Just over a week before USA Basketball travels to Australia for the 2022 FIBA World Cup, multiple faces of the storied program — some for the past two decades — are nowhere to be seen at the training camp in Las Vegas.
There’s no Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi on the floor, nor fellow Team USA stalwarts Brittney Griner, Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles — a group that has combined for 19 Olympic gold medals. Not even A’ja Wilson or Breanna Stewart are around at the moment, the former set to join the team after winning her first WNBA title on Sunday.
Instead, camp is full of fresh faces competing for a spot on the World Cup roster: a mix of up-and-coming stars like Sabrina Ionescu and Shakira Austin, and more established players like Kahleah Copper and Betnijah Laney, who have yet to earn call-ups for the two biggest international tournaments: the Olympics and the World Cup.
“It’s challenging because there are voids all over the place,” Cheryl Reeve, who took over as national team coach from Dawn Staley in December, said of the absences.
In Reeve’s first major international tournament at the helm, which begins Wednesday against Belgium (9:20 p.m. ET on ESPN+), onlookers will catch their first glimpse of how one of sports’ most successful dynasties will handle a massive changing of the guard. The final roster features a single player in her 30s (Alyssa Thomas) and just five holdovers from the 2020 Olympic team. At stake? A fourth consecutive World Cup medal since 2010.
USA Basketball has also lost just one game over the past six World Cups (formerly known as World Championship) and has an even longer winning streak at the Olympics, despite a sometimes rocky performance in Tokyo.
“We’re in a little bit of a transition,” Stewart told ESPN. “But it really gives an opportunity for young players to come in and show what they’ve got and help take USA Basketball to the next level — and understand that everybody wants to beat us.
“Nobody wants us to win gold. And still, our goal every time that we are playing is to win the entire thing.”
Roster fluidity and late arrivals are nothing new for Team USA, but this year in particular, the group has been navigating tremendous uncertainty. Bird and Fowles announced their retirements earlier this year. Taurasi dealt with a WNBA season-ending quad injury. Charles said she felt she had “served my time.” And no one could have anticipated the absences of Griner — who has been wrongfully detained in Russia for over 200 days — or of Skylar Diggins-Smith and Napheesa Collier, both first-time Olympians in Tokyo. The former left the Phoenix Mercury midseason for personal reasons, and the latter is still working herself back from pregnancy and maternity leave.
Stewart, Wilson, Jewell Loyd, Ariel Atkins and Chelsea Gray are the only players with Olympic 5-on-5 experience, while Kelsey Plum (a 3×3 Olympian), Stewart, Wilson and Loyd are the only ones to have competed in the previous World Cup in 2018. Wilson, Gray and Plum will arrive in Sydney after winning the 2022 WNBA title with the Las Vegas Aces and celebrating with a parade down the Strip. Brionna Jones and Thomas of the 2022 runner-up Connecticut Sun will also arrive late.
And Sydney will mark the USA Basketball debuts of Jones, Thomas, Ionescu, Laney, Copper and Austin in a major international competition.
Stewart and Wilson are the clear heirs apparent of the USA Basketball dynasty, especially after the Tokyo Olympics. Alongside Griner, they were the only ones who averaged double-figure scoring in Tokyo, at 15.0 and 16.5 points per game, respectively.
The passing of the baton happened almost immediately.
“After we won gold, [Bird] was like, ‘All right, it’s your turn now,'” said Wilson, who won her second WNBA MVP trophy, first Defensive Player of the Year award and first WNBA title this year. “I’m like, ‘Huh?’ When you really think about it, it’s me and Stewie. Everyone’s gone.”
Where Stewart and Wilson could previously look to Bird, Taurasi, Fowles and others as the veteran leaders, they’re now the ones tasked with assuming the mantle in Australia.
“I don’t know who’s going to be talking in the timeouts now,” Wilson said, chuckling nervously. “We’ll be figuring it out. But, no, it’s a great thing. They’ve laid a great foundation for us to step in as the next gen to carry the torch.
“I am probably terrified, but I’m excited as well just to get back out there with other greats. Let’s go get this gold.”
Going into her third World Cup, Stewart — who arrived in Australia a few days after the majority of Team USA — is the most experienced player remaining. She is one of two (the other being Seattle Storm teammate Loyd) players on the current roster who averaged at least 20 minutes per game at the 2018 World Cup.
Stewart is especially cognizant of her leadership responsibilities.
“Making sure everyone is comfortable and adapting and learning and not taking these moments for granted,” she said. “I think it’s kind of selfish if you don’t talk and if you don’t use your experience to help others, so I just really want to make sure that I’m taking advantage of that and helping the team as best I can for what we do here in Australia, but also to take it for whether they’re going overseas or the offseason or whatever the case may be.”
Becky Hammon and A’ja Wilson cap off a historic season to lead the Aces to a WNBA championship.
She and Wilson won’t have to do it entirely alone. Gray and Loyd, who both averaged just under 20 minutes per game in Tokyo, along with Atkins will help shore up the backcourt. Gray, at 29 one of the older members of the World Cup team and the newly crowned WNBA Finals MVP, will be particularly looked to as a floor general amid Bird’s retirement and Diggins-Smith’s absence.
