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All eyes on USA Basketball backcourt as 29-player pool named

Will guards like Kayla McBride and Skylar Diggins-Smith be the heir apparent to Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus? AP Photo/LM Otero

The question of younger guards and what their future might be with the U.S. women's national basketball team has been asked for a long time. In fact, some of the players once in question decided it was best to stop waiting and instead start playing for another nation. Think the Chicago Sky's Courtney Vandersloot and Hungary.

When players such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen have been able to maintain their effectiveness as long as they have, it's just not that easy to crack the backcourt for Team USA.

But we'll keep asking the question. Because with the release Thursday of the national team pool for the 2018 World Cup (formerly called the world championship), it's interesting again to speculate on how much veteran presence versus younger presence the team might have for the event, which will be held Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Canary Islands.

There are 29 players in the pool, and they'll take part in a training camp Feb. 9-11 in Columbia, South Carolina, where national team coach Dawn Staley is based with her South Carolina Gamecocks program.

That group includes these WNBA guards under age 30: Dallas Wings' Skylar Diggins-Smith, Atlanta Dreams' Layshia Clarendon and Tiffany Hayes, Seattle Storm's Jewell Loyd, Las Vegas Aces' Kayla McBride and Kelsey Plum, Los Angeles Sparks' Odyssey Sims, and Connecticut Sun's Courtney Williams. The pool also includes current college guards Asia Durr (Louisville), Kelsey Mitchell (Ohio State) and guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson (UConn).

"I think the committee has put together a great pool of guards, both with a lot of experience and some that don't have a lot of experience with World Cup and the Olympic Games," Staley said in a teleconference Thursday. "To get them all under one roof, playing with and against each other, it gives the committee a great opportunity.

"We don't know what's going to happen in the next few years, so we need to get a number of guards in training camp so we can see where we are. We just want to be prepared no matter which direction the committee's going to go."

There also are two college post players in the group: UConn's Napheesa Collier and South Carolina's A'ja Wilson.

But missing from the list are two of the most promising young true centers (in the mode of Olympians Sylvia Fowles and Brittany Griner): Baylor's Kalani Brown and Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan. Both are 6-foot-7 juniors who are having good college seasons.

Carol Callan, the U.S. women's national team director, pointed out that it's rare for a player still in college to make a national team roster for the World Cup; former UConn stars Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx) and Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm) were exceptions. Callan said there's no need to rush younger players into the national team pool, but USA Basketball does keep a close eye on them. Brown, Durr and Mitchell were all on the USA Basketball U23 team that won the Four Nations tournament in August in Japan.

Trying to get on the World Cup or Olympic roster, as always, will be extremely tough for any of the newcomers. Eleven of the 12 players who won gold for the United States in the 2016 Olympics are still in the pool for the 2018 World Cup. The only one who is not is former Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings, who retired as a player after the 2016 WNBA season.

Candace Parker's omission was the most notable absence. The Los Angeles Sparks post player is a two-time Olympian and two-time WNBA MVP who controversially was left off the 2016 Olympic team. Callan did not indicate whether Parker was not invited or declined an invitation, saying USA Basketball does not discuss reasons why any specific player was not in the pool.

However, when asked about Parker's Sparks teammate, Chelsea Gray, not being included, Callan pointed out that Gray had never been part of a previous U.S training camp, and didn't get the chance to do that last September in Santa Barbara, California, because the Sparks were competing against the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA Finals at the time. That at least left the door open for the possibility that Gray might one day get a chance to attend a training camp.

And while it's am extremely strong bet that the World Cup team will be made up of 12 of the 29 players released Thursday, Callan also said there is always some fluidity.

"Our strength has always been that our best players play over and over; our veterans want to play and appreciate representing their country," Callan said. "We've always selected athletes that are a good mix of young with the older players.

"While we know that players are excellent in either WNBA play or college play, our committee wants to see them in our environment, in our training camps and competitions."