SYDNEY -- Before the U.S. women's basketball team began the 2022 FIBA World Cup with an overhauled roster, some wondered whether a squad with only five returning players from last season's Tokyo Olympics might be vulnerable.
But just as generational talents such as Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi took up the mantle when legends like Dawn Staley and Lisa Leslie stopped competing for USA Basketball, the U.S. women in Australia put such reservations to rest by tournament's end. Team USA largely breezed through the World Cup to win a fourth consecutive gold medal and 11th overall, with a 40.8 average margin of victory and just one game decided by fewer than 15 points.
While last year's Olympic team marked the final run for some of the sport's legends, this new-look USA team, on paper, can run it back with this very group come the 2024 Paris Games, where USA Basketball will look to win an eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal. Alyssa Thomas was the only 30-year-old on Team USA at the time of the World Cup.
"I don't think we're showing signs of stopping, that's for sure," said Breanna Stewart, who won her third World Cup gold medal last week. "Our age has definitely gone down [compared to Tokyo]. But we have a lot of people who are just new into the league, entering their prime, in their prime. It's tough to stop."
With the 2022 World Cup behind us, we take a look at the biggest questions looming for Team USA and what's to come in Paris and beyond.
Who will be on the team? What young players could earn roster spots?
Are Taurasi and Tina Charles 100% done with USA Basketball? What about Elena Delle Donne, a 2016 Olympian who has battled severe back issues the past two years? Where do Tokyo Olympians Skylar Diggins-Smith and Napheesa Collier stand? The former left the Phoenix Mercury prior to the end of the WNBA season due to personal reasons, while the latter is still working her way back from childbirth and maternity leave. Neither were part of USA Basketball's national team pool heading into the World Cup.
And whenever Brittney Griner is released from Russian custody, it's uncertain whether she'll desire to return to the court.
Yes, there are a lot of questions about former national team members that need to be answered, but the emergence of up-and-coming players also will play into what the roster looks like in 2024. U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said that Shakira Austin's pro experience was partly what gave her an edge in making the World Cup roster over someone like Aliyah Boston, who was in the World Cup national team pool and trained with the team in Sydney prior to final roster cuts. By the Paris Games, Boston will have a season-plus of WNBA experience under her belt.
Who are the backcourt and frontcourt anchors?
Chelsea Gray, who turns 30 this month, established herself in Sydney as Team USA's next standout point guard, but USA Basketball no doubt has its eye on some younger, potentially transcendent guards in rising college juniors Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers, although Bueckers will miss the upcoming season with a ACL tear. But it's possible USA Basketball ends up punting on these younger players, opting to bring some of them aboard in 2026.
As for the current U.S. roster, some fans were surprised with Sabrina Ionescu's reduced role in Sydney. She played a team-low 12.8 minutes per game, which Reeve attributed to where the New York Liberty guard is on the depth chart. Could Ionescu have a Kelsey Plum-esque trajectory, playing a subdued role in her first World Cup but assuming a larger role in her second?
Chelsea Gray shows smooth skills in the paint
The U.S. remains on top in the FIBA World Cup semifinals after Chelsea Gray's brilliance against Canada.
A'ja Wilson, 26, and Stewart, 28, are the two most recent World Cup MVPs, arguably the best pair in the world and could be around for perhaps another decade. But while the U.S. women have plenty of length on the perimeter, the team is still somewhat undersized inside, especially without Griner. Wilson and Austin are the only two players 6-foot-5 or taller. That was at times exposed by 6-9 Han Xu and 6-7 Yueru Li in the gold-medal match.
This might impact which players the United States adds to the frontcourt moving forward. Or Team USA might lean toward trusting in its somewhat smaller but versatile and strong post defenders. Which brings us to ...
What is the team's identity -- and where can the USA improve?
Reeve seems committed to a defensive-minded, fast-paced system. She praised her group of players -- including those who participated in training camp but didn't make World Cup team -- for their trust and buy-in to establishing Team USA's new identity, as well as for assuming roles outside of their normal positions on court. That selflessness has been a big pillar of USA Basketball over the years and should continue, even with such a drastic changing of the guard.
With the athletic players she had in Sydney, Reeve's group thrived in her system. The U.S. women complied the same number of total turnovers as steals they came away with. Thomas was a big driver of that style, and while she was new to the senior national team in a major competition, it's difficult to imagine her not being with the squad in Paris.
Sabrina Ionescu hits massive buzzer-beater vs. Canada
Sabrina Ionescu buries the buzzer-beater from just inside half court to extend the USA's lead at the end of the third quarter.
But in the post-championship news conference, Reeve discussed needing to get even better on the defensive end. The United States has a target of holding opponents below 40% shooting, but China shot 43% from the field in the gold-medal match. In Reeve's words, "we were a little bit high risk, high reward," even though the team still managed to accomplish its major goal of being disruptive and delivering great ball pressure on opponents.
The United States shot 55% on 2-point field goals and 41% on 3-pointers -- a fairly healthy percentage that was brought down by Ionescu's 30.8% clip. Still, Team USA's offensive flow or execution -- especially in the half court -- sometimes lagged behind what it was achieving defensively, something that Reeve will look to improve as her core group gets more time together. But the U.S. women still managed to kick it into high gear to pull ahead by big margins behind a resilience and ability to win in different ways that will serve them well long term. And the USA's 2.3 assist to turnover ratio was by far a tournament high, with China coming in second at 1.8.
Which countries are considered the United States' biggest challengers?
The gap between the U.S. women and other national teams has been getting narrower for a long time, as evidenced by Japan winning silver in Tokyo. No team at the World Cup looked as threatening to the USA's championship bid than China, which medaled for the first time since 1994 in a major international competition and played its final two games without Li Meng.
Even though the USA skewed younger compared to past years, it was one of the three oldest teams in Sydney by average age: Australia came in at 30.0, followed by Serbia at 27.9 and the USA at 26.9. China's roster has five players 25 or younger.
"They're not going away," Plum said. "Credit to China. They really pushed us. They pushed us physically with their bigs."
The age-old question: Talent vs. chemistry?
The United States has managed to continue its run of success while other countries' teams are able to train together more frequently. But as the WNBA schedule looks to expand -- teams will play 40 regular-season games next year -- such a quick turnaround in between the WNBA season and major international competitions could hinder American players' ability to coalesce.
After all, we were one Riquna Williams-breakout game away from extending the WNBA Finals to Game 5, which would have made it very difficult for the Aces trio to make it to Sydney. While the USA won its first two games comfortably without Gray, Plum and Wilson, their value was indisputable once they took the floor.
The "talent vs. chemistry" question is nothing new to the global women's basketball stage, but as more countries invest in their national programs and the game grows internationally, it'll be interesting to see what, if anything, USA Basketball does to ensure it is building enough chemistry and not relying purely on talent to keep winning.
Reeve didn't venture to assess how the landscape might look by the next Olympics when asked about it after the championship game. But she did posit, "I think every team will learn from this experience and gain a lot of knowledge at the World Cup to get ready, to prepare. Teams will grow up, teams that have these experiences."
She was asked specifically about other teams, but the gist of her message applies to her own squad as well. With a similar roster to the one in Sydney, the new-look U.S. roster has the tools to build upon its World Cup success and successfully defend its Olympic gold while continuing to enhance its decades-long legacy of winning, if not domination.