FIBA Women's World Cup 2022: Defense, Alyssa Thomas take starring roles for USA Basketball

SYDNEY -- Some players are in entirely new roles. Some entirely new to the team. Others just arrived in Australia a few days ago.

But while many of the faces have changed, the results are mostly the same for USA Basketball through the first four games of the 2022 FIBA Women's World Cup. The U.S. women are undefeated in group play with one game remaining and look to be the title favorite as they seek a fourth consecutive gold medal in the event. And after a slow start Monday against South Korea, the United States rebounded to score a Women's World Cup-record 145 points in a 76-point win.

Without the likes of national team legends Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner and Tina Charles, Team USA has gone younger -- only Alyssa Thomas is in her 30s -- and is more quick, more athletic, more versatile and more defensive-minded than in recent years. The U.S. women look relatively cohesive considering their limited time together -- the final members of the WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces joined the team as recently as Thursday -- though Saturday's 77-63 victory over China tested their composure and ability to execute against a relentless, upset-minded team.

It's been a whirlwind of transition to prepare to win gold: Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Kahleah Copper weren't with the team for its Las Vegas training camp in early September and instead met the team in Sydney. Kelsey Plum, one of three Aces on the roster who were celebrating their title in a parade down the Vegas strip last Tuesday, said she bought Wi-Fi on the 15-hour flight to Australia so she could study the team playbook. Watching Thursday's 106-42 win against Puerto Rico from the sideline, WNBA Finals MVP Chelsea Gray said she realized she had to shift her mindset and compartmentalize all things Vegas "to the nth degree." A'ja Wilson, the 2022 WNBA MVP, rallied for a stellar performance against China less than 24 hours after arriving in Australia, but admitted "I don't know how I'm doing it. ... I need to learn the offense ... I am exhausted."

Their game against winless Bosnia and Herzegovina to close group play isn't likely to be competitive, providing U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve an opportunity to experiment with rotations and get players more comfortable with each other (and the Aces players in particular more settled with the rest of the group) before the knockout rounds. The win over China already secured Team USA a berth into the quarterfinals.

So what have we learned about the U.S. women so far? Which players have stepped up? And what other countries are most capable of challenging USA Basketball?

Defense wins championships?

Defense wasn't Team USA's calling card in recent years, especially when it came to Bird and Taurasi defending the perimeter. But the likes of Ariel Atkins, Loyd and Copper, plus inserting defender Thomas into the mix, have turned defense into their calling card. The U.S. women are averaging a tournament-best 13.3 steals per game, and they've used their ball pressure to harass opponents into turnovers. Even in their closest game, Team USA held China -- which entered the match averaging 102.5 points -- to just 63 points.

The United States limited opponents to 17 or fewer points in all but two quarters through their first three games, but uncharacteristically gave up 40 points in the first half to South Korea. Reeve found their start Monday undisciplined defensively, as the U.S. women allowed South Korea to get them off their feet with shot fakes and went for "home run plays," rather than staying in front of their player.

The group's effort improved when the lineup of Copper, Atkins, Plum and Brionna Jones off the bench were inserted alongside Thomas. That five brought a press -- adding another layer to the team's defensive dominance -- that fueled the offense. By game's end, the United States had 94 points in the paint and eight players in double figures.

U.S. forward Breanna Stewart said the defensive end is where the chemistry has come along the fastest, and that playing with such other competitive defenders compels everyone to match their teammates' energy. The lack of playing time together leading up to the World Cup has in turn brought more on-court communication to compensate, Loyd added.

USA Basketball's consistency and continued growth on this end of the floor, which should only improve when it fully incorporates Wilson, the 2022 WNBA defensive player of the year, could propel the U.S. women to take home gold later this week.

Reeve's rotation

Reeve used all nine players who were in the country at the time for the U.S. women's first two games of the tournament, though neither game was all that close by the second half. With the Aces trio back in the rotation against China, and Gray, Plum and Wilson each clocking between 18 and 26 minutes, Reeve used a nine-person rotation with Jones, Sabrina Ionescu and Shakira Austin not seeing any time.

Against South Korea, Jones was in early off the bench -- Reeve noted that her absence against China was more of a product of "the game kind of [getting] away from us. She is going to be a part of the rotation." Austin -- who stands out with her length, ability to run the floor and dominance on the glass -- and Ionescu appeared in the second and fourth quarters, respectively.

"We have 12 players that I'm trying to get minutes for. In terms of the depth chart, that's where it's at," Reeve said of Ionescu. "And so for her, this is her first time she's made the national team, first experiences, and just based on the body of work, you've got to have an 11 and 12, right? She's handled it great and is helping her team get ready, and I thought she was really good in her minutes [vs. South Korea]."

How Reeve continues to work through her backcourt rotations and use her ballhandlers will be something to track throughout the tournament, especially as the competition gets tougher.

Reeve switched out Atkins for Gray in the starting five upon the latter's arrival (to start alongside Loyd, Copper, Thomas and Stewart), and while Wilson started the South Korea game in place of Copper, Copper took Loyd's place coming out for the second half.

No player is averaging more than 24.5 minutes per game (Loyd), and seven players -- Loyd, Thomas, Stewart, Copper, Jones, Plum and Wilson -- are averaging at least 20. With eight games in 10 days, the more Reeve can spread out playing time amongst her players, the better.

Which U.S. players have stood out?

Breanna Stewart: The ever-steady Stewart -- the most experienced member of the team now playing in her third World Cup and serving as team captain -- has done a little bit of everything, averaging 14.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks in 23.2 minutes per game. She helped carry the load when Wilson hadn't yet arrived, and continues to show she can make an impact in many different ways.

