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Team USA’s Three-on-Three Squad Is Ready for Its Olympic Moment

The challenges may be different from five-on-five, but the goal is the same: gold.
Allisha Gray, Stefanie Dolson and Kelsey Plum embrace

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.

Allisha Gray, Kelsey Plum, Stefanie Dolson and Katie Lou Samuelson are already among exclusive company. As members of the WNBA, they represent just four of the more than 140 people playing in one of the world’s preeminent basketball leagues.

This summer, though, the group is looking to tackle a new game, one with a different set of challenges.

“As a kid, I would always dream about playing in the Olympics,” says Plum, who is a versatile scorer off the Aces’ bench. “Now, I never thought it would necessarily be three-on-three basketball, but I’m just worried about whatever’s in front of me.”

On the horizon is the Tokyo Olympics, which despite pushback from those within Japan, appears on track to begin July 23. There, three-on-three basketball will make its Olympic debut, one of five new events added to this year’s competition.

Similar to backyard pickup games, three-on-three games will be played on a half court. They’ll end after 10 minutes or when a team reaches 21 points, whichever comes first. Baskets scored outside the arc are worth two points; baskets inside it are worth one.

The constant action is part of the sport’s appeal, and perhaps its biggest test for players.

“The three-on-three game compared with five-on-five cardio level is not even close,” says Gray, who is a steady contributor in the Wings’ backcourt. “You have to really be in shape for three-on-three. It’s going nonstop.”

Plum compares it to a “400- or 800[-meter sprint]. It’s go go, go, as hard as you can.” And there is no in-game coaching, though Duke women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson will be in Tokyo to work with the team in practice.

Samuelson, who is settling into a key bench role with the Storm, told reporters the brisk pace of play means that the group needs a heightened level of connectivity.

Unlike in five-on-five, there’s nowhere to hide.

“I like the pressure of that,” says Dolson, who is averaging 6.9 points and 3.3 rebounds as the Sky’s starting center. “So, the amount that I’ve played now, I just really enjoy it. It’s such a nice break, too, from the five-on-five that I play constantly.”

Gray says that participating in the new format has allowed her to add new elements to her five-on-five game. She notes that both her isolation offense and defense skills have improved as a result of being on an “island” in three-on-three competitions.

Compared with some of their competitors, the U.S. three-on-three team is light on experience. Still, in its Olympic qualifying tournament in Austria in May, the quartet went 6–0 to lock up a spot in Tokyo. (The Team USA men failed to qualify after getting upset in the quarterfinals of the Olympic qualifying.)

In their downtime in Graz, the four WNBA players got to know one another better by, among other methods, playing a lot of intrasquad Phase 10 and Uno games. “We all win pretty equally,” Gray says. “But the most intense card player is Kelsey Plum, for sure.”

While the U.S. women’s national basketball team eyes its seventh consecutive gold medal, another close-knit U.S. women’s basketball team will look to make history of its own.

“I’m doing something that many people don’t get to do,” Gray says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Notes from around the WNBA

It appears that Nneka Ogwumike might be going to the Tokyo Olympics, after all. But not for the U.S.

Just weeks removed from being among the biggest omissions from the U.S. women’s national team, the 2016 WNBA MVP was listed on Nigeria’s provisional 15-person roster.

“For it to happen would be such a blessing,” Ogwumike told ESPN. “To be able to do something big for a big part of our heritage would be fantastic. I’m hoping it will contribute to the growth we’re experiencing for Africa in basketball.”

Ogwumike, 31, has played in just five games this season due to a left knee sprain. Last week, Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher said she was “week-to-week” with the injury but progressing in her rehab.

It’s unclear how much the injury had to do with her being left off the U.S. senior national team, but Ogwumike was among the constants in the program in recent years, winning gold medals in 2014 and ’18 at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. In February 2020, at the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament, she took home MVP honors and was named to the All-Five team.

Still, it appears she’s moved on from the U.S. program.

