In a change, WNBA season begins with U.S. Olympic roster spots in play

Breanna Stewart, A'ja Wilson
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As the WNBA season starts Friday, players not only have a championship at stake, but also a spot on the most exclusive team in the sport.

For the first time since 2008, the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball roster has not been announced before the start of the WNBA season.

“There’s nobody that has a spot locked up,” on the Olympic team, said Carol Callan, the U.S. national team director and chair of the Olympic selection committee. “We’re interested in watching a lot of the beginning of the WNBA season and then progressively get to the point where we can select the team.”

The selection committee includes Geno Auriemma, the University of Connecticut head coach who also guided the last two Olympic champion teams and is now a special adviser for USA Basketball.

The other members come from the WNBA: Bethany Donaphin (head of league operations), Curt Miller (Connecticut Sun head coach) and Katie Smith (Minnesota Lynx assistant and athlete rep for USA Basketball).

Callan has been involved in national team selection since 1989. She’s seen it all, from a tryout system to the breakthrough 1996 team, which was largely named 14 months before the Olympics and played 52 games (winning all of them), touring Russia, Ukraine, China, Australia and Canada, before getting to Atlanta.

The 12-player roster for Tokyo is expected to come from the current 32-player national team pool (note neither Maya Moore nor Sabrina Ionescu is in the pool).

The last two Olympic teams were named in April of those years, the latter in conjunction with 100 days before the Rio Games.

This year, the committee is taking a little bit more time, in part due to a relative lack of game play because of the pandemic. Player assessment is a years-worth body of work, but a strong start to the WNBA season could also be significant. The deadline to submit the 12 players to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is June 23.

“Technically, they’re all in play,” the 12 spots, Callan said. “Realistically, I think there are players that have sort of proven themselves over time, perhaps.”

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Committee members will converse later this spring to choose the team that will be coached by Dawn Staley.

Minus the injured Angel McCoughtry, eight players in the pool have Olympic experience: guards Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, looking to become the first basketball players to win five gold medals, and Seimone Augustus. And bigs Tina CharlesElena Delle Donne (returning from back surgery), Sylvia FowlesBrittney Griner and Breanna Stewart.

Furthermore, forwards A’ja Wilson and Nneka Ogwumike won a WNBA MVP since Rio. (Ogwumike, who may be particularly valuable in the absence of small forwards Moore and McCoughtry, could become the second-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s basketball rookie in history after Asjha Jones, according to Olympedia.org.)

“The front line, to me, is really the advantage of this team,” said NBC Olympics analyst Kara Lawson, who is also Duke’s head coach and a USA Basketball adviser for 3×3 teams (coaches aren’t allowed in 3×3, which debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo).

The U.S. women won their last 49 Olympic games — dating to 1992 — and in Tokyo can tie the Olympic basketball record of seven consecutive gold medals. Bird and Taurasi are stalwarts for a program that also hasn’t lost a world championship game since 2006, but with this likely their last Olympics, new guards will emerge.

“They’re going to be fine at that position with whoever they bring,” Lawson said.

For the 2018 FIBA World Cup, the committee chose Jewell Loyd (21 minutes per game), Kelsey Plum (13 mpg) and Layshia Clarendon (11 mpg) to back up Bird and Taurasi.

Arike Ogunbowale led the WNBA in scoring last year and made the All-WNBA First Team at guard with Courtney Vandersloot (who plays internationally for Hungary). Skylar Diggins-Smith came back from childbirth to make the All-WNBA Second Team with Taurasi.

“We want to let players know as soon as possible,” whether they make the team, Callan said. “But I think everybody would be OK knowing that there’s still some time to make a case for themselves, as a player, and for the committee to be able to watch a little bit more.”

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