The U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team of 12 players will lean heavily on experienced gold medalists and professional superstars adept at pressure situations.
And that’s why UConn senior Breanna Stewart, who fits neither of those labels, could become the youngest U.S. Olympic women’s basketball player since 1988 when the team is named in the next few months.
“[It’s roster spots] 10, 11 and 12 who aren’t going to get a lot of minutes,” said U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan, who chairs the five-person Olympic team selection committee. “Who can sit there and be ready to go and be content with that scenario? Sometimes that’s where youth has the advantage. … After you pick the first eight or nine, because you know that’s who the core of the team is, that last three or four is the ones that you have so much flexibility with to try and fit in. So the key is, we’re not picking an All-Star team. We’re picking a team. That’s the way it comes together.”
Ten of the 12 members of the 2012 Olympic team (that went undefeated en route to a fifth straight gold) are among 25 finalists to make the Rio Olympic team.
The pool of potential first-time Olympians includes reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner. The latter started all six games at the 2014 World Championship.
That would seem to leave little room for a collegian, even the 6-foot-4 forward Stewart, who has been called a guard in a center’s body and whose versatility has been likened to Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.
Stewart is trying to lead UConn to a fourth straight NCAA title this season and could earn her third straight NCAA Player of the Year award. No UConn player has accomplished either feat.
Stewart’s UConn coach, Geno Auriemma, doubles as the Olympic coach (but is not on the five-person selection committee).
“Stewie has put herself ahead of a lot of players in the WNBA that could also be on this team,” Auriemma told media at a three-day national team camp at UConn last week. “And if she does make the team, it’s because she deserves it. She earned it.”
Stewart came into focus as an Olympic hopeful when she made the 2014 World Championship team.
At Worlds in Turkey, she played a total of 36 minutes over six games, scoring 11 points, fewest on the team. Not surprising, but the value in her being there was largely unrelated to the box score. Same with last week, when Stewart tacked on the national-team camp in between college games.
“Now Stewie’s one of us,” three-time Olympic champion point guard Sue Bird said at last week’s camp. “She was just way more assertive and aggressive and, beyond everything else, comfortable. When we had Worlds, she was the youngest on the team, it was her first time, there’s all these old players, probably players that she watched growing up. So I think it can be the type of situation where you don’t want to step on people’s toes, but now, I don’t think she cares.”
Diana Taurasi (2004), Candace Parker (2008) and Sylvia Fowles (2008) all made Olympic teams immediately following their final NCAA seasons. All three averaged between 16 and 19 minutes per game at their first Olympics, about three times as many as Stewart at the 2014 World Championship.
Callan compared Stewart to Maya Moore and Bird, who were one and two years out of college when they made their first Olympic teams but, like Stewart, already had World Championship experience.
“Young players, you don’t want to have to necessarily rely on them in the gold-medal game, when you’re down by one and there’s 10 seconds left,” Callan said of an unlikely scenario for the U.S., which has won 41 straight Olympic games. “But at the same time, they also sometimes by being young don’t feel that pressure. They just go play. When you’re a four-time Olympian, perhaps, you realize, whoa, the weight of the world. I just think it’s the mix of everything that values the youth and experience.”