Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The reasons for and against Caitlin Clark’s exclusion from the Team USA Olympic roster | CNN

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USA Basketball’s decision to omit Caitlin Clark from the Olympic roster was initially met with some shock.

How could one of the most prominent, well-known athletes in the US – not to mention one of the most talented rookies to ever enter the WNBA – not be on the plane to Paris?

Speaking to reporters at a practice on Sunday, Clark said she wasn’t disappointed with the decision, adding: “I think it gives you something to work for, you know, it’s a dream.”

“Hopefully one day I can be there, and I think it’s just a little more motivation. You remember that and, you know, hopefully in four years, when four years comes back around … I can be there,” she said.

However, USA Basketball has made a “terrible decision,” according to CNN Sport analyst Christine Brennan, by omitting a phenomenon like Clark from the roster.

From a P.R. perspective, it probably made sense for Clark to make the team. Yet, watching Clark’s teething problems in her first month in the league and going over her early season statistics, her omission perhaps should not have come as a surprise.

The physicality of the WNBA has been one her biggest struggles early on and international basketball certainly isn’t any less intense.

Part of Clark’s highlight reel so far have been images of the slight point guard picking herself up off the court. She’s been on the receiving end of several hard fouls, including some that were whistled as flagrant.

“I think at this point I know I’m going to take a couple of hard shots a game and that’s what it is,” Clark said after a recent game against the Chicago Sky.

“I’m trying not to let it bother me.”

Understandably, Clark is commanding more attention from opponent defenses than perhaps any other player in the league, but she has yet to find a way to consistently break down those tactics.

Through 13 games so far, Clark’s 70 turnovers are by some distance the most of any player in the league and her average of 5.4 turnovers a game is well clear of Alyssa Thomas’s 4.3 in second place.

Clark is also shooting just 37.3% from the floor and 33% from three, which is arguably her greatest weapon, and it seems unlikely that the Indiana Fever would command any less attention from opponents on the Olympic stage.

On statistics alone, then, it is difficult to justify Clark’s inclusion; though by the same metrics, Diana Taurasi’s inclusion is even more difficult to explain given she is averaging just 16.6 points on just 37.1% shooting, while contributing fewer rebounds, assists and steals per game.

‘Get rest and get healthy’

Through 13 games this season, the Indiana Fever’s defensive rating of 111.7 is by far the worst in the league, with Clark’s individual defensive struggles at the forefront.

Breanna Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion, Brittney Griner, a nine-time All Star and A’ja Wilson, a two-time MVP, have all represented Team USA at an Olympic Games before. Even the 42-year-old Taurasi, a five-time Olympic champion who has largely played poorly so far this season, has been included in part for her vast experience.

Clark has registered a league high 70 turnovers so far this season.

Plus, there are many talented players Clark is up against for the guard position.

Clark would also have been by some distance the youngest and most inexperienced player on the team. Aged 26, Sabrina Ionescu and Jackie Young are the youngest to be selected, but both are already multi-time All-Stars.

Additionally, Clark has barely had time to take a breath over the past couple of seasons, leading Iowa to back-to-back NCAA championship games and after the draft almost immediately entering training camp with the Fever ahead of her WNBA debut.

Only two players this season have played more minutes than Clark, experienced duo Stewart and Betnijah Laney-Hamilton.

Long term, for both Clark and the league, a few weeks’ rest could be for the best.

The 22-year-old said it’s “going to be really nice” to have some time off during the Olympics, with the WNBA pausing during the Games.

“I’ve loved competing every single second, but it’s going to be a great month for my body,” she told reporters after Fever practice on Sunday. “First of all, get rest and get healthy and just get a little time away from basketball and the craziness of everything that’s been going on. Just find some peace and quiet for myself.”

Brennan added that team politics may also have contributed to the decision.

“I have two sources, impeccable sources, who said that they had heard from various people that a concern was that if Caitlin was put on the team but only got a few minutes of playing time, which would be logical for a rookie on a great team that last lost in 1992 – the best, most dominant team in sports – that all of her fans would be upset and would be, I guess, just storming the gates and on radio shows and on social media,” she told World Sport’s Don Riddell.

“I couldn’t believe my ears that that was a discussion topic in the meetings about the reaction to Caitlin Clark,” added Brennan.

USA Basketball has an experienced roster that includes Taurasi and Stewart.

“And is it a situation where we heard chilly comments from Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart at the women’s Final Four? I asked Diana Taurasi’s agent point-blank: ‘Can you point me to anything positive she’s ever said about Caitlin Clark?’ Never heard back, gave the agent a week to reply, and both of those women are on the team.”

Stewart had said Clark, the all-time scoring leader in men’s and women’s NCAA Division I history, needed to win a national title to be considered one of the greats in women’s college basketball history, while Taurasi said she would take Paige Bueckers, who wasn’t in the 2024 WNBA draft, as the No. 1 overall pick over Clark.

Both Stewart and Taurasi later attempted to clarify that their comments about Clark at the Final Four were not intended to be negative.

CNN has approached USA Basketball for comment.

In a statement released on Tuesday, USA Basketball Women’s committee chair Jennifer Rizzotti said: “We have selected a team that we are confident will represent our country to the highest standard in Paris.

“Basketball in the United States boasts unparalleled depth, making this a challenging and competitive process. The commitment these athletes have shown to USA Basketball is unmatched and I look forward to watching them take on the World in Paris.”

On the flip side, however, Brennan says Clark’s omission is hard to explain if USA Basketball is interested in exposure and growing women’s basketball.

“She’s the biggest thing in sports, not just women’s basketball in the United States,” Brennan said of why Clark should be included. “I mean, literally very, very likely the best-known athlete in the country right now.

“Because she’s playing great. Because she represents the college side of the game … and because she can help them win. Especially three-pointers in the international game are a must and she’s an excellent player.

“Her stats are better than Diana Taurasi, who will be on the team for her sixth run at an Olympic gold medal, and so the bottom line is she brings eyeballs.”

According to the WNBA, the 2024 season opened with the highest attendance in 26 years and the most watched games in history on national television, a boom fuelled in no small part by interest in Clark. The former Iowa star’s professional debut in May drew the largest WNBA audience in two decades.

Clark has drawn record-breaking crowds and TV audiences.

Having Clark on the team could arguably have helped grow the women’s game globally, giving fans from around the world a better chance to see a phenomenon in action.

How many tickets were bought by those hoping to see Clark on the court? How many more would have tuned in to watch to find out for themselves why America is so enthralled by this generational talent?

“You will have the world watching. It will grow women’s sports. There’ll be kids in Africa and Europe who will see number 22 and want to buy the jersey and who would watch – and then maybe go out and shoot baskets,” Brennan added.

“An empowering moment for girls and women that has been totally missed by this, what I believe is a terrible decision and by USA Basketball.”

It would also have been far from unprecedented for a rookie to make the team.

Previously, four WNBA rookies – Rebecca Lobo in 1996, Diana Taurasi in 2004, Candace Parker in 2008 and Breanna Stewart in 2016 – have been selected for Team USA’s Olympic rosters, while Christian Laettner made the 1992 ‘Dream Team’ roster as an NBA rookie.

“Often USA Basketball men’s and women’s will pick a collegiate … as an homage, as a bit of a tip of the hat to the college game and the growth of the game, which is in the mission in statement of USA Basketball, growing the game,” Brennan explains.

With or without Clark, Team USA is the overwhelming favorite to win gold in Paris and continue its unbeaten Olympic record stretching back to 1992.

Clark will just have to wait a little longer to join the squad.

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