Sabrina Ionescu? Maya Moore? U.S. women’s basketball team faces Olympic roster unknowns

Nick Zaccardi
NBC Sports

When the coronavirus halted sports two months ago, the U.S. women’s basketball program was three-fifths of the way through Olympic selection season. The 12-player roster was due to be named by early June.

“It wasn’t like we were all of a sudden putting names on the board that said, OK, these people have made the team, and now we’re looking at these two or three remaining positions,” said U.S. national team director Carol Callan, chair of the selection committee. “We didn’t have to do that [as early as March], so we didn’t do that.”

Callan calls the selection process “a long-running movie.” Sure, a player’s most recent performances can be the climax, but the plot can date back years, to the college stage and past Olympics.

“Now we’re all sitting back going, OK, are we going to have a 2020 WNBA season to be able to watch players?” Callan said. “If not, then what? How will we put together some training next year? There’s so much unknown and uncertain right now, we’re all trying to figure it out together.”

Callan discussed a range of pertinent topics in a phone interview this week.

Perhaps the most talked-about player over the last year has been Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon guard who was taken No. 1 in last month’s WNBA Draft by the New York Liberty. Ionescu is a unique case for the Olympics.

She appeared a prime prospect for the first Olympic 3×3 team, had the Games been held this summer. She played that half-court event at the Pan American Games in August, when she reportedly said that she would pick 3×3 over the traditional five-on-five format if she had to choose one or the other.

But now, Ionescu goes into the Olympic year as a professional and, perhaps, a more enticing asset to Dawn Staley‘s 12-player roster.

Callan, who is also on the 3×3 selection committee, said that a conversation is merited with any player who has an opportunity to play on either Olympic team. She noted that anybody on the Olympic 3×3 team would be guaranteed significant playing time since the roster is four players, with a substitution planned at every dead ball. Given the schedule, it’s not feasible for somebody to play both 3×3 and five-on-five at the Olympics.

“I have no idea what a player would think through that process because most players are pretty confident in their abilities, but if you thought you were going to be a role player for a five-on-five team, but you had a chance to be on 3×3, you might choose that,” Callan said.

Ionescu was unavailable for an interview.

Callan said she hasn’t heard about 2021 availability from Maya Moore, a 2012 and 2016 Olympian who hasn’t played professionally since 2018 to focus on criminal justice reform. Moore spent time on the case of friend Jonathan Irons, whose 50-year prison sentence for burglary and assault was overturned in March. Later in March, an appeal was filed to reverse that ruling.

It’s too early to project Moore’s 2021 plans, her agent said this week. Callan said she had positive conversations with Moore when she first decided to take a year off in 2019, then again in February after she decided she would not play in 2020.

“We’d be happy to hear from her one way or the other,” Callan said. “But I do think, if you want to be an Olympian, you have to play basketball at some point leading up to it. You can’t just say, OK, next year, March, I’m ready to play again. That’s tough. Not just tough to make a team, but it’s just tough to be a basketball player.

“So, 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.”

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are two national team stalwarts bidding to become the oldest U.S. Olympic basketball players in history. Four years ago, both players said that Rio would likely be their last Olympics, but Callan, who has overseen the program since before the 1996 Olympics, never ruled them out.

“When we landed back at the airport after the Rio Olympics, I purposely didn’t want to ask them anything about it being the last Olympics,” Callan said, “but made just the quick comment, ‘I’ll give you a little bit of time, and then I’m going to call you.’ They both didn’t say, ‘No, don’t call.’ Right then and there — I don’t want to act like I was a prophet, but I felt like there was definitely an opening to it. … Until they can’t walk anymore, they’re going to play.”

Bird and Taurasi publicly announced Tokyo Olympic ambitions after Dawn Staley was named Geno Auriemma‘s successor in 2017.

Bird, Taurasi and other top U.S. players often spend WNBA offseasons playing for more lucrative contracts overseas. This break, even if just a few months, is unusual.

“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.”

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Sabrina Ionescu? Maya Moore? U.S. women’s basketball team faces Olympic roster unknowns originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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