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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of being on the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart lead U.S. women’s basketball roster for FIBA World Cup

A'ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart
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A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a new-look U.S. women’s basketball roster for the FIBA World Cup that starts Thursday in Sydney (Wednesday night in the U.S.).

Wilson and Stewart, both bigs, are joined on the World Cup team by fellow Olympic gold medalists — guards Chelsea Gray, Jewell Loyd, Ariel Atkins and Kelsey Plum, the runner-up in WNBA MVP voting to Wilson.

The 2020 WNBA No. 1 overall draft pick Sabrina Ionescu and 2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper are set to make their global championship debuts.

It’s the beginning of a new era for USA Basketball after the retirement of point guard Sue Bird, who played in every Olympics and worlds from 2002 through the Tokyo Games.

Diana Taurasi will miss a global championship for the first time since making her Olympic debut with Bird in 2004. The 40-year-old shooting guard suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury earlier this summer.

MORE: FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule

The U.S. is also without stalwart bigs: Sylvia Fowles, a four-time Olympic champion who retired this summer; Tina Charles, a three-time Olympic champion who said last month that she “served my time” with the national team; and Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic champion who has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 with U.S. officials hoping to bring her home in a prisoner swap.

Add it all up, and it’s the first time since the 1994 Worlds — just before the current dynasty began at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics — that a U.S. roster for an Olympics or World Cup includes nobody over the age of 30. Before the 1994 World Cup, every U.S. Olympic player was age 29 or younger, according to Olympedia.org.

Alyssa Thomas is the lone player on the team who was alive the last time the U.S. lost an Olympic game in 1992.

Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach for this Olympic cycle.

The U.S. will be favored to extend its dominance between Olympic and world championship competition — 52 consecutive wins and seven consecutive gold medals since it lost in the 2006 World semifinals to Russia.

The U.S. beat all of its seven opponents in Tokyo by double digits save Nigeria, which it defeated by nine. Nigeria’s federation withdrew its team from the World Cup over governance issues. Australia may be the biggest threat as host, but it is without superstar Liz Cambage, who may be finished with the national team.

U.S. women’s basketball roster for FIBA World Cup
Ariel Atkins — Tokyo Olympian
Shakira Austin
Kahleah Copper
Chelsea Gray — Tokyo Olympian
Sabrina Ionescu
Brionna Jones
Betnijah Laney
Jewell Loyd — Tokyo Olympian
Kelsey Plum — Tokyo Olympian (3×3)
Breanna Stewart — Tokyo Olympian
Alyssa Thomas
A’ja Wilson — Tokyo Olympian

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Tina Charles on USA Basketball national team: ‘I served my time,’ available in emergency

Tina Charles
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Tina Charles, a member of the last three U.S. Olympic women’s basketball teams that won gold medals, ceded her spot on the national team, at least for now, to the next generation of players.

Charles, who led the WNBA in scoring in 2021, was among the veteran stars who weren’t on the 28-player training camp roster that will vie for spots on the team for next month’s FIBA World Cup.

Most of the absences were expected: Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles are retiring. Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury earlier this summer and, at age 40, is no guarantee to play internationally again. Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 with U.S. officials hoping to bring her home in a prisoner swap.

Charles, a 33-year-old center for the Seattle Storm, was arguably the most accomplished missing name that came as a surprise.

“I served my time,” Charles told Alex Azzi of On Her Turf on Wednesday. “I served my country since 2009. I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity. I always told them if they ever need me, please reach out, but I think with this future young crop that’s coming up, not knowing where I’m at in the next couple of years, I just felt it’s time to give the position there. But again, they have my phone number. They have my email. If it’s ever an emergency, I’m willing and ready to serve my country. But right now, the option is mine. I think it’s good for this future crop.”

Charles played on every Olympic and World Cup team dating to 2010, when she was the WNBA No. 1 overall draft pick out of Connecticut. She has never lost a game in a USA uniform at a global championship (unlike Bird and Taurasi).

She started six of eight games in her Olympic debut in 2012 and all eight games in 2016. Last year, she came off the bench in all six Olympic games.

The younger crop of bigs that Charles mentioned shined in Tokyo. For the first time in decades, the top three U.S. scorers were all bigs: A’ja Wilson (26 years old), Griner (31) and Breanna Stewart (27). The lone collegian on the World Cup camp roster, South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, is also a frontcourt player.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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