Willingness to learn from each other makes USA even stronger

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Monday, August 1, 2016

NEW YORK -- You probably know the strict rule that actors should never give suggestions about performance -- "notes'' in thespian-speak -- to other actors. It's supposed to be verboten, something that's left to the director.

We mention this after seeing a great ensemble cast take center stage Sunday here at Madison Square Garden, just down the street from the theater district in Manhattan. This is a group, though, that doesn't hesitate to give each other critiques and advice, which bothers neither them nor their very well-respected "director."

In fact, after the U.S. women's basketball team beat Australia 104-89 in the Americans' last tune-up game before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the sense was that the players are all eagerly learning from one another, along with a staff led by Geno Auriemma.

"One of the things he celebrated about what we were doing is how we let ourselves be coached by each other," said Maya Moore, who had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists Sunday. "When you have a team like that, you really can't be stopped. Because no one's going to take it personally. No one's going to shut down because of their feelings being hurt. We're just going to take it and move on to the next play.

"That's one of the things I appreciate about this team that makes it fun. Everybody can share in everybody else's success."

Of course, basketball isn't Broadway; in hoops, it's not that uncommon for the players to share some thoughts on each other's games. But with an all-star, cream-of-the-crop group of players, theoretically it's possible that there could be some bristling amongst stars trading tips. Like, "Who is she to tell me ..."

But it isn't like that at all with the U.S. squad. To the contrary, especially with the very short preparation time the Americans have together as a team, it's an all-hands-on-deck approach to constructive criticism and good old-fashioned encouragement.

For instance, a few days ago, Diana Taurasi, who's headed to her fourth Olympics, gave some advice to Elena Delle Donne, who is going to her first Summer Games.

"I said, 'Elena, sometimes you get in these situations, and you forget what you're good at,'" Taurasi said. "Because you're around all these great players and personalities. I said, 'You be who you are.'"

Delle Donne had 12 points Friday in the Americans' victory over Canada, and then 19 Sunday against Australia.

"It was huge, especially coming from her," Delle Donne said of Taurasi's words of wisdom. "Someone I've looked up to my entire life. I love her game, and she's such a leader. So for her to say that, it helped me take a deep breath and say, 'Hey, it's still the game of basketball. I'm here to be me, and I need to play the way I can.'"

It is just a slight exaggeration that Delle Donne has admired Taurasi her entire life; hey, let's not make DT feel too old here. Delle Donne is seven years younger, and she's already won a WNBA MVP award.

But it's emblematic of the personality of the U.S. team that Delle Donne has such admiration for her older teammates. That mentality has been part of why the Americans are going for their sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Of course, there is also their sheer talent, which also was on display to the delight of the crowd of 13,520 at the Garden. Taurasi doesn't just give good advice, she can still torch the nets. She finished with a team-high 20 points against Australia, with 15 coming in the third quarter.

Auriemma said that if Taurasi has a "flaw" in her play with the national team, it's that she can be so focused on getting her teammates involved, she doesn't look enough for her own scoring chances.

"Diana is sometimes so unselfish that she doesn't impose herself on the game," Auriemma said. "She'll pass up open shots because she wants somebody else to touch the ball and get them into the flow.

"She kind of sets the tone for our team. And when Diana's playing at a really high level, it's really fun to watch."

Sunday's game definitely was entertaining, and part of that was the fight that Australia showed, too. The Opals no longer have the stalwart star inside, the great Lauren Jackson. And after this WNBA season, forward Penny Taylor will join LJ in retirement. But the Aussies always played hard, and center Elizabeth Cambage remains a very difficult player for any team, even the Americans, to guard. She led the Opals with 22 points, and also had eight rebounds.

Ultimately, though, the bottom line Sunday was the same as it has been for the past decade since the United States' last loss, which came in the 2006 world championship semifinals. The Americans were just too good, and they continue to play beautifully together despite their very limited preparation time.

Again, part of that goes back to their ability to critique each other without anyone getting their feathers ruffled.

Moore attributes that to a few things, beyond just the fact that it's become part of USA Basketball's tradition. She points out, pragmatically, that everybody on the team gets the same medal and that their investment is the same.

"One medal doesn't say 'leading scorer' or 'leading rebounder' or 'most blocks,'" Moore said. "There is no pressure to try to get some sort of record individually.

"But another aspect of it is that we're just playing basketball. We're not doing a lot of complicated, secretive plays and actions. So all the things we're telling each other are just basic things that make us better basketball players."

Or, as Brittney Griner -- who like Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart is a first-time Olympian -- said, "With someone like coach [Auriemma] and the players we have on our team, you're always learning something.

"Or maybe it's learning things that you kinda forgot. You get into your habits, and sometimes they're not the best habits. It's kind of like a refresher, like going back to college a little bit."

A college with some great professors ... and also some top-notch "student-teachers."

"If anything, being older, you've been through it all," Taurasi said of her veteran role. "I've been on a lot of teams where you get told a lot of things. At the core, you have to go back to what got you here."

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