Preparation the Key As Women's National Team Gathers For Mini-Camp
Las Vegas, Nevada
Over the last two decades the USA Basketball Women’s National Team hasn’t felt what it’s like to lose in Olympic competition. Weeks like this one help to ensure they don’t find out anytime soon.
They’re coming in from all over, 24 of the best players in the country and by extension the world, and before long they’ll go right back. But for three days in Las Vegas they’re here, together, for a training camp that serves as an important checkpoint in the path towards a sixth-straight Olympic gold medal next year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and more championships beyond.
“The biggest thing that we’re trying to do — the players that make up the core of our team from the last World Championship and the last Olympics, we want to make sure that they stay connected with each other and our coaching staff, that we keep enforcing some of the things we believe in,” said head coach Geno Auriemma. “And then we need to start to identify who needs to be integrated so that we’re doing what we need to do to be ready for 2018 and 2020.”
USA Basketball is on the verge of a changing of the guard(s). Players like Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Cappie Pondexter and Seimone Augustus have been key pieces to the various rosters that have won gold in the last three Olympic Games and three of the last four FIBA World Championships.
While they’re all back for this run at Rio, it might be their last chase for gold. That means the future is almost here and Auriemma plans to be prepared.
This week’s training camp at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center includes three players — guards Jewell Loyd and Tiffany Mitchell and center Jen Hamson — who are not currently on the national team roster. Several more, such as guard Skylar Diggins and wing Elena Delle Donne, have limited USA Basketball experience beyond the junior level but it’s clear they’re capable of taking the reins sooner or later.
Striking that balance between checking in with the players he’s already led to the top while making sure the next group is ready to do the same is what the next 72 hours are all about for Auriemma.
“I enjoy it because it’s working with the best players in the world, players who have the kind of skills you need to play the game at the highest level,” Auriemma said. “They’re committed, they’re competitive and they’re smart. The only downside is you don’t have enough time with them.”
Luckily for USA Basketball’s success, Auriemma has become adept at accomplishing what he needs to during these brief mini-camps. That starts with simply getting everyone in the same place at the same time.
“It’s very exciting to see all the players,” said center Jantel Lavender. “A lot of this is just about checking in with each other, working on chemistry and testing ourselves.”
Lavender said she planned to have plenty of fun hanging out with the players in Vegas but when they’re on the court for practice she’ll be all business. The last player
s cut from the 2014 FIBA World Championship team, Lavender left with instruction from the coaching staff that they needed her to play a more specialized role.
Basically, Lavender said, she understands now that some of what the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks need her to do — like being an outside shooting threat — isn’t the same role that USA Basketball needs from her.
“It’s not saying that you can’t be versatile, it’s doing what you need specifically,” Lavender said. “… They have other people who can shoot.”
This far out from competition, specific plays take a backseat to the energy and effort invested into competition during camp. It’s a veteran-laden roster that has helped keep USA Basketball at the top but there are stars and role players from the next generation here, too, ready and willing to state their case for a roster spot.
“The returning group from 2014 or the Olympics, we don’t want them to think that this is anything that they’re entitled to,” Auriemma said. “We have to leave it open to some of the younger players to come out and you can prove your worth.
“Because it’s not necessarily the 12 best players in the world, but certainly the best team in the world.”