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Q&A with Paul Nilsen: Team USA’s and Belgium’s outlooks for the FIBA Women’s World Cup and Olympics

Basketball - Olympics: Day 15 Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Mystics have two players who are expected to be on senior national teams in the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup. Elena Delle Donne represented the USA in the 2016 Olympics where she won a Gold Medal. She is widely expected to make the team again for the World Cup.

Emma Meesseman represented Belgium in EuroBasket Women 2017 where her team won a bronze medal last June. Even though the World Cup hasn’t happened yet, Meesseman and Belgium are working their way toward a EuroBasket Women 2019 appearance to boost their Olympic hopes.

During the winter and early spring, most women’s basketball fans in America watch the college game and look forward to the NCAA tournament where many future WNBA stars show what they can do on the national stage. But there’s a whole different game going on in Europe, Asia, and Australia where most WNBA players are playing while Americans watch college basketball or the NBA. Unfortunately, this is also the time when WNBA players and teams are forgotten.

With some downtime in the WNBA calendar year until February when free agency hits, I felt now was a good time to learn a bit more about the international game, but from a non-American perspective. I reached out to Paul Nilsen, a British basketball writer who has a women’s basketball column on FIBA. You can follow Nilsen on Twitter here.

Paul agreed to do a written Q&A with me, which I broke up into three parts. In this part, we talked about the American and Belgian national teams’ outlooks heading into the 2018 World Cup, the 2020 Olympics, the qualification system for the FIBA Women’s World Cup, and also about player naturalization which some European countries have done in recent years.

The Q&A is lightly edited for clarity. I also added notes after some questions so you can have background information as we go along.

(* * *)

BF: Hi Paul, and thank you for taking time to be part of this Q&A for us.

Do you think that the next FIBA Women’s World Cup (2022) should use a qualifier structure like the men's side does? If so, should the USA have to compete in these qualifiers regardless of whether they win an Olympic or World Cup Gold Medal?

Paul Nilsen: I don’t think the women’s structure should ever follow the men’s one. It should be based on what is best for the women’s game. Same basketball fruit bowl, but one is apples and the other is pears.

BF: The USA women's national team has relied on the same group of players, especially in the backcourt for the last two to three Olympic/World Cup cycles. Players like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have played together on every Team USA competition since at least 2004.

To their credit, they’re still playing at a very high level though they are in their mid 30’s. However, Bird’s and Taurasi’s backups: Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, have also been in nearly every Team USA competition since 2008. Augustus and Whalen are also in their mid 30’s. There’s a chance that all of them could be on the USA’s World Cup roster next year despite their age. But to be fair, they’re still among the WNBA’s elite.

Perhaps the lack of playing time or even consideration like convinced some American players, especially guards, to play for other countries. After all, the USA doesn't really play many international games except during World Cup and Olympic years so it’s not like there are many opportunities to play in an American uniform. Do you think this could be hurting the USA sooner rather than later?

Nilsen: Absolutely. I still think that the likes of Courtney Vandersloot should be looking forward to playing in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup and Tokyo 2020. She would have a chance – wouldn’t she? I suppose we can flippantly say the USA are so dominant and so far ahead that things like this don’t matter.

But, looking at some of the recent struggles at youth level (USA don’t hold a single youth World Cup title right now for example) combined with the eventual departure of veterans like Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Co, they need to have their best players available for selection. I also mention Vandersloot because I think that wings and under the basket, USA are light years ahead – but guard wise? Relatively lean pickings now and in the next five years.

[Editor’s Note: Courtney Vandersloot is an American point guard for the Chicago Sky, but she naturalized as a citizen of Hungary and played in EuroBasket Women 2017. Her backcourt teammate, Allie Quigley also naturalized with Hungary. Both players also made at least one All-Star game, to Nilsen’s point.

There are also some other American WNBA guards who have made at least one All-Star team but decided to suit up for another country. New York Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince plays for Russia and was in EuroBasket Women 2017. And Mystics guard Kristi Toliver played for Slovakia in EuroBasket Women 2015. None of the players we mentioned are “spring chickens” now, but they’re all younger than the current guard rotation from Team USA.]

