Why Caitlin Clark, Team USA snubs can’t slot into Cameron Brink’s 3x3 spot

USA Basketball needs to fill at least one, and possibly two, 3x3 roster spots for the 2024 Paris Olympics following injuries to Cameron Brink and Rhyne Howard. It won’t be as simple as selecting merely any elite talent playing in the WNBA.

Even though Caitlin Clark, Aliyah Boston and Arike Ogunbowale were in contention for the national 5x5 team, they cannot be selected for the 3x3 roster spots. There are specific qualifications required of individuals to participate, and it’s a separate speciality with its own pool of players battling for berths.

Nor would USA Basketball want to make this move lightly given the vastly different styles and skill sets between the formats. When Alanna McDonald launched the nation’s first professional women's 3x3 teams, she realized quickly she couldn’t rely exclusively on the abundance of 5x5 talent in the U.S.

“It’s a little bit like basketball chess, especially with the pace of this game,” McDonald told Yahoo Sports in 2022. “You have to really work within the strategy that’s specific within this format. You have to develop and train players to adapt to this format specifically.”

Brink’s season-ending ACL injury with the Sparks ruled her out of her first Olympics, which begin next month. Howard exited a game 24 hours later with a lower leg injury that ruled her out of the Dream’s Friday contest. Her long-term status is unclear. Team USA will defend its gold beginning July 30 against Germany.

The national governing body will need to pull from a short list of players who hold the necessary qualifications, have established success in the format and slot in well next to TCU’s Hailey Van Lith and Cierra Burdick, who is currently playing overseas.. That pool is led by Brink’s frontcourt mate, Dearica Hamby, and includes Clark’s Fever teammates, Katie Lou Samuelson, Kelsey Mitchell and Lexie Hull.

USA Basketball earned its women’s Olympic spot by virtue of a No. 2 FIBA world federation ranking as of Nov. 1, 2023, that is determined by the sum of the nation’s top 25 players’ individual rankings. Individual rankings based on various statistical components are created from the player’s nine best FIBA 3x3 events over the last 12 months. Teams outside of the top 3 qualify via Olympic qualifying tournaments.

The national governing body has final say on its 3x3 roster ahead of international tournaments, but there are guidelines. A minimum of two players must be within the top 10 rankings of their country on June 24 (two weeks before the Olympic sports entry deadline). The other must be within the top 10 or has participated in at least one official FIBA 3x3 event between Jan. 1, 2023, and June 24, 2024.

Team USA still meets the first requirement without Brink. Burdick, a 6-foot-2 forward and 3x3 veteran, is ranked third among U.S. players as of Thursday with 149,968 qualifying points. Van Lith, a 5-7 guard who transferred to TCU for a fifth collegiate season, is ranked fifth with 107,140 points; Brink was eighth at 69,966.

Clark, who won two FIBA U19 World Cups, is a valid alternate for the 5x5 team should there be an injury, but she does not meet qualifications to step into the 3x3 team.

The superstar guard is a generational talent with court vision whose heat map extends the entire 3x3 half court, but she has never played organized 3x3 on the international level. Playing this format also takes a specialized skill set. Defense is paramount for Team USA after losing its rim-protecting big in Brink and that remains an improving part of Clark’s game.

“You have to be a well-rounded player in 3x3,” McDonald said. “It will expose you and it will expose your weaknesses faster than any other format. You can’t hide anywhere. And every player is needed on every possession.”

Clark, Boston and Ogunbowale are all in the FIBA system, but do not have any points. Boston, who played on the 5x5 Olympic qualifying tournament team, won the USA Basketball 3x3 U18 national championship in 2018. She hasn’t played in the format since.

Ogunbowale, who said she took her name out of national team consideration, won 3x3 gold at the 2013 FIBA 3x3 U18 World Cup, Americas 3x3 U18 Championship and 2014 Youth Olympic Games. In 2015, she was named to the FIBA 3x3 U18 World Championship all-tournament team while winning silver.

The replacements can be any U.S. player with recent 3x3 experience and will most likely come from April’s 3x3 women’s national team training camp roster.

USA Basketball selected 17 players, none of which overlapped with the 5x5 team pool, to participate in 3x3 training camp in Springfield, Massachusetts. They include active WNBA stars Allisha Gray (Dream), Hamby and the Fever trio.

Out of that camp, USA Basketball selected two 3x3 teams to compete in the first event of the women’s series hosted in Springfield. No. 1 seed Canada defeated the USA team of Burdick, Howard, Van Lith and Hull for the championship. The Springfield team of Brink, 2020 3x3 gold medalist Gray, Hamby and Linnae Harper finished fourth. Brink’s individual success prompted USA Basketball to move her up in place of Hull for the Olympic team.

Hamby, a 6-3 forward, is the most likely replacement for Brink’s size and length. She won MVP during Team USA’s gold medal run at the 2023 FIBA 3x3 AmeriCup. Hamby hit the game-winning shot playing alongside Mitchell, Samuelson and Camille Zimmerman. Hamby, a former two-time Sixth Player of the Year, is having an All-Star-caliber season as a starter, averaging 18.3 ppg (ninth), 10.7 rpg (third) and 3.6 apg (18th).

The Springfield event was Gray’s first FIBA 3x3 event since the Tokyo Olympics, but she could still be an experienced option to replace Howard. Gray finished the Springfield tournament fourth in player value per game.

Samuelson could also slot in after missing out on the 2021 Tokyo Games. She was named to the team with Gray, Kelsey Plum and Stefanie Dolson, but contracted COVID-19 and was replaced by Jackie Young. Plum and Young were both named to the 5x5 national team for Paris.

Samuelson, Hamby, Mitchell and Zimmerman won gold at the 2023 AmeriCup. Samuelson ranked fifth in player value per game, trailing Hamby in first.