USA Women’s National Team Wraps Up Successful Return to Court with Minicamp
Now with renewed focus in an Olympic year, the USA National Team got down to business in South Carolina.
Many things changed over the past 12 months since the USA Basketball Women’s National Team was able to get together and prepare for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
But there is one trait that this group of players always has: A focus on business.
After concluding a four-day minicamp Sunday in Columbia, South Carolina, on the University of South Carolina campus, USA head coach Dawn Staley said she was happy with what the 18 players were able to accomplish.
“We had some goals set for this camp,” Staley said, “and that is to continue to establish an identity defensively and then, to continue to gain some continuity offensively. And staying the course.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the first time the WNT had been on the same floor since training for Tokyo — and a shot at a seventh straight Olympic gold medal — was interrupted. Some of the household names such as Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne were unable to attend this camp for various reasons.
So staying the course meant not only putting the boat back in the water and checking for any holes in the hull, but testing the boat in choppy waters.
“Sometimes coaches feel like just because we don’t have the experience like Sue, Diana, Elena Delle Donne,” said Staley, who has three Olympic gold medals as a player and two as an assistant coach, “Just because we don’t have some of those players who have helped us win (Olympic) gold medals and FIBA World Cups, sometimes you want to just say, ‘Oh, you know this is probably not going to be the team so let’s not work on our stuff.’ We did the direct opposite, which was, ‘Let’s continue to work on our stuff’ because we don’t know who we’re going to have in the future — six months, five months is a long way from now. So as long as we stay the course, everybody else will just fall in line.”
While the camp roster still included a who’s who of women’s basketball — Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart, to name a few — a couple players made impressions on Staley in their bid for one of the 12 spots for Tokyo: Jewell Loyd and Chelsea Gray.
Loyd, a 5-foot-11 guard who plays for the reigning WNBA champion Seattle Storm, has previous experience in the USA Basketball system and with the WNT, having won gold medals at the 2018 FIBA World Cup and the 2014 3x3 World Cup. Loyd, the No. 1 overall pick of the WNBA Draft in 2015, is the first USA Basketball player to win gold medals in both disciplines. She also competed on the USA squad that went 3-0 at the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Serbia.
“Jewell Loyd was just really more comfortable with being here,” Staley said. “I mean both sides of the ball. Obviously, she was a great defensive presence for us in the (2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament), but on offense now, I think she just has a better understanding, she’s more comfortable and we’re seeing all sides of her game. I thought that was on display this training camp.”
Gray is one of the eight core members who signed to train during the 2019-20 USA National Team competitions. The 5-foot-11 point guard, who just signed a contract with the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces after five years with the Los Angeles Sparks, helps the USA offense run smoothly.
“She thinks pass first,” Staley said, “but if you lean towards her passing first, she’ll burn you with her ability to score the ball from deep, from midrange.”
For Gray, restarting down the road to Tokyo was invigorating.
“Everybody was excited to finally be back together again since it’s been a while,” said Gray, who like other players went through quarantine before camp began Thursday. “But the energy was great. The environment, everybody wanted to work hard, wanted to get things done but also have fun doing it. We have a goal set on a gold medal, so we’re trying to get the best out of each other throughout these days because we can only get together so many times before the Olympic Games begin. So we just want to take full advantage of it and I think everybody had a good time doing it, competing and playing hard.”
There may be one or two more WNT minicamps before the WNBA season begins, but details have yet to be finalized. Due to COVID, the ramp-up for the Olympic Games is quite different than what was transpiring a year ago, when the USA squad was touring college campuses for exhibitions against top programs. Still, a seventh-straight gold is very much on the minds of everyone involved.
“Our staff, Carol (Callan, USA Basketball Women’s National Team director) does a great job and she stays calm,” Staley said. “Yeah. When your leaders stay calm, everybody else just falls into place. We knew that we were going to have to pivot. We didn’t know when we were going to have a training camp. But when we decided to have one, we had 18 players show up. Some of them come from as far as Russia, some from Turkey, some from right here in South Carolina. So you had that kind of commitment. It bodes well with what we’re trying to do.
“People know that our training time is limited, so they made the sacrifice. And that’s what I love. That’s what I so appreciate. Because as I told them today and the other day, it would have been very easy for them to say ‘No, we’re in a pandemic. Let me stay where I am. I don’t want to put myself in harm’s way.’ But again, USA Basketball did a great job of letting them know what our protocol was, creating the bubble to where everybody felt safe and making that decision.”