Sabrina Ionescu

Sabrina Ionescu
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Sabrina Ionescu’s unprecedented Olympic question: Which team to play for?

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There was no doubt which WNBA team would draft Sabrina Ionescu back on April 17. What’s unclear is which U.S. basketball team she would suit up for at the Tokyo Olympics next summer: the traditional 5×5 team or for the new Olympic 3×3 event.

Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick of the New York Liberty, appeared a strong hopeful for 3×3, if the Tokyo Games had been held this summer. She was, as of January, the U.S.’ top player in international rankings for 3×3.

Ionescu even said last July, while at the Pan American Games for 3×3, that, if forced to choose between traditional 5×5 and 3×3 at the Olympics, she preferred 3×3, according to the Olympic Channel.

It made plenty of sense at the time. Consider Ionescu would play for the University of Oregon in the winter and spring of 2020 when U.S. Olympic 5×5 hopefuls would gather for practices and exhibitions ahead of the roster being named in June.

The Olympic postponement to 2021 changed all that. Now, Ionescu gets a (shortened) season of pro ball, plus an offseason to potentially prove herself in front of U.S. coach Dawn Staley, before the Olympic teams get named. (The U.S. must still qualify a 3×3 team for the Olympics, but it would be shocking if it fails.)

Ionescu did not state a preference between 3×3 and 5×5 when asked her thoughts on the situation on Sunday.

“I have no idea what they [USA Basketball] were going to do with the Olympics, if they were going to be this year. I wasn’t told anything. I was just playing and enjoying my college career,” she said ahead of her WNBA debut on Saturday. “It didn’t matter to me if I was going to get the opportunity to play 3×3 or 5×5, I would’ve taken it because it’s an honor to represent my country.”

Ionescu must have at least 3,600 FIBA ranking points in 3×3 come June 21, 2021, to be eligible for that team. Since ranking points expire after one year, she may need to take part in 3×3 competition or training camp tournaments in the next 11 months to be eligible.

Or, Ionescu could devote all of her basketball between the Liberty and, potentially, the national 5×5 team over the next year.

“I do have a year to be able to play against the best women in the world and just be able to see where I compare,” she said.

Ionescu turns 23 on Dec. 6. At least one player 23 years or younger made each of the last four U.S. Olympic women’s teams. Ionescu is younger than any point guard to make an Olympic team since 1988.

The U.S. is looking for somebody to take the baton from Sue Bird, who at 40 would become the oldest U.S. Olympic basketball player in history by three years in Tokyo.

Carol Callan, the U.S. women’s national team director who is also on the 3×3 selection committee, said in May that a conversation is merited with any player who has an opportunity to play on either Olympic team.

She noted that anybody on the Olympic 3×3 team would be guaranteed significant playing time since the roster is four players, with a substitution planned at every dead ball. Given the schedule, it’s not feasible for somebody to play both 3×3 and 5×5 at the Olympics.

“I have no idea what a player would think through that process because most players are pretty confident in their abilities, but if you thought you were going to be a role player for a 5×5 team, but you had a chance to be on 3×3, you might choose that,” Callan said.

MORE: USA Basketball career Olympic points leaders

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Sabrina Ionescu? Maya Moore? U.S. women’s basketball team faces Olympic roster unknowns

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When the coronavirus halted sports two months ago, the U.S. women’s basketball program was three-fifths of the way through Olympic selection season. The 12-player roster was due to be named by early June.

“It wasn’t like we were all of a sudden putting names on the board that said, OK, these people have made the team, and now we’re looking at these two or three remaining positions,” said U.S. national team director Carol Callan, chair of the selection committee. “We didn’t have to do that [as early as March], so we didn’t do that.”

Callan calls the selection process “a long-running movie.” Sure, a player’s most recent performances can be the climax, but the plot can date back years, to the college stage and past Olympics.

“Now we’re all sitting back going, OK, are we going to have a 2020 WNBA season to be able to watch players?” Callan said. “If not, then what? How will we put together some training next year? There’s so much unknown and uncertain right now, we’re all trying to figure it out together.”

Callan discussed a range of pertinent topics in a phone interview this week.

