Preview and Predictions for Tokyo Olympics Women's Basketball Tournament
Olympic women's basketball has gone through some changes since the last Games were held five years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
While the group round still functions in round-robin style, teams will play three games each, with the top two from each group advancing to the quarterfinals along with the two best third-place teams.
There's also new blood this year with South Korea, Nigeria, Puerto Rico and Belgium in place of Senegal, Belarus, Brazil and Turkey from Rio. Serbia, Canada, Spain, Japan, France, the U.S., Australia and China all return to complete the field.
But that's not all that has changed. The addition of the first-ever three-on-three event that features WNBA players Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young (replacing Katie Lou Samuelson, who tested positive for COVID-19) begins on Friday and runs through Wednesday.
Due to this additional programming, five-on-five teams will only play at most six games in the tournament rather than the usual eight. Instead of two separate groups playing round-robin style, the field has been divided into three separate groups of four teams each.
We'll preview the group round, predict the final phase and even provide some players to watch in the women's five-on-five tournament.
After winning the EuroBasket Championships last month following a 63-54 defeat of France in the final, Serbia is the team to beat in what looks a less competitive Group A. Serbia is defending its 2016 bronze medal, which it won against France (again!).
Small forward Sonja Vasic and point guard Yvonne Anderson are the two main scoring weapons for the Serbians, with the latter named MVP at EuroBasket, while Anderson averaged 14 points per game in the tournament.
In the Eurobasket Final against France, power forward Jelena Brooks added 15 points while attempting five three-pointers. After Serbia's strong showing, it's hard to see the team falling to either Canada or Spain. If the Serbians can continue the pressure they implemented against France in EuroBasket, where they turned them over 19 times, the rest of Group A is going to struggle.
South Korea returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008, but it remains to be seen if its current roster has enough offensive firepower to keep up with the rest of the teams in Group A. While Las Vegas Aces center Ji-Su Park will make her Olympic debut and is seeing steady improvements in her game this season for the Aces, having her and guard Hyejin Park as the only scoring threats is concerning.
Both Canada and Spain enter Tokyo with some question marks.
For Canada, how effective can it be without the on-court leadership of Lynx forward Natalie Achonwa if she isn't 100 percent? While she has made it to Tokyo and plans to be ready to go, it's anyone's guess how she'll play after rushing back from an MCL sprain. While this might be an opportunity for athletic forward Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe to show the world what she can really do, Canada still doesn't really have a natural ball-handler. Kia Nurse shines at the 2 or 3 and shouldn't be forced into playmaking.
Spain comes off a disappointing finish at EuroBasket, finishing seventh. But it was without mainstay Alba Torrens, who scored 22 points in Spain's exhibition against France. But Torrens is going to need some help from 6'5" Astou Ndour-Fall, but the question remains: How well can young prospects Raquel Carrera and former Oregon standout Maite Cazorla do on the biggest stage of their young careers?
Group A Prediction
Serbia should advance easily, but whoever proves to be healthier in Canada or Spain will take the second spot and advance past the group phase.
The United States isn't only the favorite in Group B but is the favorite to take the gold medal. When you have a group of 12 who all can bring elite-level basketball and all play in the WNBA, it's not a matter of if someone will step up but rather who.
In constructing the USA roster for Tokyo, the committee added some younger faces to complement and add energy to a roster that includes four-time gold medalists Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. Ariel Atkins, Jewell Loyd, Napheesa Collier and A'ja Wilson are all newbies under 28 years old.
The Americans are incredibly deep in their frontcourt and have about as much size as any other team in the entire field. Head coach Dawn Staley has been playing with how she can rotate Brittney Griner, Wilson, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles while also taking advantage of potentially how versatile USA can be as well.
The Americans can go really big or smaller at the drop of a hat. But the issues that remain are how disruptive will those switches in style be and will that allow USA to clean up its issues turning the ball over? In its two exhibition games against Australia and Nigeria in Las Vegas, USA turned the ball over a combined 33 times.
In the 93-62 exhibition win against Nigeria, Staley noted the focus for the Americans improves every time they get on the court together. "The energy, the effort, the deliberateness was all apparent today, and it just goes to show, getting more and more prep time will help,” she said. "I know that they don't like losing and losing will help you focus a lot quicker and get the type of result that we wanted today."
Although Team USA lost twice in one week to the WNBA All-Stars and the Australian Opals before defeating Nigeria, don't be concerned yet.
It's going to be difficult for Japan to match up against the rest of Group B when its average size is 5'9" and it is relatively inexperienced. Since former WNBA player Ramu Tokashiki is still out after tearing her ACL, the rest of Team Japan will need to buy into gang rebounding. If someone can help Saki Hayashi spread the floor and knock down shots, Japan might be able to make its games competitive.
Team Nigeria's story shouldn't be about who couldn't play. While D'Tigress would have rocked this tournament with both Elizabeth Williams and Nneka Ogwumike on the roster, they are still dark horses.
Team Nigeria's identity is contingent upon turning opponents over for easy offense. But Nigeria needs to make sure it can score off every takeaway and looks after the ball itself. Look for Atonye Nyingifa and Ify Ibekwe to lead team Nigeria along with a blast of energy off the bench from Duke alumna Oderah Chidom, Erica Ogwumike and current Duke transfer Elizabeth Balogun.
Also, while Chiney Ogwumike was cleared to play by FIBA, the final roster didn't include her.
And, finally, France has way too much talent to not move onto the final phase. It also has a chip on its shoulder following defeat to Serbia in June's EuroBasket final.
