'A great problem': Could Caitlin Clark make the U.S. Olympic team?

Caitlin Clark already heard her name called once this week, but the most heralded No. 1 draft pick in WNBA history is still in contention to make an even more exclusive roster this summer.

Before even playing a WNBA game, Clark has already become a key figure in the U.S. Olympic roster discussion as the United States goes for its eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal this summer in Paris. The Iowa star was invited to participate in the senior national team’s training camp in April, but could not attend as the Hawkeyes advanced to the Final Four on the same weekend.

A six-person committee, which is led by U.S. 3×3 head coach Jennifer Rizzotti and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and includes former star player Seimone Augustus, will make the final decision. Cheryl Reeve, who is taking over national tem head coach duties from Staley, will not play a significant role in the selection process. The Minnesota Lynx coach and president of basketball operations is happy to sit this one out.

“Thank goodness,” Reeve said with a hearty chuckle during the U.S. Olympic media summit Wednesday.

While the men’s team announced its Olympic roster Wednesday, the women’s team likely won’t reveal its final group until the summer. In 2021, USA Basketball didn’t name its women’s roster until about one month before the Tokyo Games opened. The WNBA season, which begins May 14, will break from July 21 to Aug. 14 for the Olympic Games. The Paris Games open on July 26.

“I just know that it’s a struggle,” Reeve said of cutting the roster down. “Every time they’re making a decision — this time it’s Caitlin, last time it was Nneka [Ogwumike], before that it was Candace Parker. … No matter what you do, you’ve left someone off that someone really thinks you should have brought. And that’s a great problem for the U.S., right?”

Breanna Stewart was the last WNBA rookie to make the U.S. Olympic team, in 2016. The New York Liberty star and reigning WNBA most valuable player knows the difficult path ahead if Clark makes the cut.

Stewart remembers how relentless the transition from college to the pros was. She felt like she was sprinting on a hamster wheel going from winning her fourth national championship with Connecticut on April 5, being drafted first overall by the Seattle Storm on April 14, being named to the Olympic team on April 27 and playing in her first WNBA game on May 15.

“I was just trying to be a sponge,” Stewart said. “I knew I was the youngest one on this Olympic team by far, so my advice would be to be a sponge and really just to take it all in. It’s a lot. A lot’s going to be thrown at Caitlin, just in her rookie year anyways.”

Stewart leaned on former WNBA and Olympic teammate Sue Bird for support through her professional transition. The five-time Olympic gold medalist retired in 2022.

Bird’s departure marks a new era at point guard for the United States. While Las Vegas Aces star Chelsea Gray will likely return for her second Olympics, Reeve acknowledged the relative lack of depth at that position compared to a loaded frontcourt that includes Stewart, two-time WNBA champion A’ja Wilson and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner.

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu and forwards Aliyah Boston (Indiana Fever), Rhyne Howard (Atlanta Dream) and Shakira Austin (Washington Mystics) are vying for their first Olympic teams. Las Vegas Aces guards Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young also attended April’s 5×5 team training camp after helping the United States win 3×3 gold in Tokyo. The competition will be stiff, even for Clark, whose record-setting NCAA career made her a crossover star who helped propel women’s basketball into the mainstream.

“Obviously she’s a great player and what she’s been able to accomplish in college, and now she’s taking it to the next level in the WNBA, and we’ll see how things go,” Stewart said. “Obviously what I want to do is play alongside the other players that are named on this roster. I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I’m sure Caitlin has played USA Basketball before and I don’t think her time with USA Basketball is going to be done anytime soon.”

Clark does have experience on the international stage, but only on the junior level, winning gold medals at the 2019 and 2021 FIBA U19 World Cups and the 2017 FIBA U16 Americas Championship. She did not play in the AmeriCup tournament last summer on a team that included fellow recent WNBA draft picks Rickea Jackson, Angel Reese and Charisma Osborne.

Although Stewart made her Olympic debut as a WNBA rookie, she was already a regular on the senior national team. She was the only college athlete among 32 players considered for the 2014 FIBA World Championship and she made the final cut as a rising junior at UConn.

She was “a baby” when the U.S. team won gold in Rio, Stewart recalled with a wistful smile. She was learning from stars like Bird, Taurasi, Tamika Catchings, Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. Every Olympic team could easily feature 12 WNBA veterans, but the organizing committee’s intentional roster construction that emphasizes a mix of experience and youth has been critical in sustaining the dynasty across generations.

“We come together and we have this sense of selflessness and pride because of the culture that when we were young, we were kind of thrown into,” Stewart said. “Now for the next generation of people … now they know. We’re coming together to represent our country.”

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