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USA Basketball continues search for Sue Bird's successor

Just like Dawn Staley before her, point guard Sue Bird, second from left, is the leader for USA Basketball. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

SEATTLE -- Sue Bird vividly remembers her first Olympics, when Dawn Staley pulled the U.S. women's national team together in Athens in 2004 to deliver a message as the competition moved from the group stage to the knockout round.

"I don't remember who the leading scorer was, who the leader in assists was, who the leading rebounder was in the 2000 Olympics and the 1996 Olympics," Staley told her teammates. "Nobody does. But I remember having a gold medal. And that's all that matters."

Fourteen years and four Olympic gold medals later, Bird is the veteran leader of USA Basketball, with Staley heading into her first Olympic cycle as head coach after serving as an assistant to Anne Donovan and Geno Auriemma following her retirement as a player.

With Bird following Staley, the U.S. national team has enjoyed unparalleled stability at the point guard position. The transition was a natural one after Bird backed up Staley in Athens. But now, with Bird age 37 and backup Lindsay Whalen having retired from international competition, it's time for the United States to again look for a point guard of the future.

That search is one of the key storylines as USA Basketball convenes in Seattle this week for a pair of practices and an exhibition against China's national team on Thursday at KeyArena.

"Ideally, you want a point guard who can come in and play in that backup point guard role and get good experience," Bird said, "and then when I retire from USA Basketball, whatever, they're ready to step up."

That player could be in Seattle this week. Two-time WNBA All-Star and Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, 27, looks like the most likely candidate to back up Bird at this fall's FIBA World Cup in Spain. Layshia Clarendon of the Atlanta Dream, a first-time All-Star last year, Indiana Fever rookie Kelsey Mitchell and second-year pro Sydney Wiese of the Los Angeles Sparks are also among the 19 players in attendance.

"We've got some talented young players who are benefiting from having Sue around," Staley said. "Sue is still very much at the top of the game. I don't think there's too much of a difference. She may feel a little different after practices, but when she's out there, she does a great job of being who she is."

Fellow point guards Chelsea Gray (Sparks) and Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas Aces) are part of the USA Basketball roster but were unable to attend camp because they are playing overseas. Ultimately, the USA's next starting point guard might be a younger player -- perhaps Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu -- who emerges in time.

"There might be a 19-year-old who in three years is the best player in the world," said Diana Taurasi, the other player on the U.S. roster with four gold medals. "You never know these things."

Still, it would be nice for USA Basketball to identify Bird's successor and allow her to learn from Bird much as Bird once did from Staley.

"The same way Dawn got to help me, I'd want to pass that on to somebody else," Bird said. "I think that's what USA Basketball is about -- it's about the older players showing the younger players the ropes a little bit, what it means to be a USA Basketball player, represent your country, represent the team, yourself, all that stuff. It's about showing younger players and then also going out and winning gold medals, that's all that matters."

An important element of that for younger players is understanding that their role for the United States will be different than it is in the WNBA or overseas.

"They want to come out here and prove they belong," Bird said, "but the way to do that is not to score 20 points, necessarily. The way to do that is not to go out there and try to do everything. It's about being on the team and doing what the team needs."

Bird's own pass-first role for the national team is perhaps the ultimate example. A capable scorer who has never averaged fewer than 10.3 points per game in her 15-season WNBA career, Bird has averaged 4.3 PPG in 23 Olympic starts, peaking at 6.1 PPG in 2012. In seven games at the 2016 Olympics, Bird handed out more assists (31) than she scored points (26).

Staley, who averaged 4.1 PPG in the 2004 Olympics, played much the same role for the U.S. women. She recalls a young Bird soaking in the knowledge back in 2004.

"Sue, in her first Olympic games, she just really enjoyed it," Staley said. "I think she enjoyed all the external stuff, and she kind of just rode the coattails of the veterans. At the same time, she was gathering information because she knew that she was the next one to take on that leadership role, to take on being a captain and take on understanding and giving that information back to some of the younger players."

Of course, given Staley's role as a coach -- she spent four years as head coach at Temple leading up to the 2004 Olympics and reached the NCAA tournament twice before moving to South Carolina in 2008 and winning the 2017 NCAA championship -- her leadership wasn't limited to younger players but to veterans as well. "I think naturally she had already become a little bit of a player-coach," Bird said. "So she was always talking to us, always in our ears. It didn't matter if you were myself and Dee [Taurasi] and it was your first time or you were Lisa Leslie and it was your fourth. She was in everybody's ear all the same, always had her hands in everything. I think you see that now as a coach."

We know Staley will be at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Whether Bird is on the roster as a five-time Olympian remains to be seen. While she joked about her future with the national team, telling reporters, "I'll see you in 2029!" Bird realizes that planning even two years out is unrealistic at this point in her career.

"Do I want to play in the Olympics? Yeah," she said. "If I'm able and willing, absolutely I want to play in the Olympics. But I'm not going to sit here and put myself on that team. That's not fair to me. That's not fair to USA Basketball, the other players competing for a spot."

As such, the search for a successor to Staley and Bird continues, a search for someone who can provide the same kind of steady hand at point guard and continue the USA's unprecedented run of international success.