Five questions USA Basketball needs to answer over the next week

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STANFORD, Calif. -- How many questions can there be about the juggernaut that is the U.S. women's national basketball team? The Americans have won six consecutive Olympic gold medals dating back to 1996. Their only loss since then was in the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup.

But USA Basketball didn't want to take the team's success for granted. To better prepare for the 2020 Olympics, four-time Olympians Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm and Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury suggested the concept of a "core eight" -- a group committed to the U.S. team over the next several months to attend multiple training sessions and play in exhibitions/competitions leading up to the Tokyo Games.

That group plays four exhibition games this month against top college teams, starting at No. 3-ranked Stanford on Saturday. The U.S. team then will be at No. 7 Oregon State on Monday and at No. 6 Texas A&M on Nov. 7 before returning to the West Coast to face No. 1 Oregon on Nov. 9.

The U.S. women will play another series of games against college teams, with those schools and dates to be announced later.

The core is down to seven for the November games, as the Washington Mystics' Elena Delle Donne is out with herniated disks in her back, which she dealt with during the WNBA Finals. The five core players besides Bird and Taurasi are the Dallas Wings' Skylar Diggins-Smith, the Minnesota Lynx's Sylvia Fowles, the Los Angeles Sparks' Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike, and the Las Vegas Aces' A'ja Wilson.

National team pool members Seimone Augustus and Napheesa Collier of Minnesota, Layshia Clarendon of the Connecticut Sun, Allisha Gray of Dallas and Kelsey Plum of Las Vegas will join the core for the November games. Chelsea Gray will miss Saturday's game at Stanford, and Plum will miss the first two games due to previous personal commitments.

What are some of the key things we'll be watching for from the November exhibition games?

1. How do players coming back from injuries look?

Bird (knee) missed the entire 2019 WNBA season. Taurasi (back, hamstring) played just six games and never looked comfortable. Clarendon (ankle) was hurt in mid-June and didn't play another game, although she was back in regular workouts while the Sun were in the WNBA Finals. All three were in action at practice Friday at Stanford.

Bird, 39, said she didn't get back to playing until the beginning of October.

"You start by yourself, then move on to one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three," Bird said. "I'd say the last week and a half to two weeks, I've been doing five-on-five. It feels good; I feel normal, so that's probably the best thing I can say. It was a longer rehab than I anticipated, so that was mentally trying at times."

Taurasi, 37, echoed that her rehab situation took longer than expected too. She had back surgery and then dealt with a hamstring issue that she said has bothered her at times throughout her career.

"I'm still not there; every day is just getting to the point where I can feel 100 percent," Taurasi said. "A day like this makes me feel good -- where I can go through a whole practice with these guys and compete. Those are the next-level steps. I'm still in this baby-step phase of getting where I want to go, which is to still play at a high level.

"I've prided myself with playing whether I felt good or wasn't feeling well. Maybe this all caught up to me at once. A lot of basketball is sacrifice -- if you really want to be the best you can be."

2. How is Skylar Diggins-Smith doing after pregnancy leave?

Diggins-Smith had a baby earlier this year and didn't play for Dallas this season. She said on Twitter last month that she dealt with postpartum depression over the summer, and she spoke in more detail Friday about her issues with the Wings and the conditions for mothers in the WNBA.

She also said it was good to be with the USA squad and the camaraderie it offers.

"Mental is 100% harder than physical. I feel great. ... Out here is a safe haven," Diggins-Smith said of returning to action. "This summer, I was triggered [emotionally]. ... I couldn't explain it to you. I couldn't explain it to my husband, or to anyone in the organization.

"And then you worry, 'What am I going to look like [out on the court], how am I going to be? You're just thinking about all these things.

"But being here is the best. I have my son here, he's going to be with us the whole way. This is my first full practice in a long time, and I'm happy to be back on the floor. Now I've got to go out and guard these fast, little players 10 years younger than me."

3. How will Chelsea Gray fit in at point guard?

We won't see the Sparks standout at Stanford because she's getting married. But she will join the team for Monday's game at Oregon State. Injuries and illness have thwarted Gray from getting to spend much time with the national team, but now she's going to get a chance to show her stuff.

"I'm excited for her," Ogwumike said. "It will be really great for her to have a proper debut with USA. It's about building her confidence and getting her to understand that she belongs here."

4. How big an impact will young posts make?

Wilson won the WNBA's Rookie of the Year Award in 2018, and Collier won it this year. Both are 23 years old and hoping to make their first Olympic team. Wilson played in the World Cup last year, and Collier trained with that team.

"I think it's going to be very good for us to grow up around each other," Wilson said. "And kind of build that bond together. We can take all this information in from the vets and just be that sponge. Because down the road, the roles are going to switch, and we're going need to be those leaders who stand up. They've made a great path for us to follow."

5. Which college players are the pros most interested in facing?

The college players are excited to be on the same court as the pros. But the pros are eager to see how the college kids -- some of whom could be in the WNBA as soon as next summer -- fare against the elite competition.

"I'm an SEC girl, so it's Chennedy Carter," Wilson said of the Texas A&M junior. "She was a freshman my senior year, and she played so beyond her years then. I definitely want to see her compete against the best of our league."

Stanford grad Ogwumike said she's looking forward to seeing how the heralded freshman class from her alma mater, with players like Haley Jones and Fran Belibi, play on Saturday.

Bird said Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, whom most project as the No. 1 WNBA draft pick next April, is someone she's interested in seeing on court.

"I've seen her play live once," Bird said of Oregon's appearance in the Final Four last year. But Bird and Taurasi were hosting a courtside "Championship Talk" for ESPN at the time, and Bird joked that she wasn't focused on critiquing players then.

"I have a ton of respect for college basketball, but it's a huge jump," Bird said. "I don't think people truly understand the jump from college to the WNBA. For us to play against them, we'll kind of have an idea of what they can be like on the WNBA level."