Why Team USA's other MVP is key

Maya Moore is the reigning WNBA MVP. Diana Taurasi was the WNBA Finals MVP. Sue Bird is playing in her record fourth FIBA World Championship. Breanna Stewart is trying to win a world championship gold medal before starting her quest for a third NCAA title. And then ...

There's that other U.S. national team player with UConn ties. You remember her, right? The 2012 WNBA MVP? Won a couple of NCAA championships in Storrs, Connecticut? Part of a major trade back in April?

We're kidding, of course. Nobody has forgotten about New York Liberty center Tina Charles. But on a team where there are so many noteworthy stories, Charles can kind of blend into the woodwork, as it were. Or be taken for granted. That might be a better way to put it.

Then again, Charles has been around the national team enough to understand that can just be part of the gig. What has worked for the Americans so well is having superstars who take on more "role-player" personas to blend all the talent in the most successful way.

When the Americans face France on Friday (ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET) in the quarterfinals of the 2014 FIBA World Championship for Women, they will be trying to "avenge" a 76-72 loss to the French in an exhibition Sept. 21 in Paris. In that game, the Americans had an 18-point lead that eventually evaporated, as the French hit some big free throws in the final minute.

The United States does not expect to ever lose, not even in exhibitions, but this loss might have done the Americans some good. They talked afterward about it being a reminder that once the world championship started, they better be dang sure they shut the door on teams.

Against France two weeks ago, Charles led the Americans with 12 points and seven rebounds, coming off the bench to hit 5-of-10 shots. But Sandrine Gruda -- like Charles, a powerful 6-foot-4 presence -- really hurt the United States with 26 points and 15 rebounds. Furthermore, the French outrebounded the Americans 44-38.

Brittney Griner had yet to join the U.S. team at that point. Since the Phoenix center has come aboard, she has started and been the primary inside offensive threat, averaging 13.3 points in the United States' three victories in Turkey.

Charles has started all three games, too, but her role has been a little different than it likely would have been if Griner wasn't on the team. And Charles seems to have dealt with that just fine. She's now more of a secondary offensive threat, averaging 7.0 points. But her big statement is on the boards, where she leads the Americans by averaging 8.7 rebounds.

Asked earlier in the tournament about teaming with Griner, Charles said, "She changes the dynamic of the game. She's a unique and special player."

That's true, but we should point out that Charles is a pretty special player in her own right. She has averaged 17.3 points and 10.5 rebounds over the course of her five seasons in the WNBA -- 17.4 and 9.4 this past season -- and has been very durable.

This is an interesting time in Charles' career. The No. 1 pick in the 2010 WNBA draft by Connecticut, she has been consistent and productive since she got in the league. But where it once looked like she might be the player to lead the Sun to a WNBA title -- or at least make a good run at it -- she's now the centerpiece of a New York team that right now doesn't appear close to contending for a championship.

Charles had her reasons for insisting on the trade that sent her to the Liberty. New York is home for her, and she seemed to sour on the Sun franchise after coach Mike Thibault was fired following the 2012 season. Charles' stats were as good as ever in 2013 (18.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg), but it became obvious she wasn't very happy staying with the Sun. Connecticut had little choice but to deal her.

She's the player the Liberty need to build around, but the question is exactly how they're going to do that. New York's Cappie Pondexter is still an elite guard, but she had the lowest scoring average of her WNBA career (13.2 ppg) this past season. New York missed making the playoffs out of an Eastern Conference that really didn't have a strong contender for the league title. So where does that put the Liberty?

A long way from winning it all, which is what Bill Laimbeer stated was his goal in coming back to the WNBA as New York's coach and general manager. He has a lot to still try to fix, and it's not something you necessarily see being solved for next season.

But when it comes to the national team, Charles is back on very familiar ground: that of being the absolute favorite. A big part of UConn's back-to-back undefeated teams that won the 2009 and '10 NCAA titles, Charles won't turn 26 until December. In the prime of her career, she is poised to add another gold medal to her collection.

Admittedly, the Americans have been very prudent about avoiding medal talk and instead just approaching each game as its own specific challenge. In the case of France, the United States faces a team that probably should have more confidence in going against the Americans than anyone else.

Expect the United States to try to deflate that as quickly as they can Friday. It's a game where the Americans want to set the tone immediately, and Charles is going to be a key to that.

"You could say that is in the back of our minds, of course," Charles said Thursday about getting a payback against France for the exhibition loss. "But at the same time, we know what the goal is."

And while Charles might not be the player most notice during the game, you should never doubt she is making an impact.