Alyssa Thomas: Everyone knew that Stewart and Wilson would play large roles for USA Basketball in this new era. But the emergence of Thomas -- making her USA Basketball debut for a major international tournament -- as the heartbeat of Team USA was less expected. Her defensive intensity is "really vital to establishing [the team's overall defensive] identity," Reeve said, and Thomas' desire to get the ball and race down the floor is a perfect fit for Reeve's style of play.

Thomas could come off the bench if Reeve decides to start Wilson alongside Stewart, but either way she leads the team in minutes (26.4 per game) while averaging a whopping 4.3 steals per game. Her 61.8% shooting from the floor on 8.5 attempts per game ranks third on the team only to Connecticut Sun teammate Jones (74.1%) and Wilson (68%).

A'ja Wilson: At shootaround prior to the China game, Reeve thought Wilson looked like her head was spinning. After such a long flight and just days since from winning her first WNBA title, Wilson was simply trying to figure out what plays her new team wants to run.

Reeve had a conversation with Wilson about her role, and Wilson said she was OK coming off the bench to ease herself into things. What did that end up looking like? Wilson had 20 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks. She had a slow start but got going just when the team needed her to, scoring the USA's final eight points of the game to ward off a surging China team from getting any closer than nine. Against South Korea, Wilson finished an efficient 10-for-11 from the field in just 15 minutes.

Honorable mention: Kahleah Copper: She went from not having any senior national team experience to having the best +/- of any U.S. player who has played all four games at 27.3. Her athleticism in getting to the rim, whether in transition or the half-court, plus her defensive presence add an element to Team USA that was missing in Tokyo. Reeve values her so much she's started Copper up until the South Korea game (where she was re-inserted back into the starting five at halftime) despite her relative inexperience with the team.

The fact this is the least experienced she will ever be with USA Basketball and will continue to grow on both ends in the coming years within the system is a huge boon for Team USA moving forward.

"She was terrific," Reeve said about Copper after the Belgium game. "She was one that we felt like could be impactful in her matchup. She covers ground so quickly. You think you're open and you're not, she's getting through it, she's getting deflections. She was really good. Obviously she streaks down the court in a way like nobody else."

Which nations are the United States' biggest challengers?

China (3-1): With its balanced offense and physical style of play on both ends, China was by far the toughest team the USA has faced to date. "I'm sure that's not the last time we'll see them," Plum said after the United States came away with a 14-point win, fighting off several runs in the process.

WNBA fans are already familiar with Han Xu of the New York Liberty, who showed out with 12 points and six rebounds. But guards Li Meng and Wang Siyu also impressed with 21 and 17 points, respectively. With Yao Ming, chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, in attendance, plus a rocking crowd of 9,477 -- the largest attendance of the tournament to date -- that leaned heavily pro-China, China looked every bit a team capable of medaling in a major international tournament for the first time since 1994.

"I don't want them to improve that much more," Reeve joked. "I'm impressed with China. ... We've seen them grow. For them, this is a great time for the China women's national team. It's a very, very good team."

Australia (3-1): The home team suffered a somewhat shocking loss to France to open the tournament but has played much better basketball since, in particular coming through with big wins over a gritty Serbia team Sunday and handing Canada its first loss of the tournament Monday. The New York Liberty's Bec Allen has been a key fixture over the last week, but missed the Canada game due to a rib injury she suffered the night before against Serbia. Her status for the remainder of the tournament remains uncertain. To beat Canada, the Aussies benefitted from a huge night from the Seattle Storm's Ezi Magbegor on both ends, as well as some clutch plays down the stretch from Storm teammate Steph Talbot.

Three-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson hasn't put up gaudy numbers, averaging just 9.4 minutes per game, but seems comfortable as an energy-booster off the bench. How Australia continues to manage her minutes as more back-to-back games rack up and the tournament proceeds -- especially if Allen remains out -- will be something to monitor.

Canada (3-1): Canada entered the Australia game as the tournament's only undefeated team other than the United States, sporting wins over Japan, Serbia and France. The Phoenix Mercury's Kia Nurse returned to the court after missing the 2022 WNBA season while recovering from a ACL tear, and is averaging 8.5 points in 20.3 minutes per game.

The Minnesota Lynx's Bridget Carleton has caught fire with back-to-back 19 and 16 points games across which she shot 5 for 11 from 3.

France (3-1): France started with a bang, taking down the host Opals by 13 behind a 23-point performance from Gabby Williams before dropping a defensive slog to Canada, 59-45. After mostly taking care of business against Mali and Japan, France's game against Serbia on Tuesday has huge implications for the standings.

There's a 3-way tie at 3-1 in Group B between Canada, France and Australia heading into the final day of group play, when Australia takes on Japan, Mali plays Canada and Serbia faces France. All four have qualified for the quarterfinals, with the USA, China and Belgium.

Belgium's chances of making a deep tournament run took a hit when it was announced Monday that the Chicago Sky's Emma Meesseman would be out the remainder of the tournament with a calf injury.

Who are the other top players to watch?

Puerto Rico's Arella Guirantes last played in the WNBA for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2021, but she's the tournament's second-leading scorer behind Wilson, averaging 18.0 points per game. She helped Puerto Rico past Bosnia with a near-triple-double before putting together another 20-plus-point effort to give Belgium all it could handle on Saturday.

France's Williams (16.5 PPG) and Bosnia's Jonquel Jones (15.3PPG) are also both in the top six scoring leaders in the tournament, joined by South Korea's Leeseul Kang (16.0), whose 37-point outing against Bosnia was a tournament-best.