Perhaps the most talked-about player over the last year has been Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon guard who was taken No. 1 in last month’s WNBA Draft by the New York Liberty. Ionescu is a unique case for the Olympics.

She appeared a prime prospect for the first Olympic 3×3 team, had the Games been held this summer. She played that half-court event at the Pan American Games in August, when she reportedly said that she would pick 3×3 over the traditional five-on-five format if she had to choose one or the other.

But now, Ionescu goes into the Olympic year as a professional and, perhaps, a more enticing asset to Dawn Staley‘s 12-player roster.

Callan, who is also on the 3×3 selection committee, said that a conversation is merited with any player who has an opportunity to play on either Olympic team. She noted that anybody on the Olympic 3×3 team would be guaranteed significant playing time since the roster is four players, with a substitution planned at every dead ball. Given the schedule, it’s not feasible for somebody to play both 3×3 and five-on-five at the Olympics.

“I have no idea what a player would think through that process because most players are pretty confident in their abilities, but if you thought you were going to be a role player for a five-on-five team, but you had a chance to be on 3×3, you might choose that,” Callan said.

Ionescu was unavailable for an interview.

Callan said she hasn’t heard about 2021 availability from Maya Moore, a 2012 and 2016 Olympian who hasn’t played professionally since 2018 to focus on criminal justice reform. Moore spent time on the case of friend Jonathan Irons, whose 50-year prison sentence for burglary and assault was overturned in March. Later in March, an appeal was filed to reverse that ruling.

It’s too early to project Moore’s 2021 plans, her agent said this week. Callan said she had positive conversations with Moore when she first decided to take a year off in 2019, then again in February after she decided she would not play in 2020.

“We’d be happy to hear from her one way or the other,” Callan said. “But I do think, if you want to be an Olympian, you have to play basketball at some point leading up to it. You can’t just say, OK, next year, March, I’m ready to play again. That’s tough. Not just tough to make a team, but it’s just tough to be a basketball player.

“So, playing basketball is huge. However, if she can do all of that, we’re open to our best players wanting to play on our Olympic team, and we would certainly welcome her back into our national team pool and then go from there.”

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are two national team stalwarts bidding to become the oldest U.S. Olympic basketball players in history. Four years ago, both players said that Rio would likely be their last Olympics, but Callan, who has overseen the program since before the 1996 Olympics, never ruled them out.

“When we landed back at the airport after the Rio Olympics, I purposely didn’t want to ask them anything about it being the last Olympics,” Callan said, “but made just the quick comment, ‘I’ll give you a little bit of time, and then I’m going to call you.’ They both didn’t say, ‘No, don’t call.’ Right then and there — I don’t want to act like I was a prophet, but I felt like there was definitely an opening to it. … Until they can’t walk anymore, they’re going to play.”

Bird and Taurasi publicly announced Tokyo Olympic ambitions after Dawn Staley was named Geno Auriemma‘s successor in 2017.

Bird, Taurasi and other top U.S. players often spend WNBA offseasons playing for more lucrative contracts overseas. This break, even if just a few months, is unusual.

“You never want silver linings to an awful situation, but in women’s basketball, players play year-round, a lot of the elite players do,” Callan said. “The fact that the very elite basketball players have had to rest their bodies now, try to stay somewhat in shape, but they’ve had some time off, is really a good thing for our Olympic team and our national team and for the players themselves.”

MORE: USA Basketball career Olympic points leaders

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Olympic basketball: Key questions for the Tokyo Games in 2021

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With the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, OlympicTalk is taking a sport-by-sport look at where things stood before sports were halted and how global circumstances could alter the Olympic picture …

How was Olympic men’s basketball shaping up, six months before the Games?

Eight of the 12 Olympic berths were filled: U.S., Spain, France, Argentina, Australia, Iran, Nigeria and host Japan. The last four were to be decided at four June qualifying tournaments, which have now been postponed to 2021.

