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US opts for experience and versatility on Olympic women’s basketball roster, passes on Caitlin Clark

USA Basketball said experience was a major reason Caitlin Clark was not on the U.S. women’s Olympic roster that was officially revealed Tuesday.

The selection committee didn’t believe the talented Clark had enough of high-level reps to be a member of the group headed to the Paris Games. The team includes seven players from the group that won gold in Tokyo — the seventh straight for the Americans.

Selection committee chair Jen Rizzotti said the committee was aware of the outside noise and pressure to select Clark, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft who has drawn millions of new fans to the sport from her record-setting career in college at Iowa to now with the Indiana Fever.

“Here’s the basketball criteria that we were given as a committee and how do we evaluate our players based on that?” Rizzotti told The Associated Press in an interview. “And when you base your decision on criteria, there were other players that were harder to cut because they checked a lot more boxes. Then sometimes it comes down to position, style of play for Cheryl (Reeve) and then sometimes a vote.”

Diana Taurasi is back for a record sixth time. Her Olympic career started when she was a WNBA rookie in the 2004 Athens Game, and now the 42-year old will be on the team again. Other returners from the Tokyo Olympics are Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Napheesa Collier, Jewell Loyd and Brittney Griner.

Besides the returners, the Americans also added 5-on-5 newcomers Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young, who helped the U.S. win the inaugural 3×3 gold medal at the Tokyo Games in 2021. Several first-time Olympians will join the team with Alyssa Thomas, Sabrina Ionescu and Kahleah Copper. All three played on the American team that won the World Cup in Australia in 2022.

“It’s a great mix of talent across the board in terms of individual skill sets,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “We have veterans, newcomers and those in the middle. Good perspective and continuity is such an important thing and is why we’ve been successful in the Olympics.”

All 12 of those players had senior national team experience. Clark, to no fault of her own, does not.

“She’s certainly going to continue to get better and better,” Tooley said. “Really hope that she’s a big part of our future going forward.”

The selection committee has a set of criteria to pick the team that includes playing ability, position played and adaptability to the international game. Marketing and popularity aren’t on that list.

“It would be irresponsible for us to talk about her in a way other than how she would impact the play of the team,” Rizzotti said. “Because it wasn’t the purview of our committee to decide how many people would watch or how many people would root for the U.S. It was our purview to create the best team we could for Cheryl.”

Clark wasn’t the only talented player left off the team.

Ariel Atkins was on the Tokyo Olympic team. Shakira Austin, Betnijah Laney-Hamilton and Brionna Jones all played on the World Cup team in 2022. Aliyah Boston and Arike Ogunbowale had gone to nearly every training camp. Ogunbowale has played well to start the WNBA season, averaging 26.4 points a game — second best in the league.

Any of those players, along with Clark, could be taken as an alternate if one of the 12 members of the team is unable to play. There are some questions about Gray’s status. The Las Vegas point guard has not played yet this season while recovering from a leg injury suffered in the WNBA Finals last year.

Clark has said she will use not being selected for the Paris Games as incentive to get better and potentially make the 2028 Olympic team.

“I think it just gives you something to work for,” Clark told reporters after practice Sunday. “It’s a dream. Hopefully one day I can be there. I think it’s just a little more motivation. You remember that. Hopefully when four years comes back around, I can be there.”

While Clark won’t be headed to Paris, Griner will be playing internationally for the first time since she was detained in a Russian prison for 10 months in 2022. She said she’ll only play abroad with USA Basketball.

“When you represent your country, you’re on the highest stage, it doesn’t get any higher than that,” Griner said. “Anytime you get to put on the red, white and blue, USA across your chest, we’ll get every country’s best shot. … You’re playing for so much more. I can’t wait to go.”

Thomas was excited for her first chance to play in the Olympics.

“It’s a huge honor. I stepped away from USA Basketball for awhile, but it was something I grew up watching with my family,” the 32-year-old Thomas said. “Just an honor to be part of that group of players. It’s a prestigious group.”

Thomas gives Reeve the versatility of being able to guard any position as well as facilitate from the forward spot. The Connecticut Sun forward is currently leading the WNBA with 8.5 assists a game.

“This team fits my style of play. The defense aspect, the way Coach Reeve wants to play, I think I’m a perfect fit for that.”

Taurasi, who turned 42 on Tuesday, will break the record for most Olympics played in the sport of basketball. Five players, including former teammate Sue Bird, have competed in five.

“The thing that Diana does that I’ve never seen anyone else do is that she makes everybody around her confident and play their best,” Rizzotti said. ”Whether she’s scoring a point, whether she starts, whether she plays limited minutes, whether she’s just a voice in the locker room, she infuses people with a level of self-confidence that has been a factor in us winning,”

The U.S. team will train for about week in Phoenix in July. After that, they’ll play an exhibition game against Germany in London before heading to France.

In Paris, the Americans will play Japan, Belgium and Germany in Olympic pool play.

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AP Paris Olympic coverage https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

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