USA Basketball Women’s Training Camp Closes; Newcomers Adjust as First-Time Invitees While Bird Provides Veteran Perspective
Ball Up: The Camp Finale
The sounding off of the final buzzer of a rematch scrimmage between the ‘USA Red’ and ‘USA White’ teams signaled the conclusion of the 2017 USA Basketball Women’s National Team training camp.
It also marked the completion of Dawn Staley’s first training camp as the USA Basketball Women’s National Team head coach.
“The experience is [everything I imagined],” she said. “I was excited coming out, wanting to get the training camp off the ground. When it’s all said and done, it’s just basketball. It’s what you do. It’s what you love to do but you’re just doing it in a form in which the culture is a little bit different.
“This USA Basketball culture is what you strive for on all levels. As a college coach, you can’t quite relay that to your team because they don’t quite understand that. But it’s something you’re in pursuit of every single year and [with] every single team that you coach.”
A change in location for the final day occurred as the team practiced in UC Santa Barbara’s Robertson Gymnasium. Day three began with offensive drills that focused on ball movement, creating good shot selection, playing in transition and included the introduction of some new plays prior to the tip-off of 5-on-5 play.
Along with Staley, it was another productive day for court coaches Jennifer Rizzotti (George Washington University), Sue Semrau (Florida State University), and Jeff Walz (University of Lousiville). The trio of basketball masterminds picked up where they left off the day before with Semrau and Rizzotti leading the ‘USA Red Team’ and Walz coaching the ‘USA White Team.’
The ‘USA Red Team’ nearly tied its camp-high of 30 points from day two with a 28-17 victory in the first game between the two teams. Yet it was the rematch that ensued that was the most entertaining of the weekend.
It was a game that came down to the wire.
With 22.7 seconds remaining in the scrimmage, the ‘USA White Team’ led with a 19-18 lead, and prepared to inbound the ball following Breanna Stewart’s conversion of two free-throws for the ‘USA Red Team.’
It was anticipated that either team’s success at the free-throw line would determine who would end with a victory. However, a turnover on an inbounds pass resulted in a late-game possession for the ‘USA Red Team.’
Capitalizing upon the mistake after getting down into the paint and calling for the ball was none other than the young, experienced veteran Stewart. She managed to get inside and post her defender up to score with a turnaround hook shot, giving the ‘USA Red Team’ a 20-19 lead with 13.3 seconds left.
Trailing by one-point, the ‘USA White Team’ inbounded the ball to Kelsey Plum, a first-time USA National Team training camp invitee, whose attempted pass was eventually stolen by Jewell Loyd; who was fouled then made 1-of-2 free-throws to secure the ‘USA Red Team’s’ 21-19 victory.
While both teams were in search of a win, it was this type of game effort that best summed up the intense, competitive nature of the USA Women’s National Team’s training camp.
It possesses a universal influence that goes beyond the players on the court and had a significant impact for a coach such as Walz, who is the head coach at Louisville and recently finished his fourth USA Basketball assignment by participating in his first USA National Team camp.
“It has been remarkable,” he stated. “Getting the opportunity to come out and get to work with some of the best in women’s basketball. Not only are they great players, they are great young women. It’s fun to watch them compete. They go out here, compete on the floor; they go after each other as hard as they can, and as soon as it’s finished they’re cutting up with each other, having a good time. It’s what competitors do. That’s really one of the things that impressed me about them.”
Although training camp has reached its end, the USA Basketball women’s journey continues as the 17 invitees await the month of February to be informed about who will be invited to the next camp, which will be infused by an additional group of athletes who were unable to attend this camp.
“We [coaching staff] can discuss and evaluate all we want, but the committee is the one that picks the team,” Staley said. “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of great players to choose from. They’re all highly motivated and highly committed to winning gold medals. So, whatever players they (the committee) give us, we’ll use and try to continue the pattern of success.”
The USA Introduction
Participating in the national team training camp amongst the nation’s best players is no guaranteed experience. Even receiving a camp invite is a milestone that only select players can attest to.
The 2017 USA Women’s Basketball National Team roster included seven first-time invitees – Layshia Clarendon (Atlanta Dream), Tiffany Hayes (Atlanta Dream), Kelsey Plum (San Antonio Stars), Kiah Stokes (New York Liberty) and Courtney Williams (Connecticut Sun).
While each player has a varied amount of basketball experience from playing in the WNBA and overseas during the offseason, the opportunity to wear the national team uniform and achieve a lifelong goal is unmatched.
When participating in a camp that has implications such as playing for USA Basketball, it takes mental strength to help provide structure to a player’s progression as well.
“It was definitely hard, it was intense,” Clarendon explained. “You can see the caliber of play and the level here, I thought that was awesome. Everytime you get a little better you start to see the layers climb. It’s like ‘you’re good in the WNBA,’ but this is what it takes to be an Olympian now.”
Staley’s laid back yet efficient coaching style, in which players were not bogged down with instructions, also helped reduce the pressures that came along with specific players making their first career national team training camp appearances.
“It’s extremely helpful. I think everyone feels really comfortable out there,” Plum said. “[This coaching staff] is really young. They understand there’s a lot of young players here. They understand that we’re going to make mistakes. They’re helping us get better. [For me, its] ‘Hey Plum, watch this or look at this.’ It’s awesome I think as a player; you feel comfortable, you play better.”
Once a national team rookie on the 2014 FIBA World Cup gold medal team while still playing at the University of Connecticut, Breanna Stewart reminisced about the time she was once in the same position, anticipating news about the final roster.
“It’s not bad,” Stewart said. “I think that all these players here, for them to be comfortable in what they did in knowing that they’ll get another opportunity in February, if they’re able to is key. Obviously not the college players [since the NCAA season will be active], but we will get after it again and make sure to leave it all on the court.”
Bird’s Eye View
Whether a player has international experience or not on the USA Basketball level, it doesn’t always equate to their ability to handle three consecutive days of national team training camp. Oftentimes regarded as a downfall of the camp, the short timeframe has some upside to forming the team dynamic.
“You just do,” four-time gold medalist Olympian Sue Bird said in regards to adjusting to the three day period. “You’re a sponge. You try to learn as much as you can. You try to meet everybody, get to know everybody as much as you can both on and off the court because that’s how chemistry builds; spending time together and going to practices together. That’s what carries us through because we’re not going to have a lot of practice time, we’re not going to be able to take our time in that capacity. So, when we’re around each other we have to make the most of it.”
Nonetheless, the larger goal of representing the country and pursuing a gold medal outweighs the three day set up becoming a hindrance in the case of the veteran Bird, who owns a 128-5 all-time USA Basketball record.
“This training camp marks the start of our preparation for Tokyo (2020 Olympics). Every time we start a new four years, each training camp is very important because we don’t get very many of them. Obviously, first we have the 2018 FIBA World Cup and this is one of very few camps to get ready for that. There’s really no question about what the motivation is. You want to come and be a part of this USA Basketball team program and win gold medals.”
Looking ahead to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it’s inevitable that Bird’s opportunity to become the first player in USA Basketball history to earn five Olympic gold medals is a much anticipated narrative.
“For me personally, I come back because I just truly enjoy these experiences,” she said. “If you’re at the top of your game, you want to play with and against the best, and represent your country. The program itself is going for seven and I think that kind of trumps all. But like I said, first up is the World Cup, so, you have to take it one year at a time.”