France has a healthy combination of size and experience. Add in a really skilled backcourt that became even more versatile with L.A. Sparks forward Gabby Williams, and the French have at least four players who can serve as playmakers on the ball. They also have established chemistry with veteran center Sandrine Gruda, combo guard Marine Johannes, power forwards Alexia Chartereau and Endene Miyem, who all have played with one another on and off for at least two years.
Group B Prediction
Both the United States and France should move on to the final phase, but Nigeria, a dark horse in the Tokyo Olympics, will also find its way into the quarters.
Without Liz Cambage, who withdrew from participating in Tokyo last Friday citing mental health concerns due to the Olympic bubble following a reported altercation during a closed scrimmage against Nigeria on July 13, Australia becomes a different team. But that doesn't make it any less dangerous in Group C.
Actually, without Cambage, the Opals can play a brand of basketball that values athleticism and speed to spread out opponents. And Cambage's replacement Sara Blicavs proves that change in identity as well. Blicavs, who attended the Phoenix Mercury's 2021 preseason training camp and knows Mercury and Opals head coach Sandy Brondello, slots in as a stretch 4/small forward hybrid.
If the Opals want to, they could play a five-out offense that allows Rebecca Allen to play the 3, Cayla George at the 4 and Ezi Magbegor at the 5. Stephanie Talbot could slide into the shooting guard spot and be joined by Leilani Mitchell at the point.
In their win against the Americans, that's what the Opals did, as they shot 10-of-26 from three compared to Team USA's 2-of-18. While USA's down numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, we learned more about the Opals without Cambage during their exhibition than we did about Team USA.
In the postgame presser, captain Jenna O'Hea noted that this Opals team isn't "solely focused on one player." And while that may be true, this different style of play will allow a different player to become the opposing defense's focus.
The 21-year-old Magbegor has become a symbol of Australia's new identity. "She's a big piece of what we are doing and obviously without Liz there it allows us to be a little bit faster and a bit more dynamic," Brondello said.
Puerto Rico is making its Olympic debut in Tokyo, and it is no stranger to causing an upset. To qualify, Puerto Rico beat Damiris Dantas' Brazil in thrilling fashion at the FIBA Women's Olympic qualifying tournament in February 2020. With an average size of 5'9" and only two reliable scorers in point guard Jennifer O'Neill and 6'2" shooting guard Jazmon Gwathmey, it's hard to imagine Puerto Rico moving on past the group phase.
China returns to the Olympic stage a lot younger and taller. After a disappointing finish in Rio, Team China looks to find its way back onto the podium for the first time since 1992. With a frontcourt that includes 6'9" Han Xu, 6'7" Li Yueru and 6'6" Sun Mengran as well as Shao Ting and Li Meng on the wing, the concern for China is in the backcourt. Will their young guards have enough poise to get the ball into the post or to their main scoring threats on the wings?
Like Puerto Rico, Belgium is also new to Olympic competition, but it has a lot more talent to back up a deep run into the final phase.
The Cats are the only team in the field aside from Team USA that have a WNBA Finals MVP on their roster. Emma Meesseman put all of her focus on her national team to ensure success in not only Tokyo but in the EuroBasket, where she led the Cats to a Bronze finish, scoring 21 points, racking up 10 rebounds and dishing out five assists in the bronze-medal match.
While Meesseman may anchor this team, she's got some talent to complement her. 2020 WNBA All-Rookie Julie Allemand directs the Cats at the point, and the combination of Allemand and Meesseman provides some of the best ball movement in the world.
Group C Prediction
Australia and Belgium have enough firepower to move on past the group phase, but China has enough experience and more size than it had five years ago. All three should advance, with China advancing as a wild card into the quarters.
Final Phase Prediction
Group B and Group C are much more competitive than Group A. The wild cards that I predict to enter the quarters in Nigeria and China might both be better teams than the second team to advance from Group A.
With hard-nosed defense and the ability to get out and score in transition, some teams in the quarter and semifinal rounds might fall to Nigeria and their full-court pressure. But Belgium will be a steep challenge for the D'Tigress if they make it to the bronze-medal game. Countering sharp ball movement was a challenge in their exhibition against Team USA, and that's the MO of the Belgian Cats.
Even without Liz Cambage, the Australian Opals present quite a challenge to Team USA.
They've adjusted their identity quite quickly, relying a bit more on their ability to stretch out any opponent. When shots are falling for bigs Magbegor and George, the paint is going to be wide-open for guards and hybrid 3-4s to be able to drive and kick.
The United States, however, has so much size and depth in the post, which sometimes contrasts with the quickness of versatile wings such as Breanna Stewart, and first-time Olympian Collier. The gold-medal game between the two best teams in the world will be a battle of who can execute their identity best. But, if the USA finds a way to limit its turnovers and can reach peak focus, its roster has too much talent to not walk away with the gold.
Tourney MVP Prediction
The Most Valuable Player of Tokyo is going to come from the Seattle Storm. And while that narrows the field to only five nominees for MVP, narrowing down further from the 2020 defending champions is a tricky task.
In the limited exhibition competition in Las Vegas, it became clear that both Breanna Stewart and Ezi Magbegor have the potential and opportunity to put both Team USA and the Australian Opals on their backs when needed.
Even when the USA struggled moving the ball and taking care of the ball, Stewart was its one constant, scoring 17 and 14 points against Australia and Nigeria, respectively. Against the U.S., Magbegor matched Stewart's point total with 17 of her own. Brondello believes the key to Magbegor's success is her own confidence. If Magbegor can continue to shine in Cambage's absence, Storm head coach Noelle Quinn ought to consider increasing her playing time in the second half of the WNBA season.
The tournament MVP should come down to those two players.