USA Women's National Team Newcomers Rookies No More
While the USA Women’s National Team is blessed to have an abundance of veteran leadership and repeat performers who help to provide experience and talent to U.S. teams in FIBA World Championships and Olympics, invariably each squad also has its share of fresh talent. The 2014 USA Basketball Women’s World Championship Team is no exception.
When the 12-member roster was announced on Sept. 23, it included four players who would be suiting up for the USA in their first major, senior-level competition, including Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury), Nnemkadi Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks), Odyssey Sims (Tulsa Shock) and Breanna Stewart (University of Connecticut).
In fact at tip-off of the USA’s first game on Sept. 27 vs. China, Stewart, who was 20 years and one month old, became the youngest USA World Championship Team competitor since 18-year-old Kara Wolters played for the USA at the 1994 World Championship.
It should be noted, however, that Stewart already had under her belt 52 games played and five gold medals won in a USA Basketball jersey prior to the start of the 2014 Worlds – as well as prestigious honors such as being named the 2011 and 2013 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year, MVP of the 2012 FIBA Americas Championship and 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship and selected to the 2011 All-FIBA U19 World Championship Team.
“I have a lot of experience with USA Basketball, I think, but they have way more than me,” Stewart said of her World Championship teammates. “Some of them are older than me – a lot older than me (laughing), and they’ve played basketball longer than I have, so just seeing how they go about getting ready for practice, getting ready for games, how they play in practice, how they play in games, and trying to just remember that for when I go back to school.”
She may not be at school, but she still is in school – literally. Stewart is doing more than just taking notes while watching the great basketball players by which she is surrounded, she is doing homework in her downtime as a junior at the University of Connecticut.
“I’m keeping up pretty well so far,” Stewart said. “I’m making sure I get things in by the due date. I met with my academic advisor in Bridgeport, and she helped me stay organized. I think the biggest thing is making myself do the work. There’s no one else here making sure I do the work, besides me.”
Stewart is following in the footsteps of greatness, as Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx) also was a UConn student when she helped the USA win gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championship.
“The advice Maya has given me is basically making sure you stay on top of it, because once you get behind you’re always going to be behind in your schoolwork,” Stewart shared.
Ogwumike may not be doing school work, but despite helping to lead the USA past Angola as the team’s leading scorer with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field, she hasn’t shed her newcomer perspective yet.
“I still feel like a rookie,” Ogwumike said. “I mean, this is my first go around. I’m just really happy to be here, and I want to make my teammates better. I’m focusing on doing the little things and encouraging my teammates, making everyone look good and winning a gold medal. I’m just here playing my role, and whatever role that needs to be. I kind of use my role as being a good teammate. That’s what I want to be going into these medal round games.”
Sims also had a chance to run the USA’s offense with 16 minutes played against Angola as the USA wrapped up pool play, and she finished with nine points and four assists. She says she is somewhere in between feeling like a rookie and feeling comfortable.
“I’m just understanding the game more,” Sims said of her experience thus far. “I’m learning from the older players. They have so much to teach, and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”
Like Stewart, Ogwumike and Sims have experience on USA Basketball junior teams. Ogwumike has 25 international games in a USA jersey from the 2008 FIBA Americas U18 Championship, the 2009 FIBA U19 World Championship, where she was named to the five-member All-FIBA U19 World Championship Team, and the 2011 World University Games. Sims who also played in the 2011 World University Games alongside Ogwumike, earned Co-MVP honors at the 2013 World University Games and by winning her second gold medal at the event in 2013 became the first women’s basketball two-time gold medalist for the USA at the World University Games.
“Drastically,” Ogwumike said when asked how much her experience as junior national team member has helped her. “Playing USA ball is a lot different than playing in college or in the WNBA, and it’s a lot like playing overseas, obviously, because we have international play. But, it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been able to play with a lot of great players, and against the world’s best players, so to get that experience is something that you really can’t get anywhere else, obviously, unless you play overseas.”
Perhaps the most successful of the USA’s fresh crop has been Griner, who has started all three games for the USA and is averaging a team-second best 13.3 points per game to go with 8.0 rebounds per game. Griner arrived with the least previous experience, having played in a USA Basketball mini-camp in May 2011 in Las Vegas and a European tour that saw the USA play five games from Sept. 30 – Oct. 9, 2011 in Italy, Spain and Hungary. Both those events were led by current USA head coach Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut), something Griner said has helped her transition.
“First Worlds … First Worlds, but not my first time with Geno, you know, with Coach Auriemma, but first Worlds,” Griner said. “It’s been good. I’m kind of happy that we opened up with China, some familiar faces, and then we played Serbia and then Angola. So, I’m feeling good, feeling really good with my performance.”
Griner, Ogwumike, Sims and Stewart each already have positives they can point to through three games played at the 2014 FIBA World Championship, including a USA Women’s World Championship record 7-of-7 free throw performance from Stewart on Tuesday against Angola.
“It was really good to get O (Odyssey Sims) out there, get Stew (Breanna Stewart) out there as well,” said Griner after the USA’s win over Angola. “You know, it’s just going to help with their careers, and you never know when somebody is going to have to step up, so to get them out there, get them some minutes, more experience, it was good.
’s will open its medal round on Oct. 3 (time TBD) with a must-win quarterfinal against the winner of today’s game between France (2-1), the No. 2 seed out of Group B, versus Brazil (1-2), the No. 3 seed out of Group A.
Luckily for the USA, it will not only have veterans with experience to call on, but also a fresh crop of young talent that all say they will be ready when their number is called.
“I think that as you continue on, it’s just basketball. You are playing basketball. I’ve been here for three, three-and-a-half weeks almost, and you get comfortable with the team. Once you have that out on the court, then you are all set,” Stewart said.