Team USA’s Olympic roster will take on the WNBA’s All-Stars in the 2021 All-Star Game on Wednesday night. It’ll be the first time we see Dawn Staley’s team — in pursuit of a seventh consecutive gold medal — play in an exhibition game. They’ll play Australia and Nigeria later in the week.
While Team USA will draw attention, there’s a lot on the line for the game’s other participants, too. The event will be a warmup for Australian star center Liz Cambage, who is also set to play in Tokyo, as well as a first audition for 2024 Olympics hopefuls like Arike Ogunbowale, and a potential statement game for 2016 Team USA snub Candace Parker.
Here are a few things to watch for on ESPN when the game tips off from Vegas on July 14 at 7:00 p.m. ET.
1. Who does Team USA start?
With a team as deep as the U.S. Olympic roster, which features six of the last 11 WNBA MVP winners, every lineup is going to see some level of success. But earning a starting nod is an honor of its own.
In 2016, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Tina Charles, and Brittney Griner started. Moore is not on the roster, but the other four are. It’ll be interesting to see if they remain in the starting lineup, even with the emergence of Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart, and A’ja Wilson in particular. Dawn Staley has a lot of choices to make. The good news for her is that it’s hard to make a bad one.
2. Will Liz Cambage play big minutes?
Cambage led all scorers at the 2016 Olympics with 23.5 points per game, but Australia fell in the quarterfinals to Serbia. No team is in Team USA’s realm, but Australia — led by WNBA players Leilani Mitchell, Rebecca Allen, Ezi Magbegor, Stephanie Talbot, and Alanna Smith — may have the best chance to upset them.
This could be a warmup for Cambage, who will get to see the USA squad twice in exhibition action in Vegas, before a possible gold medal showdown.
3. How are Team USA’s shots distributed?
One of the most difficult tasks for any superteam is having players understand their new roles. Staley’s group has 12 of the best scorers in the world (seven of the WNBA’s top 10), all capable of leading a team. But USA won’t thrive on pure isolation plays. It’ll need a system that balances all of its stars’ capabilities.
Playing pass-first guards like Chelsea Gray, Skylar Diggins-Smith or Sue Bird on the floor at any given time in the game feels like a must.
4. Will Tina Charles take over?
Before the season started, A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne, and Candace Parker’s names dominated the MVP conversation.
Since then, Jonquel Jones — who will compete as an All-Star — has asserted herself as the frontrunner, but Charles is inching closer and closer as the season wears on. The forward is leading the league in points per game at 26.3 per game, which is a 5.3-point lead over the next-best Jones. Though she isn’t firing as efficiently as Jones, she is making 46.8 percent of her shots from the field and 37 percent of her 3-pointers. That’s super solid, and a breakout showing in a matchup of the game’s best could open more eyes to the Mystics’ leader for MVP.
5. Will this be Arike Ogunbowale’s night?
Nneka Ogwumike was Team USA’s biggest snub, but she won’t compete for the All-Stars. Ogunbowale was the next-biggest cut, though, and will play. Last year’s WNBA leading scorer is just 24 years old but saw a few other players her age — including Napheesa Collier and Ariel Atkins — make the cut. That stings.
Ogunbowale — debatably the most clutch player in basketball right now — has never once in her life been shy of a big moment. If the game-winning shot in the 2018 Final Four wasn’t enough proof, the game-winning shot in the 2018 championship game damn sure was. She’s always ready when the lights are brightest, and this will be her first unofficial audition for the 2024 Olympics.
6. How will Candace Parker play against Team USA?
Parker’s already downplayed the importance of this game to her, and for good reason. She’s already one of the best basketball players of all-time. She has two season MVP awards, a Finals MVP, and a WNBA championship. Everything else is extra for her already legendary career.
Here’s Candace gassing down any sort of WNBA vs USA rivalry 😭😭😭https://t.co/NbDPlV5a1x
— The Sky Show CHI (@TheSkyShowCHI) July 1, 2021
But maybe things will feel a bit different after the ball is tipped. Her beef is, of course, not with her Team USA opponents, but rather, the people who chose to keep her off the 2016 roster. It could be hard for her not to want to go full-speed knowing they’re all watching.