RIO DE JANEIRO — Perhaps Team USA’s second-best point guard here in Rio was purchasing souvenirs at the Olympic Park superstore about 90 minutes before the women’s basketball semifinal game against France.
That was 46-year-old Dawn Staley, an assistant coach who still looks like she can dish an assist or two. So Team USA was relegated to patchwork when four-time Olympian Sue Bird, still considered the best point guard in the States, was unavailable because of a sore right knee.
And the outcome was predictable. Team USA played its worst offensive game of the tournament. Shooting guards Diana Taurasi and Seimone Augustus were taking off on breaks when their job Thursday was to get the ball past half court.
The 86-67 win over a scrappy French team was expected, but it also left a large question for Tokyo in 2020. Bird, who is questionable for Saturday’s gold medal game against Spain, will be 36 in October and eventually Team USA needs to plan for her successor.
But the team’s backup in Rio is 34-year-old Lindsay Whalen, who like a lot of guards in the United States, is a combo guard. Whalen collected one assist in 16 minutes against France as the offense looked disheveled with Bird in a sweatsuit and on the sideline.
So if the next great US point guard isn’t here in Rio, where is she? Team USA’s most difficult game during its Olympic run was July 22 in Los Angeles, when it beat the Select Team. Jewell Loyd and Odyssey Sims combined for 37 points and 13 assists, a testament to the theory that the United States is producing more combo guards than point guards.
“There’s a question mark as to who that next point guard is going to be and just being around USA Basketball the last few years, there have been a couple of ones that have come through the system,” Staley said. “Odyssey Sims, Courtney Vandersloot; Skylar [Diggins] can play a little point guard. There are some out there that are pretty good. Which ones rise to the top?
“Playing at this level is a lot different than they’ve ever experienced. It’s a different experience. There are other great point guards out there [but] we’re still left with the question mark of can they play at this level? Can they facilitate? That’s what Sue leaves, that big question mark.”
Bird has become more than a security blanket for Team USA coach Geno Auriemma (who also coached her at UConn); she has become a necessity. The team is beginning to inject itself with younger players in their WNBA prime — Maya Moore, Brittney Griner, Angel McCoughtry, Elena Delle Donne — but they are not point guards.
The lack of a true young, capable floor leader to succeed Bird is a growing issue. Auriemma didn’t select one of the aforementioned young guards for this team. And it’s not limited to the women.
The Team USA men desperately need a distributor even though Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry are on the roster. Both are score-first players and the international game stresses ball movement, hence the men are desperately missing Chris Paul.
The call is on for a player to take Bird’s spot after the Olympics are over. But the players in Rio realize there has been a lack of emerging floor leaders in the past few years, so Bird was unquestionably the Team USA starter at age 35.
“It’s definitely a popular question right now,” Bird said after the win against France. “I’m really not that worried. The point guards that we do have in the WNBA, when they go overseas and get that international experience, even though they are not on this team right now, in four years, they won’t have that actual Olympic experience [but if] they go overseas and play against these international players, that’s more than enough experience. I’m not worried about it.”
Said Auriemma: “Our players really found out today that without Sue, it’s certainly not going to be [easy]. There’s a big difference with our team the way we played [Thursday] and the other six games.”
Staley won three gold medals as the point guard for Team USA and handed the mantle to Bird in 2008 in Beijing. The six-time WNBA All-Star said perhaps the professional league has steered quality point guards away from international play.
“It’s a learned experience,” Staley said. “You also have to have the mentality that this is what you want to do. There are certain sacrifices you’re going to have to make to play the position on this level. I think the talent level has raised. Individual talent level has taken off and [not] looking at the game as the big picture, meaning the Olympic Games. Being a servant to the game, I think those things aren’t looked at the same.
“It’s a more ‘me’ mentality. How can I make an impact on this game? We’ve gotten away from seeing the value of being a great floor general. It doesn’t mean you don’t shoot the ball. This new generation of point guards, they have to manage everybody but it has to start from within.”