Why Caitlin Clark Could Pose a Question for Team USA at the Olympics

USA Basketball will seek its eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal this summer and the first step will be at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Antwerp, Belgium, February 1-1. 8-11. The roster of 12 players for that tournament will be the first approximation of the team that will defend the American gold medal in Paris.

Based on the 18 players who have been invited to the national team camp since February. 2-4 in Brooklyn, New York, the committee has a terribly challenging task in selecting that final roster, a decision that will likely be further complicated by current collegians, primarily Caitlin Clark, but USA Basketball veterans Paige Bueckers and Cameron Brink They could also take into account. here, that he turns professional at the end of the 2023-24 season.

The final list will ultimately make a statement about what the committee values: youth and future or experience and proven success. Overall, USA Basketball has balanced old and young on the international team so that younger players can carry the torch and preserve the culture. Including – or not including – Clark poses a unique dilemma given the multitude of options before the committee.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Clark is Diana Taurasi, one of eight 2021 Tokyo Olympians who is back in the national team fold. Taurasi seeks to become the first male and female basketball player to compete in six Olympic Games. She would also be the oldest Olympic basketball athlete and the third American woman in any sport to participate in six games. Assuming Taurasi is healthy, it’s a safe bet that she will return to the roster. The 41-year-old even participated in USA Basketball’s college tour in November against Tennessee and Duke, which presumably wasn’t mandatory for a player with her pedigree.

Taurasi is joined by Ariel Atkins, Napheesa Collier, Chelsea Gray, Brittney Griner, Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson from the Tokyo team. Atkins is the only one of those returnees (aside from Griner, who has grueling circumstances and is another option who will wear the red, white and blue if she so chooses) whose play has declined since the last Olympics, but considering she also played Para United States during the 2022 FIBA ​​World Cup, the committee will likely prioritize Atkins. However, her status as a 2024 Olympian is probably the most tenuous of these eight players.

That leaves at most five, and probably four, spots for new blood, and the competition is fierce. Kahleah Copper, Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, Kelsey Plum and Alyssa Thomas were additional members of the World Cup team. Ionescu averaged the fewest minutes in Australia, but she, Thomas and Plum have been All-WNBA selections the past two seasons, with the last two finishing in the top five in MVP voting. Plum’s history with the three-on-three team should also give her an advantage in the committee, which brings us to her fellow gold medalists in that sport’s debut in 2021: Allisha Gray and Jackie Young. Both players seem too good to be left off the roster, especially Young, but that’s always the case with the US team.

Those seven players would be reasonable picks for the Olympics, and that doesn’t even include Aliyah Boston, Rhyne Howard and Arike Ogunbowale, three of the youngest camp invitees. All Boston has done is create one of the most decorated collegiate careers in recent memory, along with collecting multiple gold medals for the USA at youth levels, while also earning rookie of the year honors and starting in the WNBA All-Star Game. Frankly, Boston looks like another safety, ranking sixth in the frontcourt behind Wilson, Stewart, Griner, Thomas and Collier. Howard and Ogunbowale, both All-Stars who would be the leading scorers on almost any other national team in the world, are probably on the outside looking ahead to the 2028 Olympics.

Then there is the question of youth. The No. 1 picks in the 2004, 2008 and 2016 WNBA drafts made the Olympic teams rookies (Nneka Ogwumike’s omission in 2012 was curious then, and her absence from subsequent Olympic rosters has made that snub even more ridiculous in retrospect), and a similarly loaded draft class is ready to continue that tradition. Young people take their place at the bottom of the list and then become the future leaders. Wilson spoke about learning from Taurasi and Sue Bird how to set the standard, which she put into practice alongside Stewart at the last World Cup.

It would make sense for Clark to be the last ingénue to take her spot as Team USA’s No. 12 player, but with 2004 No. 1 pick Taurasi still kicking, there may not be enough room. Perhaps the committee will take comfort in the fact that Boston represents the current generation, while a group of older guards compete in the backcourt. Deciding between Atkins, Copper, Allisha Gray, Ionescu, Ogunbowale, Plum and Young for what appears to be three spots will be difficult enough without adding Clark to the mix.

On the other hand, the Caitlin Clark effect is real. How could USA Basketball choose not to capitalize on the rabid popularity of one of the game’s biggest stars when whoever takes her place doesn’t seem to be playing many minutes anyway? The Olympic Games are the greatest showcase of women’s basketball worldwide. A player like Clark belongs in that scenario if the selection committee wants to take advantage of the momentum the sport is generating in the United States.

There will be plenty of superstars on the national team whether Clark makes the cut or not. And the United States will be a prohibitive favorite regardless of which combination of these players suits Paris. The specific makeup of this roster, however, will reveal what the committee prioritizes, whether it’s national team history, national success, balance between youth and veterans, or the most marketable names. All of these possibilities are on the table.

(Caitlin Clark Photo: Marc Piscotty/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)