'Next generation' starts now for USA Basketball
Team USA begins training for 2020 Tokyo Olympics
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- While the Lynx and Sparks were battling in the WNBA Finals, another group of players about 90 miles north were showing off its stuff to USA Basketball.
That made for an intriguing training camp: Everywhere new U.S. coach Dawn Staley looked, she often didn't see a past Olympian. There were only two of those among the 17 players taking part in the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 camp in Santa Barbara, California: four-time gold medalist Sue Bird of Seattle and her Storm teammate Breanna Stewart, who made her Olympic debut in 2016.
"We have a lot of options," said Staley, a three-time Olympian as a player who coaches collegiately at South Carolina, the 2017 NCAA champion. "USA Basketball is a great culture where you want to keep coming back to it. It feels great to be in this capacity, because it's something I've given over half my life to. I love everything about USA Basketball.
"For me, it's just about winning gold. I just want to continue the success that we've had. I want to follow suit."
USA Basketball is always somewhat at the mercy of other schedules, so camps get squeezed in around the WNBA, overseas leagues and NCAA basketball. In this case, though, most veterans didn't come, either because they were in the WNBA Finals, were injured, were taking needed rest, or were already overseas.
We had a lot of new people. You saw what the next generation is going to be all about. ... USA Basketball is going to be in good hands.
- USA Basketball veteran guard Sue Bird
A wealth of talented players missed the camp while they were competing for the WNBA title, won in five games by Minnesota over Los Angeles. The Lynx had four players from the 2016 Olympic team: Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen.
The Sparks had no 2016 Olympians, but Candace Parker was on the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams. Plus, Nneka Ogwumike and Odyssey Sims played in the 2014 FIBA Women's World Cup (formerly called the FIBA World Championship), and Chelsea Gray's rapid elevation among WNBA point guards likely makes her a USA Basketball target, too.
But the question of who might be the next young point guard on the U.S. team has been asked for so long, some of the former candidates have moved on. Chicago's 28-year-old Courtney Vandersloot, for example, led the WNBA in assist average this season (8.1) and now plays for the Hungarian national team.
Bird turns 37 this month, and Whalen is 35. Both have said they don't plan on retiring anytime soon from the WNBA, and they'd like to keep participating in USA Basketball. So will they be on the team yet again next year for the World Cup?
That will be one of the many questions the USA Basketball selection committee will have to answer prior to the event, Sept. 22-30, 2018, in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.
There's always some degree of turnover with the U.S. roster, but familiar names like Bird and Diana Taurasi have been on the squad for well over a decade. They have a chance to be five-time gold medalists at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but that's quite a ways down the road.
"We had a lot of new people. You saw what the next generation is going to be all about," Bird said of the training camp. "Even though there weren't that many returning Olympians, you could see that USA Basketball is going to be in good hands."
Besides Bird, the other guards at the camp were Storm teammate Jewell Loyd, the Dream's Layshia Clarendon and Tiffany Hayes, the Wings' Skylar Diggins-Smith, the Stars' Kayla McBride and Kelsey Plum, the Sun's Courtney Williams, and college players Kelsey Mitchell of Ohio State and Asia Durr of Louisville.
"I came in trying to get some things done on the defensive end," Loyd said. "I feel like they know I can shoot and score, but so can everyone else here. So the biggest thing was to come in here and play hard, and show them I could guard people.
"Playing with Sue has been the best thing for me, because she's been where I want to be. She's the best to really model your game and your efforts after. I've tried to communicate better, be a good teammate."
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Clarendon, who tied with Bird for second in the WNBA in assist average this season (6.6), felt the camp highlighted her greater sense of being in control at the point position.
"You see Sue Bird starting the game," Clarendon said, "and then you go in and know you have to keep that same level of leadership, that caliber of offensive execution and taking care of the ball.
"It was a really positive camp for me, and one that I can take a lot of self-confidence out of, seeing how well I played and how poised I can be after being under a lot of pressure with those defensive drills."
Besides Mitchell and Durr, there were three other collegians at the camp: UConn's Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, both guard-forwards, and forward A'ja Wilson of South Carolina. The other post players present were the Sky's Stefanie Dolson, and the Sun's Kiah Stokes and Morgan Tuck.
"I've been invited to other types of USA Basketball camps before, but this is the top one that I always dreamed about being able to make it to," said Samuelson, who like Collier will be a junior for the Huskies this season. "It's been a really amazing opportunity. Especially with a new coaching staff now, it feels like a new phase for this team, and there are some younger people who probably will get to compete for some spots."