A’ja Wilson’s transition to the WNBA was as seamless as stepping onto the basketball court. Her rookie season went the way every fan imagines a first-overall pick’s rookie season should—so dominant that the fan doesn’t have to do much imagining by the end. The precocious, polished footwork told you Wilson would be a WNBA star for a long time. The numbers told you she already was one: She finished third in league scoring that season, tied with Diana Taurasi. A’ja was HER.
In relation, the players the Aces selected with No. 1 picks before and after Wilson—add the Aces to that Cavs/Oilers tier of draft lottery luck—sometimes looked disappointing. Who wouldn’t? Jackie Young, a guard drafted for upside in 2019, showed flashes in her rookie season: She could drive through people with her sheer strength, and hold her own defensively. But the offensive numbers were underwhelming enough to demand some imagining. Kelsey Plum’s first year in the WNBA played out in equally forgettable fashion. In 2017, the front office reportedly thought so little of their No. 1 pick that they entertained the idea of trading her on draft day. After injuring her ankle in the preseason, she played erratic minutes as a rookie. Bill Laimbeer took over as head coach the next year, following the franchise’s move from San Antonio to Las Vegas, and described the Plum he saw in 2017 tape as “a lost person. Pressure was on her, being asked to do things she wasn’t used to. Kind of a lost year for her.” Last year, Plum’s fourth season, she ended up in a bench role, where she would win Sixth Woman of the Year. It was her first season averaging more than 10 points a game.
Coaching is all about imagination, which is why a coaching change can be so refreshing. Here is a brand new person! bringing their brand new set of eyes! to a roster that could maybe use some new perspective. When Becky Hammon took over the Aces from Laimbeer this summer, one of the first things she told reporters was that the team would be taking more threes. The 8-1, red-hot Las Vegas Aces have delivered on this promise: Under Hammon, they’re taking 25.1 per game, which is second-most in the WNBA, and way up from their league-fewest 13.5 per game last year. In a 104-76 clobbering of the Sparks last week, the team tied a WNBA record for made threes in a game, with 18. Where they had always been a pretty efficient three-point shooting team, they’ve now added the three-point volume to make it count. “If you’re guarded, move it. If you’re open, shoot it. It’s not very genius,” Hammon said after that Sparks game.
Genius or not, the system has helped to unlock Young, who made big leaps defensively in her last season but plays with a newfound confidence on offense. Now averaging 18 points a game, she’s been one of the league’s best players by Kevin Pelton’s WAR metric. “For me, it’s a mindset thing,” Young told reporters. “If I’m coming in feeling good, confident and aggressive, then it shows on the court.” Everyone seems to be having more fun with the green light Hammon has given the team. Even point guard Chelsea Gray, whose stubborn midrange game I’d come to accept and admire, has been shooting from deep; some contagious effect might be at play. “Basketball is a game of confidence. When you see one or two go in the basket, people get rolling,” Hammon said after the Sparks game. “When you see the ball go through the hoop, it becomes real fun, as an offensive player. Especially when you know your teammates are going to find you when you’re open.”
For all the shot profile differences, the Aces haven’t abandoned everything that made them so good under Laimbeer. They still get to the line more than most teams and use Wilson to anchor a strong defense. The starting lineup of Young, Wilson, Gray, Dearica Hamby, and Plum have an offensive rating of 112.5 and a defensive rating of 88.2, making it the league’s best by a good margin.
And yes, that’s Plum in the starting lineup. “Fuck the bench,” Plum told The Athletic before the season began. “I’m so sick of the bench. I’m a starter in this league and I know it; and I think everyone else does.” Hammon agreed, and moved both the Aces’ Sixth Women, Plum and Hamby, to form this super-charged starting lineup. As a starter, Plum is averaging 18 points a game, shooting more than she ever has, and just flying around out there, looking like the assassin everyone hoped she could be.
The downside of the super-charged starting group is the super-drained bench. With Plum and Hamby on it, the Aces bench was a team strength. When the Aces played the Sky on Saturday, their bench didn’t really do anything except let the Sky cut into Vegas’s lead. Seriously: All of the Aces’ 83 points came from starters. In the actual playoffs, with shorter rotations, that may not matter too much. But on the way there, as a matter of managing fatigue and injury risk, it’ll help the Aces to have some bench contributors they can trust. (One, Riquna Williams, has been dealing with a foot injury but should be back soon.) Vegas’s only loss of the season, to the Mystics, happened because Washington’s swarming defense wore down the Aces starters. Could the same thing happen when they face another elite defense in the Connecticut Sun tonight and Thursday? Hmm. Let’s ask Kelsey Plum what she thinks of all this.
There will be plenty of time to pick nits about fatigue and bench depth as the season goes on, but ultimately there’s not much to do but applaud a team with an 8-1 record and a plus-14.7 net rating. Hammon brought her vision, the players are making it a reality, and nobody has much to complain about.