BF: Which national teams have the best chance of beating the USA in the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup?

Spain, France or Australia. Probably none in reality though.

BF: The Belgian national team seems to be the "new darlings" of Europe after their EuroBasket Women 2017 performance given their young roster.

But the core group of the current team also won the FIBA 2011 Under 18 European title -- and several players, including Meesseman, and HC Philip Mestdagh were from the same team in Ieper, Belgium back from the early 2010’s.

Did you have a chance to cover Belgian's girls teams when Meesseman was a teenager, and could you see a Golden Age for them?

Nilsen: Meesseman and Belgium have made an impact even before their 2011 run in the U18’s. My first ever youth tournament for FIBA was in Naples in 2009 [for the U16 Girls’ European Championship]. To this day, it remains one of my top 3 tournaments attended (at any level). Belgium won the silver medal at the 2009 tournament.

A significant chunk of this was watching Emma Meesseman get crowned MVP and from the get-go and literally after 3 minutes of seeing her up close, you knew she was top drawer and high class.

Most satisfying is seeing Julie Vanloo come through as she was the other main darling but never made a quick transition to the seniors. Now she has finally arrived and was excellent at EuroBasket Women 2017 and I was particularly happy for her – as I was for Antonia Delaere – such an underrated wing player.

Just going back to Vanloo – at the press conference when they took that historic bronze vs. Greece, I actually stated to Julie it had been quite a wait – eight years since that Naples tourney.

[Editor’s Note: Julie Vanloo (pronounced Vahn-low) plays for Istanbul Universitesi in Turkey’s KBSL and FIBA EuroCup Women. Antonia Delaere plays for Castors Braine in Braine L’Alleud, Walloon Brabant in the Belgian League and FIBA EuroLeague Women. Both play large roles on their professional teams.]

BF: How far can Belgium go in the World Cup and the 2020 Olympics? I didn't think they had a chance at the Olympics last year, but we could see them get there now.

Nilsen: I don’t think the Belgian Cats are a lock for the Olympics on the basis they are very threadbare in the frontcourt. One injury to Emma Meesseman or former WNBA player Ann Wauters (who may have retired by then) and they could struggle to make it. They have some great backcourt and wing options coming through though.

BF: Do you think Belgium should naturalize an American player in the future in order to close the gap with France, Spain, and the US?

For example, the Belgian men's team did that with Matt Lojeski, an American who naturalized there. He played a big part in the Belgian Lions' run in EuroBasket 2015.

Nilsen: Did EuroBasket Women 2017 signal the death of the naturalized player? Some considered it might have – I think it demonstrated what was possible without one. Belgium were one of four nations in the top six without one.

They could naturalize someone – they will need to replace Ann Wauters and that will be impossible. But, they could at least limit the damage of her retiring by getting someone like Celeste Trahan-Davis though she is now in her early 30’s. She played a big chunk of her career in the country. It’s better to see national teams naturalize someone who stayed in one country for awhile instead of some off-the-shelf players some nations sign-up even if those players hardly or never lived there before.

[Editor’s Note: Celeste Trahan-Davis was an American NCAA Division II player at Elizabeth City until 2008 and plays as a post. She has played for Castors Braine since 2013.]

BF: Recently, there have some notable independence movements within Western Europe. The most notable ones include those in Spain (Catalonia), Belgium (Flanders), and the United Kingdom (Scotland). How do these things potentially affect the landscape of FIBA European national teams if some of these regions do get independence or join another country?

Nilsen: I don’t get involved in politics being from Great Britain. ‘Brexit’ in leaving the European Union is plenty to make the brain explode without worrying about the possible breakups of other countries. Besides, it would crush me to see this entertaining Belgium side broken up!

[Editor’s Note: Every Belgian player on the EuroBasket Women 2017 team except Marjorie Carpreaux was born in Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch speaking region. That said, it’s unclear what the players would do if something like this happens. Belgium’s next federal elections are in 2019.]

In Part 2, we will talk about the international professional basketball leagues, how they work, and what makes professional women’s basketball overseas exciting to watch. We will also talk about how the WNBA can be a better partner with them as well.