“I definitely want to be part of holding up that legacy and being part of that team,” she said. “I think we can continue that. We have some people in there that have experience, and there will be new people. It’s always forming, it’s fluid, and so that’s exciting as well.”
Loyd said, “Obviously, it’s going to be a little different. “Everyone has different learning styles, leadership styles. But I know we’re not out here stranded by ourselves. We’ve learned from our veterans, and now we’re ready to get going.”
Even Atkins, who had a limited role off the bench at the Olympics, is taking on extra reps at point guard until Gray arrives. She hopes she can bring some of the leadership she saw on display during her time in Tokyo to Australia.
“Just their ability to either calm people down or hype people up,” Atkins said on what she absorbed from the greats she played with throughout her first Olympics. “I just think that was a really cool part for me, learning how to get us going and how to get us in certain stuff to help us score. Even Chelsea being a point guard for us in USA. Just their ability to catch the wave of the team, and kind of direct it more than just letting it flow.”
Reeve believes the numerous voids on the squad are simply an opportunity for new faces to fill them. Expected to do just that: seasoned WNBA players Jones, Thomas, Copper and Laney. They, along with Austin, should bolster the national team’s strength on the perimeter and down low.
“They’ve been around for a little bit, and now it’s their moment to take advantage of that,” Stewart said. “Also it just shows the experience they have in the WNBA to how things carry over on the court.”
Thomas and Jones participated in the two-game World Cup Qualifying Tournament in February, but Copper has never competed with USA Basketball. She has proven herself, though, as the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP with the Chicago Sky and as the 2022 EuroLeague regular-season MVP with Spain’s Perfumerias Avenida.
“I just love that it’s the best of the best,” Copper said. “It’s not about one person, it’s not about two people. Everybody has to bring something different, and that’s what I do. It’s cool. I’ve never been a part of it. This is the highest level for me. … I’m just grateful to be here.”
Camp also included the top three picks from the 2022 WNBA draft — Rhyne Howard, NaLyssa Smith and Austin — as well as reigning national collegiate player of the year Aliyah Boston. Austin and Ionescu were the only players under 25 to make the final cut.
“It’s cool to see a lot of young players,” Ionescu said. “That’s super exciting because I feel like the game is just changing and it’s continuing to be at a really high level, and that’s starting not in Year 8, but in Year 1, 2 and 3. That’s only going to make all of us better. It’s only going to make USA Basketball better.”
The New York Liberty point guard won three gold medals in various events with USA Basketball before getting drafted in the WNBA — but then missed time with Team USA while spending the past two years recovering from an ankle injury. Coming off a strong WNBA season in which she earned her first All-WNBA nod, she is another option to fill the void with the absence of Bird, Taurasi and Diggins-Smith.
“I think having a healthy season and continuing to grow as a point guard and as a guard in this league, I kind of understand what it is that I need to do day in and day out and how I can continue to elevate my teammates and also learn from them,” Ionescu said. “And so I think coming into this camp, I’ve understood that and want to take on that role as well as continuing to listen and learn from a lot of the veterans that have won gold medals and that have been in the position that I’ve been.”
The new-look USA Basketball
Reeve has an idea of how she wants her squad to play: fast. They can further dictate the pace if they control the glass and get after it defensively, using their length and athleticism.
Reeve demands greatness, players said, and has no problem telling players when they screw up. She admitted during camp that she’s mostly taught her current group as they awaited the rest of the team to join. Her first big test on the international stage will depend on how quickly she can get the team to jell, and how she can help players learn how to accelerate the process.
Step one is knowing your stuff — including the little details that often make a big difference — to be more communicative.
“You just got to do it. It’s hard, I’ll be honest, but you just got to do it,” Atkins said. “It’s constant repetition. It’s locking in even when you’re tired.”
Players are already well familiar with one another from the WNBA. But it doesn’t equate to meshing on the same team. If all goes to plan, USA Basketball’s experience in Sydney will only prove that even with significant turnover, many new faces and surging teams elsewhere on the international stage, the program’s championship tradition will be unwavering.
“The biggest thing is that you understand the tradition,” Atkins said. “At the end of the day, it’s about details and always putting our best foot forward and always playing the game the right way. I don’t necessarily think the tradition or the foundation is going to change, but definitely the faces and the personalities and different things like that. So I guess we just have to wait and see.”
Five of the 10 players who earned all-WNBA nods this season, including first-team picks Wilson, Stewart and Plum, will represent Team USA.
“When I look at me, A’ja, Chelsea, Jewell, we’re all going to be at this moment where we’re playing in our primes,” Stewart said. “I think as we continue to have more time on the court together with USA Basketball, we’re only going to continue to get better. For me it’s just going to be a lot of fun, and realizing that these experiences that we’re going to have are going to be things that we’re going to look back on years from now, hopefully with many gold medals, and it’s just a bond that will never be broken.”
This also isn’t the first time that USA Basketball has seen a changing of the guard, Reeve points out. She remembers when the likes of Dawn Staley stepped away after the 2004 Olympics, and “everyone was worried about the next generation. And that was Sue and Dee [stepping in].
“Somebody is going to step up. It’s going to keep going,” Reeve said. “It’s going to look different. They’re never going to be Sue and Dee, in terms of leadership and everything, but in their own way, and so it’s always replaced. Always.”