By Seth Dahle
While the USA Basketball Women’s National Team’s roster is littered with young players who lack international experience with the squad, four-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird and veteran Breanna Stewart provided leadership and stability at this year’s training camp, which came to a conclusion on Monday in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Along with a youthful roster that featured five collegiate All-Americans and other first-timers, the USA team is also adjusting to a new head coach in Dawn Staley, who said the tandem of Bird and Stewart elevated the play of camp.
“This camp would look a lot different if they weren’t here,” said Staley. “They elevate the stretching. They elevate putting energy into drills and you can’t substitute what their experience brings to this training camp and that’s why I’m so appreciative of them coming.”
Bird and Stewart were the only two players on-site who played at both the 2014 FIBA World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics. Although some of USA’s most elite talent couldn’t attend camp due to the WNBA Finals and overseas commitments, Stewart said everyone came ready to compete.
“It was a different group of players, for the most part, as far as national team experience,” said Stewart. “Everyone at camp came willing to learn, especially with Dawn and her new style and how she approaches things.”
Stewart is certainly no stranger to being a youngin amidst a sea of seasoned veterans. She was once the youngest player on the national team at the 2014 FIBA World Cup at age 20, and she’s taken no time adjusting to a leadership role.
“A leadership role is expected of me, especially with this camp because we have so many younger or less experienced players as far as the national team goes,” said Stewart. “I have a lot of national team experience under my belt, so I was more of a leader, because I’ve been in their situations before, from a college standpoint.”
In the 2017 WNBA season, Stewart issued a standout sophomore season, averaging a team-best 19.9 points per game to side with 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. She also finished with nine double-doubles and 20 20-point performances.
Joining Stewart and Bird at camp was former Notre Dame standout and dynamic Storm guard Jewell Loyd, who said every player at camp brought “great energy and focus.”
“It’s always an honor to be invited,” said Loyd. “For me personally, it was about coming out here and playing hard, being a good teammate and talking. Every time you come out here, you learn something new.”
Loyd was second on the Storm this season with nearly 18 points per game to go along with 3.4 boards and 3.2 assists.
Along with the Storm trio, the USA camp contained five collegiate All-Americans in Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson (University of Connecticut), Asia Durr (University of Louisville), Kelsey Mitchell (The Ohio State University) and A’ja Wilson (University of South Carolina). To view the complete roster, click here.
Bird, who recently recorded a career-best 6.6 assists per game in her 16th Storm season, remained untouched in her ability to set the standard in what it means to be a leader at the international level, even when it came to reminding players of the “little things.”
“Everybody is in this camp for a reason,” said Bird. “They’re great basketball players. But it’s the little things that separate players and USA basketball from the rest of the world. Talking, supporting your teammates, being encouraging, [getting] loose balls and offensive rebounds – I’m just trying to get in people’s ears about that.”
In 2014, Bird became the first U.S. player to compete on four USA World Championship teams and is currently tied with Teresa Edwards for the most medals in major international play with eight.
Bird said that every player at camp embraced what it meant to be a USA basketball athlete, especially Stewart, who had to graduate to a leadership role in a short amount of time.
“That happens quickly, very quickly in this line of work,” said Bird. “You go from being a baby to a lot being expected of you from a leadership standpoint. We joked coming in that Stewie was going to be, in terms of experience, the second-oldest player on this camp’s roster. Stewie can always lead by example. She can always go out there and be the best player on the floor. But you could tell, she was a little more vocal. It started out as a joke, but she really did try to take that on throughout the camp.”
Day one of training camp consisted of standard fundamental drills and walkthroughs, but it also gave a chance for the players to settle in and overcome jitters, commented Stewart.
“I guess everyone was really excited,” said Stewart. “It was a very frantic pace almost. [On day two] things kind of calmed down. People understood more of what we were trying to do, the sets we were trying to put in and how we want to play. We scrimmaged a lot more. When you do that, you compete at a high level and it makes practice a lot more fun.”
Ultimately, as the team settled in and built chemistry, Staley moved to sequences with high intensity, including 5-on-5 ‘seven possession’ games, situation drills and full-court scrimmages.
“I’m a feeler as a coach,” said Staley. “Obviously we have a practice plan, but when you come in here and you feel the energy of the players, you want to ride that wave. We felt it. We felt that they came in really focused, wanting to compete and do a little more competition 5-on-5 [rather than us] breaking down doing drills.”
Stewart, who played against Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks while playing at UCONN, said Staley’s knowledge helped the team compete and speed things up at practice.
“She’s going to be a great Olympic coach,” said Stewart. “She knows the ins and outs of the game. She’s been there as a player and coach. I was excited to be on the court and work with her.”
Loyd, one of the premier guards on the roster, said Staley’s point-guard experience, team-first attitude, and knowledge were her biggest takeaways as a player.
“She’s a former player and Olympian,” said Loyd. “I think a lot of the guards obviously learned a lot from her this weekend. She always competes and plays hard no matter what, so learning how to do that and putting the team first were definitely things we learned from her this weekend.”
While the team’s final roster is still up in the air, the training camp served as an opportunity for youngsters and newcomers to showcase their skills on what will be yet another championship-caliber team at the 2018 FIBA World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.