COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley told the U.S. national team players, many returning to college soon, to keep working and improving no matter who is on the court.
Staley, the women's national team coach, held a three-day training camp last week as players began preparations for the FIBA World Cup in the Canary Islands this month. Many of America's best players are tied up with the WNBA playoffs and Staley brought in several of country's top college players to beef up practice and gain valuable experience before vying for a spot on the Olympic roster.
"We just have to keep moving forward. We can't worry about who we have, who we don't have," Staley said. "We have to implement the style of play we want on both sides of the ball and just fill players in."
Some of those fill-ins won't start playing for another two months when the college season tips off. The young camp roster includes guard Sabrina Ionescu and forward Ruthy Hebard of Oregon, Final Four hero guard Arike Ogunbowale and forward Jessica Shepard of Notre Dame and guard Tyasha Harris of Staley's South Carolina Gamecocks.
New York Liberty center Tina Charles is the most accomplish veteran in camp and the only one with Olympic gold from 2012 and 2016.
Charles, 29, said part of her mission this week is to make the younger players feel as welcome by the veterans as fellow UConn alums Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird did when Charles first played with the national team in 2009.
"I'm trying to do the same thing here, make them feel comfortable, allow them to play their game, talk to them," Charles said.
The WNBA playoffs have kept veterans like Elena Delle Donne, Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, among others, tied up. Staley said some of those players may join when their pro teams get eliminated.
For Staley, its full speed ahead, no matter how young and wide-eyed some of the faces.
Ionescu was winded after her first practice Monday, trying to pick up the increased pace of the game.
"I think at every level, it just gets harder and harder," said Ionescu, reigning Pac 12 women's player of the year. "They were just definitely a lot stronger, quicker and had a better understanding of the game and adjustments."
Ionescu believes this experience will help when she's older and competing for a national team spot.
Ogunbowale, who hit back-to-back game winners against Connecticut in the national semifinals and Mississippi State in the title game, spent her offseason as somewhat of a celebrity. She was a guest on Ellen DeGeneres' show and on "Dancing With The Stars." At camp, she's simply a rookie trying to soak up lessons.
Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike spoke to the team before the first practice, urging them to ramp it up early and don't be afraid to compete.
"We're all here for the same reason," Ogunbowale said. "We're all here to get better."
Camp ended with a split-squad scrimmage at South Carolina's Colonial Life Arena before they headed north for a game with Canada in Bridgeport, Conn., on Saturday and another with Japan at in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
The first practice overseas is in France on Thursday. The Americans will play three exhibitions in France and head to Tenerife, Canary Islands. World Cup pool play starts Sept. 22 against Senegal.
Staley's not certain who'll be on the bench when that game starts, but isn't worried about it.
"We have to move forward to the ones that are committed," Staley said. "And that are going to help us compete for another World Cup gold medal."