting. With Gray, Taurasi, Loyd and even Thomas capable of handling the ball, do the Americans’ need two more guards? Of late, Ionescu’s 3-pointer has been the more sure thing, but, after the 2022 WNBA season, the opposite would have been true.
Nevertheless, what happened on the court in Antwerp only goes so far in determining the 12 players who will represent the United States in 2024. Ask Candace Parker or Nneka Ogwumike. Performance mixes with notions about loyalty, the politics of public relations and more when adjudicating Olympic rosters. That stew of priorities will continue to simmer for a few more months.
And, congratulations Belgium!
We’d be remiss if we did not congratulate the Belgian Cats on qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. It’s their second-straight Olympic berth, and second overall.
After nearly knocking off Team USA, Belgium did not suffer a let down against Senegal on Friday, with the host team taking care of business, 97-66. After a quite scoring game against the Americans, Emma Meesseman was spectacular, with 32 points, seven boards and a pair of assists and steals against Senegal. She also was named MVP of the tournament.
Of note, Mike Thibault, the Washington Mystics’ current general manager and former head coach who is an assistant coach for Team USA, was asked by the local press about Meesseman returning to the Mystics. Over at Bullets Forever, Albert Lee has an analysis of what Thibault said about Meesseman, as well as Julie Vanloo, who signed a training camp contract with the Mystics.