“There are decisions made in this life that you can’t control,” she said. “I allowed myself to feel the hurt, but moving on, I decided, ‘I’m going to try to put matters in my own hands.’ ”

USA Basketball has released both Nneka and her sister Chiney, allowing both to play with Nigeria this summer. Chiney was also listed on Nigeria’s 15-person roster, as was Erica Ogwumike, their youngest sister, who played basketball at Rice and was a third-round pick in the 2020 WNBA draft.

If Nneka does end up representing Nigeria, it won’t be long until we see some dramatic action between her new national team and her old team. Nigeria and the United States are set to play an exhibition game in Las Vegas on July 18, just days before the start of the Olympics. The two countries will then meet again on July 27 to open Group B play. It’d surely make for a must-see early-tournament contest.

Sitting with a 6–11 record, the Dream find themselves on the outskirts of the current playoff standings. But as the team prepares to enter the Olympic break, Atlanta seems as if it is at a bigger crossroads.

Earlier this week, the organization indefinitely suspended 2020 No. 4 pick Chennedy Carter for what it said was “conduct detrimental to the team.” The suspension stems from an incident Sunday, when Carter started but played just over five minutes in a 19-point loss to the Aces. According to The Next’s Spencer Nusbaum, Carter, upset about her playing time and team’s success, had a verbal altercation with guard Courtney Williams and made “noises about wanting to fight her teammate.” While no physical altercation occurred, per The Next, that was also not the first time Carter has “snapped at her teammates” or “made noises about fighting a teammate.”

Interim coach Mike Petersen didn’t elaborate on Carter’s absence Sunday evening. And on Wednesday, he said simply that Carter is “working through stuff with ownership to try to get a process where she can return.” But issuing an indefinite suspension to one of your supposed franchise centerpieces doesn’t exactly exude confidence.

“Building a winning culture means holding ourselves accountable as a team,” former Dream player turned owner Renee Montgomery tweeted Sunday. “As we grow through situations, we will work towards helping our players in all aspects. No need to panic, it’s part of the grind.”

Carter’s suspension comes amid a broader period of transition for the franchise. Montgomery was part of a three-person investor group that took over the team this past offseason. And on April 21, the club fired general manager and president Chris Sienko. During the start of training camp, Nicki Collen took the head coach job at Baylor, making Petersen the interim coach.

Up until this point, Carter appeared to be a franchise building block. But it’s hard not to wonder what this could mean for her future with the Dream. Her suspension could prove to be a pivotal moment for an organization that hasn't made the playoffs since 2018, and won just 15 combined games in ’19 and ’20.

Among the most interesting developments from the first half of the 2021 season has been the lack of production from this year’s rookie class. Entering Wednesday night’s action, just one rookie, Liberty wing Michaela Onyenwere, was averaging more than 20 minutes per game. And only four rookies were averaging more than 10 minutes per game, among first-year players who had appeared in at least 10 games.

By comparison, seven rookies (excluding Sabrina Ionescu, who appeared in just three games due to her ankle injury) averaged at least 20 minutes per game last season. And not since Allisha Gray’s rookie season in 2017 has a draft class gone without a first-year player averaging at least 30 minutes per game.

Onyenwere appears to be the Rookie of the Year favorite entering the halfway point of the season. With averages of 10.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, she has been a productive role player on a New York team that is much improved from last season. Still, her numbers compared with other recent Rookie of the Year winners are rather pedestrian. Consider the fact that Crystal Dangerfield took home last year’s trophy after averaging 16.2 points and 3.6 assists on 47% shooting from the field, while playing 30 minutes per contest. Or that Dangerfield’s teammate Napheesa Collier put up 13.1-point, 6.6-rebound, 2.5-assist splits the year before.

It’s of course still too early to make any bold judgments about the draft class—especially one that entered amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, it’s worth monitoring how this year’s class plays when the season resumes Aug. 15.

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