Why Caitlin Clark could pose a dilemma for Team USA at the Olympics

USA Basketball will seek its eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal this summer with the first step at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Antwerp, Belgium, Feb. 8-11. The 12-player roster for that tournament will be the first approximation of the team that will defend the Americans’ gold medal in Paris.

Based on the 18 players who have been invited to the national team’s training camp Feb. 2-4 in Brooklyn, New York, the committee has the terribly challenging task of selecting the final roster, a decision that will likely be further complicated by current collegians. — primarily Caitlin Clark, but could also consider USA Basketball veterans Paige Bueckers and Cameron Brink — who turn pro 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. USA Basketball has generally balanced old and young on the international team so that younger players can carry the torch and preserve the culture. To include – or not to include – Clark poses a unique dilemma with the wealth of options before the committee.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Clark is Diana Taurasi, one of eight 2021 Tokyo Olympians returning to the national team pool. Taurasi is trying to become the first basketball player of either gender to compete in six Olympics. She would also be the oldest basketball Olympian ever and the third American woman in any sport to compete in six games. Assuming Taurasi is healthy, it’s possible she returns to the roster. The 41-year-old also participated in USA Basketball’s college barnstorming tour in November against Tennessee and Duke, which presumably wasn’t mandatory for a player with his 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 extenuating circumstances, and is another lock to dress in red, white and blue if she so chooses – whose play has declined since the last Olympics, but considering that even she played for the United States during the 2022 FIBA ​​World Cup, Atkins will likely be prioritized by the committee. However, his status as a 2024 Olympian is probably the weakest 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 also on the World Cup team. Ionescu averaged the fewest minutes in Australia, but she, Thomas and Plum were all All-WNBA selections the past two seasons, with the latter two finishing in the top five in MVP voting. Plum’s history with the three-on-three team should also give her an edge with the committee, which brings us to her fellow gold medalists debuting in that sport 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 national team.

All seven of these players would be reasonable selections for the Olympics, and that doesn’t even include Aliyah Boston, Rhyne Howard and Arike Ogunbowale, three of the youngest invitees to the camp. All Boston did was put together one of the most decorated college careers in recent memory, as well as racking up numerous gold medals for the United States at the youth level, earning Rookie of the Year honors and starting in the WNBA All- Star Game. Frankly, Boston looks like another lock, filling the sixth frontcourt spot behind Wilson, Stewart, Griner, Thomas and Collier. Howard and Ogunbowale — both All-Stars who would be the leading scorers of almost any other national team in the world — will likely be out until the 2028 Olympics.

Then there is the youth issue. Choices no. 1 picks in the 2004, 2008, and 2016 WNBA drafts made 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 hindsight) , and a similarly loaded draft class is on deck to carry on that tradition. Young people take their place at the end of the roster and then become future leaders. Wilson talked about how he learned from Taurasi and Sue Bird how to set standards, which he and Stewart put into practice at the last World Cup.

It would make sense for Clark to be the latest ingenue to take her place as Team USA’s 12th player, but with 2004 No. 1 pick Taurasi still kicking, there might not be enough room. Perhaps the committee will find comfort in Boston representing the current generation, while a group of older guards compete in the backcourt. Deciding between Atkins, Copper, Allisha Gray, Ionescu, Ogunbowale, Plum and Young which three-spot figures 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 massive popularity of one of the game’s biggest stars when whoever takes her place isn’t expected to play many minutes anyway? The Olympics are the biggest showcase for women’s basketball in the world. A player like Clark belongs on that stage if the selection committee wants to build on the momentum the sport is generating in the United States.

There will be plenty of superstars on the national team, whether or not Clark makes it across the finish line. And the United States will be prohibitively favored no matter which combination of these players suits up in Paris. The specific makeup of this roster, however, will reveal what the committee prioritizes, whether it’s national team history, national success, youth/veteran balance or the most marketable names. All these possibilities are on the table.

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