USA National Team Mini-Camp Deemed a Success
From the moment the first player stepped onto the court on the morning of Oct. 5 until the final whistle blew in the intra-squad scrimmage on Sunday, the USA National Team’s mini-camp in Las Vegas was filled with fierce competition between veterans, newcomers, Olympic gold medalists, WNBA All-Stars and college All-Americans.
After the Atlanta Dream and Minnesota Lynx advanced to the WNBA Finals and one of the seven collegians on the roster of 33 USA National Team hopefuls stayed home to rest an ankle, the list of athletes in attendance was down to 27.
2013-16 USA National Team and University of Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma deemed the weekend a success and appreciated that the talent level of athletes vying for a spot in the pool was higher this year than it was four years ago when he first took over the USA National Team.
“One of the things I pointed out was there are four former Olympians from 2012 who weren’t here because of the WNBA Finals,” said Auriemma. “(But), there are enough good players here to make you think, ‘You know what? If something were to happen and we had to go play, I’m not saying we would be as good, but we would be a lot better than we thought we would be four years ago. Now obviously when those four players come on board, whenever that is, that just takes it to a whole other level. So, I think the pool is getting significantly bigger each and every year.
“I think we’re at the point now with USA Basketball where present Olympians and present All-WNBA players, the gap between them and the next level of players is probably narrower than it’s been in a long, long time,” he added. “And a weekend like this illustrates that.”
With several veteran players sitting out of most of the drills and scrimmages due to nagging injuries, the USA Basketball Women’s National Team Player Selection Committee was able to get a better look at some of the younger athletes; and those athletes savored the opportunity to show the committee they belong on the team.
“This time it was a little bit more comfortable, once you get a little experience,” said the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot, who was invited to a USA mini-camp shortly after graduating from Gonzaga University in 2011. “I’ve played with these girls a couple times now, instead of just playing against them (in the WNBA). It’s always fun. It’s competitive, and I always learn a lot. I know what I need to work on and what I need to do to hopefully make this team at some point. I got better, had fun, all those things.”
Auriemma used Friday’s session to work on various drills and talk about what type of offense and defense he wants to see the team play. But on Saturday, with his system instilled as much as possible in a day, Auriemma split the group into three teams, which faced off against each other in heated five-on-five scrimmages.
On Sunday the roster was split into two teams that were coached by three-time Olympic gold medalists Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, both of whom did not take to the court last weekend due to injuries. As if the competition wasn’t already intense, the competitive nature of Bird and Taurasi took it up another notch.
Players were diving on the floor for loose balls, setting hard picks and taking charges. All they wanted to do was leave an impression on the committee and Auriemma.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said the Phoenix Mercury’s Candice Dupree, who was on the 2010 USA World Championship Team, but missed the cut in 2012. “It’ll be pretty hard. You saw quite a few college players who are extremely good. Then you’ve got to think about all the players who were on the last national team and those in between. So, it’s not going to be easy. I think quite a few people played really well.”
One of the younger players who stood out was 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky, who savored her first USA National Team experience.
“I think it was an incredible experience,” said Delle Donne after the final practice. “It’s great to see all these great players in the gym together. When it’s time to be a team, we were a team, and when it was time to compete we did that too. It was really a great three days. I learned a lot about myself and what I need to improve upon. I think we all did a phenomenal job, and now it’s going to be a very tough decision for the panel to make.
“I really enjoyed playing with Tamika (Catchings),” she added. “She’s someone you learn on the court from. She teaches you while she’s playing with you. She’s an amazing player to be on the same court with.”
For Jantel Lavender of the Los Angeles Sparks, who played on three gold-medal winning USA Basketball junior teams and on the 2010 USA Select Team that trained with the 2010 National Team, the weekend was an enjoyable opportunity to work on her game against some of the best in the country.
“(It was) great competition,” Lavender said. “Being able to play with great guards, people who can shoot the ball. You kick it out and nine times out of 10, it’s going in the basket. It’s just fun playing with the best players, being able to do everything, having the right cutters. It’s just great basketball, and it’s fun to play like that.”
She also soaked up everything Auriemma said and learned a great deal from the Hall of Famer.
“He’s intense in kind of a quiet way,” stated Lavender. “You respect everything he says. He says it one time, and you just take it and do it. I like coaches who expect the best out of you. That’s how you want to play for those types of coaches – you don’t want to slack off or do anything less than the best because you know his expectations are really high. He makes everybody want to play at the highest level they can play at.”
Tulsa Shock guard Glory Johnson echoed Lavender’s sentiments. “He demands a lot, just like Pat (Summitt) demanded a lot. It’s good to have coaches like that who are on you all the time. It’s a learning experience. Everyday you learn something new. Those are the best kind of coaches.”
While there was a strong blend of WNBA players, a lot of the focus over the weekend was on the six collegiate athletes trying to make their mark.
“I think in their own way everybody had an impact and stood out at different times in various ways,” remarked Auriemma when asked about the collegians. “The thing that impressed me about all of them was their competitiveness and their almost complete lack of that feeling of, ‘I don’t belong here.’ I never saw that. They came in and acted like, ‘I have every right to be here because I was invited to be here, and so they must think I’m pretty good.’ And they acted like it. Somebody like (Notre Dame’s) Kayla McBride, who I’m sure a lot of the players here and a lot of the committee maybe didn’t know, they certainly know who she is today.”
University of Connecticut sophomore Breanna Stewart, who has benefitted from FIBA’s new calendar of events, started on the USA’s U16 team in 2009, won five gold medals and played in 47 international games for the red, white and blue, was the youngest on the roster. So young in fact, that she was just two years old when Catchings suited up for her first USA Basketball team in 1996. That didn’t stop Stewart from playing like she belonged.
“My past USA Basketball experiences definitely helped me a lot because I kind of knew what the flow of things is,” said the 2013 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player. “Even though it’s different coaches and stuff like that, to say that I played on USA teams before made me more comfortable, because if this was my first USA training camp, I’m sure I’d be extremely nervous.
All-in-all, from the oldest to the youngest, coaching staff to committee, the weekend was a resounding success. With less than a year to go before the 2014 FIBA World Championship, which will be held in Turkey from Sept. 27-Oct. 5, Auriemma feels good about how the team is shaping up, but he knows other challenges linger on the horizon.
“You’ve been around long enough to know that we never know what our team is,” he said. “The only thing that we ever know at USA Basketball is who is available. And we really don’t know who our team is until we actually get to where we’re going and start playing. But, given who we have to choose from, yeah, I like our team.
“The biggest area that is going to be a challenge is finding the next Sue (Bird) and Dee (Taurasi) to run the team. That change from Dawn Staley and Katie Smith, that group, to Sue and Dee and Tamika Catchings. That was a very smooth transition. There wasn’t a whole lot of change. I think right now, identifying who those three key players, at those three key positions are going to be. That’s going to be our biggest challenge for USA Basketball.”