No one is happy that sports are on a break while the coronavirus pandemic continues. But a break for the best women’s basketball players in the world could be a good thing ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
The break also raises questions for some Team USA veterans and newcomers. The 12-player roster was initially due in early June.
Team USA director: Break is a good thing
U.S. national team director Carol Callan, chair of the selection committee for the Team USA roster, noted as much to Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports Olympic Talk on Friday.
“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.”
Team USA is going for a seventh consecutive gold medal in Japan next summer now that the Olympics were rescheduled for July 2021. It would match the United States’ men’s team streak of seven golds from 1936-68, the first Olympic competitions.
Players rarely get any time off from playing
The women’s team members typically play year-round between overseas contracts that give them the majority of their annual income and the WNBA season back home from May through September. The 2020 WNBA season was scheduled to begin May 15, but has been indefinitely postponed. Teams reportedly need to trim their rosters without the help of training camp by May 26 in order for players to be paid on time.
The forced break will allow their bodies to recover a bit, since playing top-level basketball year-round takes its toll. Phoenix Mercury superstar and four-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi was famously paid by her Russian team to sit out a WNBA season and get much-needed rest.
While the U.S. women have won 46 consecutive games in Olympic and FIBA World Cup action dating to 2006, the players know they’re not invincible. They face tough competition and will go against some of the WNBA’s top players on other teams.
The U.S., Australia, Spain, France, Belgium, Canada, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Serbia, China, South Korea and host Japan all qualified for the Olympic tournament.
Will roster include Taurasi, Bird, Moore, Ionescu?
Pushing the Olympics back a full year has created more questions for players, the selection committee and head coach Dawn Staley.
Tauarasi and Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird are both seeking their fifth Olympic gold dating back to the 2004 games, and have said they intend to compete for a spot. But in a wide-ranging chat on Instagram Live, they both acknowledged that could change depending on how their bodies feel, and it will be up to the selection committee to decide if they have what it takes.
Minnesota Lynx star and two-time gold medalist Maya Moore skipped the 2019 WNBA season for social justice pursuits and said earlier this year she was taking her name out of consideration for the 2020 Olympics. She also plans to skip the 2020 season.
Her agent told NBC Sports it was too early to project the star’s plans for 2021. Callan said it would be tough for Moore to jump into the pool if she doesn’t play professional basketball in the lead-up.
“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.”
The biggest question will be if New York Liberty rookie Sabrina Ionescu joins the group. She could also play for the Team USA 3x3 team in the new Olympic event. She told NBA’s Ernie Johnson in an Instagram Live this month she hopes she does get the chance to compete for a spot on the Olympic roster.
"I hope so. I'm doing everything I can to be ready for that and get ready for that. Obviously, it's not really up to me at this point as long as I'm performing and doing everything that I can."
She said last year she prefers the format and won the Pan American Games 3x3 gold last summer with Oregon teammate (and now Chicago Sky rookie) Ruthy Hebard and UConn players Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams.
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