CHICAGO — When Stefanie Dolson considered what it will be like to be a member of the U.S. team in the first 3×3 basketball Olympic competition, she eventually expressed her excitement.
But first the Chicago Sky center acknowledged the expectation.
“That just adds more pressure, honestly,” Dolson said. “I just hope we can perform well and get the gold, because anything else…”
Anything else is not what’s expected of a USA Basketball team — even in an event in its early stages.
Dolson, however, is in a good place mentally and physically to help lead the U.S. team with Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray and guards Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young of the Las Vegas Aces. Seattle Storm guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson made the team, but tested positive for COVID-19 on July 19 and was replaced by Young.
Her offseason work helped her make a confidence-building turnaround from a disappointing 2020 season in the WNBA bubble, so much so that U.S. women’s 3×3 coach Kara Lawson said Dolson’s improvement has changed their team.
“It’s changed how much of a weapon she is for us out on the court,” Lawson said in a video conference call last week before the team opened training camp in Las Vegas. “She’s obviously 6-5 and is a dominant presence, but she moves much better. She can guard guards in 3×3 for us. She didn’t have that ability a year ago. She has much better endurance, so she has more in the tank at the end of games and at the end of tournaments.”
Lawson said the goal is to play 10 games in five days in Tokyo, starting with their opener against France in pool play Saturday. That frantic journey toward a medal — the United States’ only shot at one in the event since the men’s team didn’t qualify for the Olympics — is going to take all four players to be ready at all times.
Because a bad 10 minutes can doom their chances.
First things first: Here’s how the U.S. team described the 3×3 game, which the International Olympic Committee added to the Olympic program in 2017: Fast-paced, physical and unpredictable.
“Anything can happen in 10 minutes,” Lawson said. “You think about the number of times a team that is the heavy favorite in 5-on-5 is down at the end of the first quarter. People aren’t really alarmed at that. You say, ‘Oh, they have three quarters. They’ll figure it out.’ … You don’t have time to turn it around in 3-on-3. You’re down at the end of the first quarter, you’re out of the tournament.”
The 3×3 game is played on a half court with a 12-second shot clock. Games are one 10-minute period or the first team to 21 points. An overtime period is decided by the first team to two points. Baskets made inside the arc and free throws are worth one point, and shots made outside the arc are worth two.
Play is continuous but for dead balls, free throws, one 30-second timeout for each team and TV timeouts. After a basket, rebound or steal, a player must dribble or pass outside the arc to begin the team’s possession. Play resumes after a dead ball with a check ball. Teams get six fouls before a bonus, and individual fouls are not added up unless they’re for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Teams are made up of four players, with substitutions usually occurring with dead balls.
“Being able to last three minutes straight of nonstop is the most important thing,” Dolson said. “If you can’t function when you’re tired, then you’re not going to be able to make it.”
That’s where Dolson’s improved fitness comes into play after a 2020 Sky season in which she played in 15 of 22 games. She averaged 6.4 points in 18.2 minutes per game, the lowest since her rookie season in 2014. Dolson, who battled COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, said the weight she gained during quarantine likely contributed to a foot injury that limited her.
At the end of the season, she put together a plan to turn her game around. She lost about 30 pounds by training three to four hours a day with Sky staff and local basketball trainer Jeff Pagliocca, watching her calorie intake and cutting back on alcohol.
The weight loss has helped her with the Sky — she’s averaging 7.9 points per game in 20.7 minutes — and in 3×3, and she said her confidence has grown.
“Now that I got into better shape, I’m able to move on defense, and I think that’s where they were worried a little more about the liability of having a post player (in 3×3),” Dolson said. “But for the most part they’re all very pleased with how much quicker I’ve gotten and more agile.”
It’s important because, as Lawson noted, 3×3 players need to be well-rounded.
“You can’t hide anybody in 3-on-3,” Lawson said. “There are only two other players out there. We depend on our players being as complete as they can be and competing every possession because I can’t go to a zone. I can’t go to a full-court press. I can’t help them in that way. It exposes you and the weaknesses in your game.”
Dolson’s intelligence and experience — four seasons and two national championships at Connecticut and eight seasons in the WNBA — also benefit a team that loses its coach every time a game starts.
A new game’s quirks
Lawson, the former 13-year WNBA player, Olympian and Boston Celtics assistant who now coaches the Duke women’s team, is the U.S. coach in practices but is not allowed to advise the team during games. That means she has to coach differently before games, often running through scenarios with her players at practices or team meals.
“You have to be sure the players are equipped to coach themselves during the game because you can’t help them,” Lawson said. “I can’t save them and call a timeout and draw something up or say, ‘Hey, this is what they’re doing. You need to change this.’ They have to know how to make those adjustments themselves. You have to do a little bit more forecasting prior to the games to say, ‘Hey, I think this is what they’ll do.’”
Lawson has helped build the USA Basketball 3×3 program since 2017, but the players also have some experience in it with Dolson and Plum saying they’ve played together in various camp settings for a couple of years since women’s national team director Carol Callan asked them to try out 3×3.
The quartet went 6-0 at the 3×3 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Austria in May, led by Gray’s 6.5 points per game and Dolson’s 5.7 points per game. That experience helped them develop chemistry that will be needed against the seven other teams that likely have been training together for months.
Dolson said she and fifth-year WNBA player Plum, who also made an impressive comeback from a torn Achilles tendon last summer, have taken on leadership roles. Dolson often calls the plays.
“She sees the floor so well,” Plum said. “She’s basically a point guard but in a post body. So it’s been cool to have her. … We’ll look to her, whether she’s setting screens off ball or on ball, whether she’s posted up and we’re cutting off of her, she’s really directing a lot of the show. And because of her size and skill she’s such a mismatch, it’s really tough for teams. They might have to double, and that’s where all of us benefit.”
Aside from players coaching themselves, 3×3 has a few other quirks that the players have had to get used to as they’ve bounced between their Olympic training efforts and the WNBA season.
Dolson said playing with a different ball has been among the more difficult challenges. The 3×3 ball is the size of a women’s ball but the weight of a men’s.
“You just have to put a little more arc on that sucker,” Plum said. “Shooter’s shoot. Personally, I’m like, let’s just not think about it. Let’s just play. Use your legs.”
Music and an announcer also provide a continuous soundtrack during games, and the TV commentator during the qualifier offered up one-liners such as “Quicker than a Kardashian marriage!” But the players said the pace of play is so fast it’s easy to tune out the in-game noise.
“You’re just so in the zone because things can happen so quickly, so I don’t really recognize the music and when they’re talking,” Dolson said. “But there are moments when they say something crazy like, ‘Oooo, she missed the shot!’ I’m like ‘OK, thank you. You don’t have to announce everything.’”
The hope, of course, is that they’ll be announcing more good than bad as Dolson and her teammates set out to win the first 3×3 Olympic gold medal.
Lawson, who played her final two WNBA seasons with Dolson with the Washington Mystics in 2014-15, believes Dolson put herself on the right path to help Team USA get there.
“I’m just really proud of her for making that commitment and sticking with it,” Lawson said. “…She’s a huge part, literally, of what we do and a huge part of our ability to have success in Tokyo.”
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