Where is the conspiracy? — Dawn Staley talks USA Basketball roster — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, June 23, 2021
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I want to apologize right off the top. I don’t have a black-and-white hot take for you about the 2021 USA Basketball senior team roster.
I’ve seen plenty of those, however, and I’ve talked to a lot of people on all sides of the decision-making process, and instead I have some shades of gray and some real reality checks for those who would claim there’s a deep conspiracy at work here.
Let’s start with some obvious points. Nneka Ogwumike is one of the best players of her generation, and there is a clear gap between what she has accomplished — MVP, Rookie of the Year, WNBA champion — and her time with USA Basketball on Olympic rosters. This Mechelle Voepel tweet captured that gap really well, I thought.
So if I were Nneka Ogwumike, would I be disappointed? Absolutely!
Let’s also stipulate something that should be fairly obvious: given the enormous talent pool operating in the United States today, there are far more than 12 no-brainer selections to the Olympic team. That means, by definition, some players will be left off the final roster who have every right to believe they have accomplished enough, and are playing at an elite level, to deserve inclusion. That was true this week, that was true in 2016, and 2012, and 2008… this is just where we are.
Where some of the loudest voices lose me here is over two ideas: one, that there’s some kind of conspiracy keeping certain kinds of players off the team, and two, that there’s some objective measure that would ensure fairness and a better outcome.
Let’s start with the first part: I don’t agree with every last roster decision made by USA Basketball. I am still disappointed we didn’t get to see Candace Parker’s international career blossom fully alongside her club work. And similarly, given what I know (which is less than the committee, and let’s be clear, you also know less than the committee), I’d have put Nneka Ogwumike on the team. But there’s not a single player who made the team who makes me think “Gee, she doesn’t belong.” Not one. Dawn Staley didn’t get Champ put on the roster (what a story that would be, but I digress).
Evidence of conspiracy, hazy enough to allow for shape-shifting as the decisions warrant, are things like lots of UConn players and lots of Lynx players on the rosters of the current and past few teams. I did some rudimentary research, and it looks like UConn’s won a lot of national championships over that period, and the Lynx won four WNBA titles in the past decade. Obviously the issue could be fluoride in the water or the Deep State or some other explanation, but I feel like that’s probably a likelier reason for the overlap.
And even so: do we think Katie Smith, Ohio State’s finest and member of the Lynx staff since… 2020, is retroactively pushing Lynx players? Is Curt Miller a UConn homer because his team plays in the same state as Geno’s program? I truly do not understand what the sinister, hinted-at conspiracy even looks like.
So where does that leave us?
For many, it seems there must be something afoot. Dev Peters had a long Twitter thread that, to be frank, appears to boil down to a series of decisions she disagrees with, followed by character assassination of some of the folks on the USA Basketball selection committee. The idea that Curt Miller or Katie Smith have it in for particular players, rather than taking this very seriously and coming to extraordinarily hard decisions, is a pretty serious charge! And if the evidence for that is “they picked different players than I would have picked”, and that’s all you’ve got… it would be pretty hard for me to declare something like that, then sleep at night.
But there is that inherent, insidious undercurrent to many of the online arguments about sports, something that always boggles my mind. It cannot simply be that you believe A, I believe B. It is, so often, that you must be operating from a place of bad faith. And not on issues of national security. Issues of who made a basketball roster!
It is possible to disagree without the other side being guilty of some crime. And this, to be clear, is not the way to handle it:
Let the sunshine in. No one is reveling over the difficulty of leaving some of the greatest players in the world home. It shouldn’t fall to Curt Miller to answer questions for the group, nor should it be unexpected for media to have questions about those decisions.
But let’s also leave room to disagree about these hard calls while we examine how and it happened.
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This week in women’s basketball
Over at FiveThirtyEight, I broke down what I’m seeing from the league so far.
I also detail who I think should be on the team to take on USA Basketball at the WNBA All Star Game.
A Barbara Jordan women’s basketball story? HERE FOR IT.
From Maggie Vanoni, tracing Napheesa Collier’s trip to the USA Basketball roster.
And Derek Fisher on what he thinks of the decision to leave Nneka Ogwumike off of it.
