COLUMBIA, S.C. — Storm point guard Sue Bird has been part of the national team gatherings for many years, but it still strikes her at times that it’s not nearly enough.
“I’m almost sad we don’t get to do this more often,” Bird said of the team training camp last weekend at South Carolina. “There’s only so much you can communicate or talk about things in a few days. It would be cool to have that relationship grow even more. But it is what it is: That’s USA Basketball.”
Indeed, the logistical challenges are always there, so it’s a matter of trying to make the most of what time is available to prepare for major international competitions. In this case, the FIBA World Cup — formerly called the world championship — is Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Canary Islands.
Twenty-two players participated in the camp, which was held on South Carolina’s campus and presided over by national team and Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley.
But four 2016 Olympians who are still playing — not counting Tamika Catchings, who retired after the 2016 WNBA season — weren’t there, three of them members of 2017 champion Minnesota.
Lynx center Sylvia Fowles was in the midst of playoffs in China, as was Storm forward Breanna Stewart, and they opted not to come to the camp. Lynx guard Seimone Augustus is still not 100 percent after knee surgery she had after the WNBA season. And Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen has retired from international play, although she will continue in the WNBA.
And it’s that spot — as the other primary designated point guard — that prompted much conversation at this camp.
“You’re not necessarily filling Lindsay’s shoes. I don’t think anyone can do that,” said four-time Olympian Bird. “What she brought to this team from so many perspectives was important. She knew how to play, the kind of energy you need to bring.
“I don’t think the best way to phrase it is, ‘Who can be Lindsay?’ But what USA Basketball needs moving forward is someone who can take the reins. Who can operate out there within themselves, understanding they’re surrounded by greatness.”
Those are the qualities that Bird and Whalen exemplify. Bird turned 37 in October, but she’s still playing at a high enough level — and her leadership is so valued — that it seems almost sure she’ll be on this World Cup team as long as she’s healthy. Same for Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi, who will turn 36 in June.
But at least one of the top 20-something point guards in the U.S. pool seems likely to be included on this team, too. The top candidates at this camp were Dallas’ Skylar Diggins-Smith, Atlanta’s Layshia Clarendon and Los Angeles’ Chelsea Gray.
“It’s a big opportunity that’s there,” said Clarendon, who turns 27 in May and averaged 10.7 points and 6.6 assists last season for the Dream. “It’s a fun time to be a part of USA Basketball, with the transition to Dawn and where we’re going.”
Staley played in three Olympics and also has been an assistant coach for the U.S. team, so she was a natural selection last year to take over as head coach from UConn’s Geno Auriemma.
“If you make the team or not, you come away with so much from these experiences,” said Diggins-Smith, 27, who averaged 18.5 points and 5.8 assists last season for the Wings. “But I really want to make the team.
“Along the way, you have to soak all this in. Sometimes I over-think it, because I want to do the right thing. But you’re talking about the best of all time who’ve been on this team. There is so much history there, and I appreciate that even more as I get older.”
Gray helped the Sparks win the WNBA championship in 2016 and make the WNBA Finals last year. She had the best season of her young WNBA career in 2017, averaging 14.8 points and 4.4 assists.
She had stomach flu and had to sit out the first day of camp, last Friday, but was able to play the last two days.
“It’s cool for me to have a chance to be around these veterans,” said Gray, who just turned 25 in October. “Their vocal leadership is one thing I’ve learned, especially from Sue.”
Chicago guard Courtney Vandersloot — who led the WNBA in assists last season at 8.1 per game — would be a top candidate, too, if she was still eligible to play for the United States. But Vandersloot, who turned 29 last week, joined the Hungarian national team in November 2016, believing she was never going to be added to the U.S. team during her prime.
Some American fans have criticized that Bird and Taurasi, both of whom would like to play in a fifth Olympics in 2020, have stockpiled gold medals while players like Vandersloot never got to be on even one Olympics or World Cup team with the United States.
But USA Basketball always has prized and rewarded loyalty, and it’s not the fault of Bird or Taurasi that they came of age in the early 2000s, right when the U.S. team needed an infusion of guard talent.
In 2004, Staley was 34 and playing in her final Olympics, and Shannon Johnson, the other veteran point guard on that team, was 30. Bird, who had also played on the 2002 World Cup team, was 23 for the 2004 Olympics, and Taurasi 22. For them, the timing was perfect. And they’ve been very consistent performers ever since.
“It’s been fascinating to watch the progression of this team through my eyes, being the young kid and now being older,” Taurasi said. “The young talent we have now is going to do something special. I’ve been lucky to be on this ride for a long time.”
At this camp, some coaches of other women’s Olympic teams were invited to observe and compare notes. Among them was U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. The top American volleyball players compete overseas, but don’t have a pro league in the United States like the WNBA. Thus, they have far more time to spend with the national team than is the case with basketball.
“It’s been fascinating to watch the progression of this team through my eyes, being the young kid and now being older. The young talent we have now is going to do something special. I’ve been lucky to be on this ride for a long time.”
USA Basketball veteran Diana Taurasi
USA Basketball had a three-day camp last September-October that none of the Lynx or Sparks players could take part in because they were in the WNBA Finals. There will be another three-day camp in April, with the date and location to be announced. Then the team will have maybe a week together before the world championship, which comes right after the WNBA Finals end.
“We can’t even wrap our heads around how little preparation time that is,” Kiralyi said. “It helps me understand more why people like Sue and Diana are around for so many cycles. Because when you get so few days, it’s incredibly important to have like a rudder, or a compass, leading the team on and carrying the culture forward.
“In volleyball, we can have a lot more turnover from one Olympics to the next because we get 5-6 months a year together and a lot of time to work on that culture.”
Of course, having Staley as head coach helps, too, because of her long history with the national team.
“I think one of the biggest goals from a camp like this is to really connect the older and younger players,” Staley said. “We have some players who have retired, and for our older players … the next Olympics are still two years away, and that’s a long time.
“We have to implement our culture into some of the younger ones who could make this team. We’re slowly getting there. The next training camp, we’ll see how much growth has taken place.”