At This Year's WNBA All-Star Game, Don't Expect Any Free Layups

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IJuly 14, 2021

First-time WNBA All-Stars like Betnijah Laney are soaking in every moment at this week's WNBA All-Star festivities in Las Vegas.
First-time WNBA All-Stars like Betnijah Laney are soaking in every moment at this week's WNBA All-Star festivities in Las Vegas.Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — On Tuesday, first-time All-Stars Betnijah Laney and Kahleah Copper appeared in front of the camera in their own world. The pair that played AAU and college ball together at Rutgers have also known each other since they were 11. It showed. Copper whispered, "Oh...Snapchat" while on her phone. Moments later, Laney shifted closer to her friend, and the pair took a selfie followed by a video.

"Hey everybody, we're reporting live from Vegas, first-time All-Stars, Rutgers grads," Copper said.

"AAU teammates," Laney added.

"Life teammates, you know," Copper responded.

For around 30 seconds following the video, the two talked to one another in front of around 50 reporters. That was an example of the energy surrounding Team WNBA, the group of All-Stars that includes seven first-timers out of the 12 total players on the team.

When seasoned veterans and close friends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi appeared in front of that same camera, the giddiness that we saw from Laney and Copper had disappeared. For Bird and Taurasi, it was all business, especially for the Phoenix Mercury guard, who discussed her latest hip injury and announced she probably wouldn't play in the All-Star Game on Wednesday, which can be seen at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, intending to save her body for Tokyo.

Bird was asked what feels different about this All-Star Game. While this isn't the first time Team USA has faced off against WNBA players, this is the first time that matchup has been attached to an All-Star Game.

"I think this is similar—more similar to the times we've played the All-Stars with the USA team versus when it's like a full-on All-Star team, where both sides are just WNBA All-Stars," she said. "So it will be more similar to that. We just had a practice, we're training, we're getting ready. So tomorrow, we'll try to do some of the stuff that we learned today. And also have fun putting on a show."

That is the main difference: balancing putting on a show for a heightened audience while also setting out to accomplish personal goals. For Team USA it's another gold medal, but for the more veteran All-Stars on Team WNBA, there's something to prove and a tiny bit of revenge at stake. For first-timers like Laney and Copper, however, they are just soaking in every moment as it comes and are grateful to be a part of this celebration of women's basketball.

On Team WNBA, veterans Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker understand why the game is structured as it is this year and the benefits of having to juggle enjoying the event and playing hard.

"We are here to enjoy this and have fun, but we're all competitors," Vandersloot said. "And when you get out there, your competitive juices kind of take over. And I'm sure we're gonna be competing. I know the national team is trying to prepare to go to the Olympics. But you know, we're not out here just for fun. We're going to compete and see what we can do together."

Her teammate in six-time All-Star Parker understands the intention of this year's game. It's not only to prepare Team USA but also to make the All-Star Game something that's must-watch and isn't just a "bunch of layups and open breakaways."

But will Parker have a little bit more juice in the tank amid her awkward relationship with Team USA? While she noted she won't be greeting Team USA "happily" walking down the hallways, Parker doesn't believe she has anything to prove.

"I don't think anybody out here has to prove who they are or reinvent the wheel or be something that they're not," she said  "We're going to go out there, we're gonna play, we're going to compete, we're going to have fun."

Three-time All-Star Jonquel Jones has some other ideas about what she wants to get out of this All-Star Game. She explained that the way she's played this year is in response to a misconception, or a lack of putting her in the same conversation as some of the other greats in the league. She knows she should be in those conversations. "I kind of feel like people forget some of the things that I've done in the league," she said.

Jones is on a mission. After her Connecticut Sun beat the New York Liberty on Sunday, she stated loudly and clearly her desire to beat Team USA.

Hannah Withiam @HannahWithiam

Jonquel Jones on the #WNBA All-Star Game: "Listen, we want to beat Team USA ... I want to tell my grandkids, 'Back in 2021, we beat the gold medal team, so technically we won a gold medal.' This is the closest I'm going to get to a gold medal."

And she isn't the only one on the Sun and on Team WNBA who sees the possibility. First-time All-Star Brionna Jones has thought about the type of message it would send to come out with a victory Wednesday night.

"I mean, it would send a big message. ... There's players that feel like they should be on that team playing that could have made that team, but I mean, like I said, there's a lot of good players in this league," she said last Thursday. "You can make a case for a lot of players, so it's just going in there with that chip on our shoulders."

On the other side of the matchup, Team USA views Wednesday's All-Star Game as some of the best preparation it could have to win another gold medal. Breanna Stewart sees it as another practice—a practice where both teams are going to play defense and players will be diving for balls and rebounds.

She chuckled to herself about the level of competition she's experienced in other All-Star Games, and she knows 2021 will take the cake. "It's gonna be a lot more competitive," she said. "Just because we're actually going to play. I mean, the All-Star Games before, you guys know, it's kind of a little bit of a mess."

Brittney Griner remembers what it's like to feel the pressure associated with being on the U.S. women's national team. Before Team USA embarked on Rio in 2016, it played the WNBA Select Team at USC. The memory wasn't fond for Griner: "They almost kicked our butts. I don't think it's going to be any free layups."

"I ain't letting nobody get no free layups," Skylar Diggins-Smith, a first-time Olympian, chipped in.

Diggins-Smith harped on her team remaining focused and understanding their own intentions playing the game Wednesday night: doing whatever it takes to win the gold in Tokyo. But with all the fanfare associated with the All-Star Game, including increased media attention and community events with young people, how does Team USA keep its eye on the prize?

"I think [Team USA head coach] Dawn [Staley] said it before practice," Team USA and Aces guard Chelsea Gray said. "She was like, 'Keep the main thing the main thing.'"

And winning gold is the main thing.

But Gray didn't back down from acknowledging how grateful she is for the different opportunities she has as a professional athlete. She explained that it's important to embrace it all when folks desire to be "in your shoes."

The key is compartmentalizing and being in tune with the overall purpose of something like an All-Star Game. This is something that both Gray and her teammate A'ja Wilson know very well.

"I mean, we're professional athletes," Wilson said. "I feel like that's our whole world. It's like Chelsea said, compartmentalizing our whole lives, like knowing we can have fun but also understanding that we have a job that we have to take care of no matter what. So you just kind of go with the flow."