Barring a major collapse, the U.S. women’s basketball team should easily win its fifth consecutive Olympic gold in Rio. Despite cutting superstar forward Candace Parker from the roster in a surprising move, Team USA is in as good a position as ever.
You can thank new additions Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner for that. Their additions directly address the few weaknesses on the last Olympic team, and because both are just beginning their primes, they should extend Team USA’s dominance into the future.
Thanks to Delle Donne’s ability to work an inside-out game past the 3-point arc and Griner’s shot-blocking talents, Team USA is more versatile and star-powered than its previous renditions. They’re also the second- and third-youngest members of the team: that should allow the Americans to roll through the field even easier in Rio than they did in London while also re-invigorating the team’s future in Tokyo’s 2020 games.
The upside the two provide was evident in just three international exhibition games last week, especially for Delle Donne. The Chicago Sky star put up double-digit scoring efforts in every outing off the bench, leading a talented second unit that ensured there would be no talent drop-off when the starters left the floor.
Delle Donne’s offensive contribution increased each night and exploded by the final game against Australia, the No. 2 team in the world. Head coach Geno Auriemma couldn’t take her off the floor. She scored 17 first-half points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting, displaying a medley of spins in the post while embracing contact. Her Dirk Nowitzki-esque post moves were nearly unguardable given the height advantage the 6-foot-5 forward has over defenders.
All in al, Delle Donne hit 13 of her 24 two-point attempts in exhibition play. She proved to be the perfect second punch to hit teams once Maya Moore was done with them.
Yet it’s Delle Donne three-point shooting ability that should boost this edition of Team USA most. Though the Americans won gold in London, they shot just 30.5 percent from deep and lacked a frontcourt player that could consistently stretch the floor. Parker should have been a viable option from the three-point line, but she curiously didn’t attempt a single three-pointer during the entire tournament four years ago.
Delle Donne, on the other hand, is a 38 percent career 3-point shooter and is making 42 percent of her deep shots this year in the WNBA. That’s the second-highest mark of any of her Team USA teammates, including the guards. She’s instantly become the best offensive dual-threat big on the roster, and at just 26-years-old, she provides a stable perimeter-shooting presence for Olympic games to come.
Griner, meanwhile, adds a defensive element unique to any woman on the planet. Her talent was recognizable since well before her WNBA debut, and under better circumstances, this would be her second Olympic appearance rather than her first.
She won’t get the minutes Delle Donne will for this team, since Auriemma has opted for a smaller style of play so far. That said, she will be needed for one vital task down the road: if Team USA plays against top challenge Australia.
As just one of two 6-foot-9 players at the Olympics, Griner’s job will be limit Aussie star big Liz Cambage’s scoring output in the paint. That’s something Team USA wasn’t able to do in London, when Cambage scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds in Team USA’s toughest game. The Americans won by 13 points during a run in which their average margin of victory was 34 points.
Last week’s exhibition game revealed Griner’s importance. With Griner on the floor, Cambage scored just four points in seven minutes. Without her, Cambage scored 18 points in 17 minutes, including eight in a three-minute stretch that convinced Auriemma to put Griner on the court. Auriemma didn’t have the luxury of matching Cambage’s height four years ago. Griner gives him that now, and it’s immediately clear that she must play more minutes if Team USA faces Australia again.
Griner’s game is built to contain Cambage and other interior scorers. While WNBA teams have figured out how to draw Griner away from the paint with perimeter-shooting bigs, Cambage’s game involves her camping right under the rim. That plays right into Griner’s best strength: her 7’4 wingspan.
Against other teams, Griner will still be useful in deterring players from driving to the basket. International teams aren’t used to game-planning for her type of height.
In four years, Delle Donne will join Maya Moore as the faces of Team USA, while Griner will cement herself as the world’s most intimidating defensive presence, if she hasn’t already. Those two newcomers take Team USA to another dimension, both now and for the future. Without them, the light were dimming on an aging roster, now 30 years old on average.
But with them, Team USA’s present and future dominance is secure. That dominance should continue in Rio and for years to come.