USA Basketball, after a flooring seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (without NBA superstars), named 44 finalists for its 12-man roster in February. Every NBA superstar was included, but it did not necessarily mean every player was making himself available for selection. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were two of the biggest names who, after the finalists announcement, were not yet ready to commit. James will be 36 come the Tokyo Games in 2021, older than any previous U.S. Olympic men’s basketball player.

With the Olympic postponement, USA Basketball could alter that finalist list over the next year. It already had the option to do so. For example, in the last Olympic cycle, Damian Lillard was added to the pool after many withdrew from consideration, but he ultimately also withdrew.

The biggest roster concern for the U.S. and coach Gregg Popovich had to be at center. Neither of the 2016 Olympic centers was named a Tokyo finalist (injured DeMarcus Cousins and healthy DeAndre Jordan). Outside of Davis, none of the NBA’s All-Star centers this season were Americans: Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Rudy Gobert (France), Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania).

How could the Olympic postponement change things?

The biggest variable will be the end date of the 2020-21 NBA season. While the Olympics in 2021 are the same weeks as they were in 2020, it’s unknown what a 2020-21 NBA schedule could look like in these unprecedented times. If the NBA season goes longer, and brushes closer to the Olympic dates, players will obviously have less time to rest. This is key, because the primary reason when healthy players bow out of Olympic consideration is citing a need for rest between NBA seasons.

That said, more key players could be available to the U.S. Kevin Durant, though named as a finalist, was set to miss the rest of the 2019-20 NBA season with a ruptured Achilles, putting his Olympic status in question. Other players who weren’t named finalists were, at the time, recovering from major injuries: Cousins, Blake Griffin and John Wall.

Younger players not named as finalists who could get a longer look include Zion Williamson, the 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick who missed the first three months of last season with a torn meniscus.

2021 Olympic Capsules: Track and Field | Swimming | Gymnastics | Beach Volleyball | Diving

How was Olympic women’s basketball shaping up, six months before the Games?

The entire Olympic field was already set — U.S., Australia, Spain, France, Belgium, Canada, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Serbia, China, South Korea and host Japan. Nine of the world’s top 10 nations qualified, the lone exception being No. 6 Turkey, which has no Olympic medal history.

The U.S. seeks a seventh straight Olympic title to match the basketball record held by U.S. men’s teams from the first seven Olympic tournaments from 1936-68. The U.S. women have won 46 straight games between the Olympics and FIBA World Cup dating to 2006, though it did lose an exhibition to the University of Oregon in November.

U.S. roster decisions again figured to be difficult. Stalwarts Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are in for, potentially, their fifth Olympics. Maya Moore (focusing on criminal justice reform) and Candace Parker announced they were out (More on Parker’s situation here). The biggest question, if any, remained who could succeed Bird as a reliable point guard.

How could the Olympic postponement change things?

Sabrina Ionescu. The Oregon superstar and WNBA No. 1 draft pick missed key U.S. women’s national team activities in the fall and winter as they happened during the college season. However, she was as of January the U.S.’ top player in international rankings for 3×3, a new Olympic event. Ionescu said at the 2019 Pan American Games that, if forced to choose between 5×5 and 3×3 at the Olympics, she preferred 3×3, according to the Olympic Channel.

The extra year until the Olympics means that Ionescu could be available for more national team activities next fall and winter, making her more appealing for the traditional Olympic tournament rather than 3×3.

What about the Olympic debut of 3×3 basketball?

Both the U.S. men and women still need to qualify for the Tokyo Games. They were in line to compete at a global qualifier in India in March, but that was postponed.

A potential U.S. Olympic men’s team is extremely unlikely to include an active NBA player. Its roster for the qualifying tournament — a peek into the thinking of a U.S. Olympic selection committee — included three of the four players from the 2019 FIBA World Cup — Robbie Hummel, Canyon Barry and Kareem Maddox, plus Dominique Jones. Hummel, Maddox and Jones are retired from traditional 5×5 basketball, while Barry plays in the NBA’s G League.

A U.S. women’s team could very include WNBA players, given its qualifying roster was made up of WNBA All-Stars Napheesa Collier and Stefanie Dolson and league standouts Allisha Gray and Kelsey Plum.

MORE: NBCSN Olympic Games Week TV, live stream schedule

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