Sabrina Ionescu’s unprecedented Olympic question: Which team to play for?
There was no doubt which WNBA team would draft Sabrina Ionescu back on April 17. What’s unclear is which U.S. basketball team she would suit up for at the Tokyo Olympics next summer: the traditional 5×5 team or for the new Olympic 3×3 event.
Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick of the New York Liberty, appeared a strong hopeful for 3×3, if the Tokyo Games had been held this summer. She was, as of January, the U.S.’ top player in international rankings for 3×3.
Ionescu even said last July, while at the Pan American Games for 3×3, that, if forced to choose between traditional 5×5 and 3×3 at the Olympics, she preferred 3×3, according to the Olympic Channel.
It made plenty of sense at the time. Consider Ionescu would play for the University of Oregon in the winter and spring of 2020 when U.S. Olympic 5×5 hopefuls would gather for practices and exhibitions ahead of the roster being named in June.
The Olympic postponement to 2021 changed all that. Now, Ionescu gets a (shortened) season of pro ball, plus an offseason to potentially prove herself in front of U.S. coach Dawn Staley, before the Olympic teams get named. (The U.S. must still qualify a 3×3 team for the Olympics, but it would be shocking if it fails.)
Ionescu did not state a preference between 3×3 and 5×5 when asked her thoughts on the situation on Sunday.
“I have no idea what they [USA Basketball] were going to do with the Olympics, if they were going to be this year. I wasn’t told anything. I was just playing and enjoying my college career,” she said ahead of her WNBA debut on Saturday. “It didn’t matter to me if I was going to get the opportunity to play 3×3 or 5×5, I would’ve taken it because it’s an honor to represent my country.”
Ionescu must have at least 3,600 FIBA ranking points in 3×3 come June 21, 2021, to be eligible for that team. Since ranking points expire after one year, she may need to take part in 3×3 competition or training camp tournaments in the next 11 months to be eligible.
Or, Ionescu could devote all of her basketball between the Liberty and, potentially, the national 5×5 team over the next year.
“I do have a year to be able to play against the best women in the world and just be able to see where I compare,” she said.
Ionescu turns 23 on Dec. 6. At least one player 23 years or younger made each of the last four U.S. Olympic women’s teams. Ionescu is younger than any point guard to make an Olympic team since 1988.
The U.S. is looking for somebody to take the baton from Sue Bird, who at 40 would become the oldest U.S. Olympic basketball player in history by three years in Tokyo.
Carol Callan, the U.S. women’s national team director who is also on the 3x3 selection committee, said in May that a conversation is merited with any player who has an opportunity to play on either Olympic team.
She noted that anybody on the Olympic 3x3 team would be guaranteed significant playing time since the roster is four players, with a substitution planned at every dead ball. Given the schedule, it’s not feasible for somebody to play both 3x3 and 5×5 at the Olympics.
“I have no idea what a player would think through that process because most players are pretty confident in their abilities, but if you thought you were going to be a role player for a 5×5 team, but you had a chance to be on 3x3, you might choose that,” Callan said.
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