Pepper Persley handled the question of kindness in the WNBA space in her own, signature way.
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Five at The IX: Dawn Staley, USA Basketball head coach
Q: Talk a little about the team that you’ve got, that the committee selected and how you feel about the chances with them in Tokyo?
A: I’m super excited. It’s finally here. I know that the committee has done a tremendous job at getting it to 12, no matter how difficult that was. And obviously, I do feel for the players who are with us for the past three or four years that didn’t make the roster. And it’s not anything against who they are and the talent that they are, it’s just hard to get down to 12. Every four years we do this it gets more difficult, but I’m super happy for the roster that we have. I do think it’s a great mix of very experienced players to first time Olympians. And you need a pretty good mix, especially if you want to take care of winning a gold medal today and also just jump starting what the future looks like. So, I do think it’s enough on the roster to win a gold medal. We just have to utilize our training camp final training camp before we go over to Tokyo.
Q: With these newcomers you have, led by A’ja (Wilson), what is the biggest thing you need out of them to get you guys where you want to be?
A: Some of these newcomers have played in World Cups. Some of them have been around our USA Basketball culture over the past three or four years. We just want them to do what they’ve done, and that is, when your numbers called, is to perform. These are highly competitive, motivated women who just want to win, and what that looks like sometimes it’s a little different, because all of them are their team’s top scorers, top producers. And when you come into a setting like USA Basketball, you tend to fall back on that, but you also tend to do as others are doing it, and that is whatever it takes for us to win. People have to step up and do, or step down to do, because you could play a much different role than you play on your WNBA team.
Q: How do you feel about Taurasi’s injury and what she brings to the table, as well as the other two Mercury players?
A: ‘D’ (Diana Taurasi) is always going to be able to beat the odds when it comes to being injured. I think the biggest separation for D, and probably the rest of the women’s basketball world, or men’s basketball, or just the basketball world, is she’s mentally tougher than probably any player that I’ve been around. I’ll also express to you, she’s going to be ready, because she’s going to tell her body to be ready. Sometimes your body tells you that it wants to rest, and it probably told her wants to rest in the form of an injury. But I think it just saved her for being ready for the Olympic Games. I think she wants to be a five time Olympian and a five time gold medalist, and that’s what happens when you’re one with your body, and your mind, and your soul and your spirit. D is all of that. So, I didn’t question whether or not she will be ready to go.
Skylar (Diggins-Smith) and BG (Brittney Griner) – BG is a staple for us. We wouldn’t leave the country without BG. Her presence out there on the floor on both sides of the ball is needed. Then Skyler, super happy for Skyler. Skyler has been in our pool for this is her second Olympic Games that she’s been in the pool, and she finally made it. I think through her perseverance, her play, her steadiness, her ability to continue to come to training camps, when it is not popular to stop what you’re doing, come and train with us for a week or three or four days here or there. But she’s done that over the past, probably seven, eight years, so I’m happy for her. Really happy for Skyler, because this is something that she really, really wanted to do.
Q: Can you talk specifically about the youngest players on the team and what it means to them.
A: Ariel (Atkins) and Napheesa (Collier) – I’ve been around them a great deal through these training camps, and I’ve actually coached Napheesa in U18, U19, so I’m very familiar with her. I feel like both of them carve out a space in which we need younger legs, great basketball decision-makers on both sides of the ball. I think they’ve just separated themselves from the rest of the younger group by doing the little things. It’s hard when you’re that young. You have a tendency to let some of those older, experienced players do their thing, and you tend to just fall back. They fell back, but they also made an impact quietly, and they’re the perfect younger players to be on a team like this, because they’re just going to do what they’re asked to do and do it at a really high level. So, I’m happy, super happy for them.
Q: And then what about Nneka Ogwumike not being on this team? Was that about injury?
A: And then, the next thing. It breaks me. It really breaks my heart that Nneka (Ogwumike) is not on this team, and it has everything to do with having to make a decision today. If we had to make a decision a month from now, I’m sure she would be healthy. But it does break my heart, because I know this is one of the things that she wanted to do. She came to every training camp. She’s a been a great voice in our training camps, in our practices, and we’re definitely going to miss Nneka.