U23 programs are giving athletes a chance to showcase their talent.
The FIBA U23 3×3 World Cup concluded this past weekend, and the United States’ newly assembled U23 squad had some memorable moments throughout the tournament. While the United States went on to lose a hard-fought contest to France in the gold-medal game, there were plenty of positive takeaways for all of the players involved, USA Basketball, and the WNBA teams that the players will return to.
The United States was represented by Emily Engstler (Indiana Fever), Lexie Hull (Indiana Fever), N’dea Jones (unsigned), and Veronica Burton (Dallas Wings). The Indiana Fever may have had a rough season, but their fans have plenty of reasons to look forward to next year with how good Engstler and Hull were at the World Cup.
In her rookie season with the Indiana Fever, Emily Engstler averaged 5.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.1 blocks per game in 35 games played with six starting appearances. Her 181 rebounds were the fifth most recorded as a rookie in Fever franchise history, and her 51 assists were the ninth most by a Fever rookie. Engstler’s 40 blocked shots were four shy of tying Tamika Catchings’ rookie franchise record for most in a debut season. The World Cup was Engstler’s second 3×3 event of the year, as she was also featured on a USA Basketball 3×3 roster in Montreal this summer. Engstler’s best game of the World Cup tournament was against Mongolia when she scored 15 of the United States’ 21 points (including three two-pointers).
Engstler’s teammate Lexie Hull did not see as many minutes with the Fever this season, but after her performance at the World Cup, Indiana’s coaching staff will likely be looking to create plays around her in the 2023 WNBA season. Hull was the standout player at the tournament. In her first major 3×3 event and Team USA debut, she finished as the top scorer for both men and women, and was responsible for 46% of her team’s points. Hull had multiple 10+ point games, and was the reason that the 11th seeded American team worked their way up to a second-place finish.
Anyone who has followed college basketball over the past couple of years is not surprised to see Hull shining on a big stage. Hull was a star for Stanford during their championship season and was named to the NCAA Tournament Final Four All-Tournament Team in 2021. During her senior year, she scored in double figures 20 times, and in her final game at Maples Pavilion, Hull treated the home crowd to a 36 point, 6 rebound, and 6 steal performance. Her success at the NCAA Tournament and consistency during her time at Stanford made her an attractive prospect to the Indiana Fever, and her memorable World Cup debut is further confirmation that the Fever head office made a smart decision by drafting her so high in the 2022 WNBA Draft.
Earlier this summer, the United States had a chance to assemble an elite U23 team to participate in GLOBL JAM (a FIBA-recognized U23 tournament hosted in Canada), but USA Basketball made the decision to not prioritize the event. As a result, the team representing the United States finished the tournament in last place. Canada Basketball took a vastly different approach, and assembled their best players to participate in the event. The team not only won on home soil, but several players from the tournament went on to join the Canadian Senior Women’s Team at the FIBA World Cup, helping the team to its best finish since 1986.
Investing in young players and providing them with opportunities to compete on big stages not only helps the players in their personal development, it helps USA Basketball maintain an elite pool of young talent that is ready to compete when they are called upon. The WNBA has so much talent that it is easy to look past players like Hull and Engstler (particularly when they are on teams that are not performing well), and these tournaments are great platforms for athletes to showcase their elite athleticism.
The last time that a USA Basketball 3×3 team performed well on a big stage was at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. One player on that team (Stef Dolson) went on to win a WNBA Championship that same year, and another player (Kelsey Plum) won a WNBA Championship and a World Cup title the next year. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Engster and Hull when they return to the WNBA in 2023.