Clark’s inexperience cited for Olympics omission

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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 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 [coach 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 Games, 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: 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.”

This is the first time in Olympic history that the U.S. women’s basketball 5-on-5 team doesn’t have a player under the age of 25 on the roster; Ionescu and Young are the youngest at 26.

“Age was never brought up in any of our discussions,” Rizzotti told ESPN. “There was inclusion of a lot of young players in the pool. When we focused on the selection criteria, the players that fit that the most just happened to be above 25. That was not intentional.”

All 12 of the players chosen for the team had senior national team experience. Clark, through 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.

Rizzotti said any alternates for the team will come from the candidate pool, but only if those players agree to be alternates. They still must remain in drug-testing protocol to be eligible.

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.

Final rosters for all teams must be turned in by July 26, two days before the start of Olympic women’s basketball competition. After that, no changes can be made.

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.”

Only four WNBA rookies — Stewart, Taurasi, Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles — have ever made the U.S. Olympic team; all four had national team experience prior to their rookie season.

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 play abroad only 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 a while, but it was something I grew up watching with my family,” Thomas said. “Just an honor to be part of that group of players. It’s a prestigious group.”

Thomas, 32, 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.”

Rizzotti said the 12 players chosen for the Olympic team were notified Saturday, but all the players who were in the pool at that time hadn’t yet been told by USA Basketball that they didn’t make the team when news began to leak ahead of the official announcement.

“As much as we tried to reach everybody, it put the committee in a tough position,” Rizzotti said. “Whether [the candidates] are disappointed or not, you want to be able to be the one to tell them the result. But the response we got from the players who didn’t make it was they wished nothing but the best for the 12 women that made it.”

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.

ESPN’s Michael Voepel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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