May 6, 2022
2022 WNBA season preview: Las Vegas Aces
Will change bring success in Las Vegas?
When the buzzer sounded in game 5 of the 2021 WNBA semifinals, the Las Vegas Aces once again fell short of that elusive first WNBA championship. Having made at least the WNBA semifinals the past three years, it made sense for the franchise to go into the offseason and run it back with the same core group. Most on the outside said they needed just one or two more pieces to get over the hump and win a WNBA title. However, owner Mark Davis and President Nikki Fargas had a completely different idea for the franchise.
The change started with the hiring of WNBA legend and the only player to have their number retired by the Aces franchise, Becky Hammon. Next, the Aces let star players Liz Cambage and Angel McCoughtry leave in free agency. Finally, the franchise hired Natalie Williams as General Manager just three days before the WNBA draft and then just two days into her tenure, Williams traded the Aces first and second round pick in 2023 for the eighth and 13th overall pick in the 2022 draft. Despite the franchise having the best winning percentage of any team in the WNBA over the past three years, the front office decided it was time for some changes. These changes while radical, could be the key to an Aces title and it starts with the new coach.
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A new coach and a new scheme for Aces
Becky Hammon is one of the legends of the WNBA. She is 13th all-time in scoring and sixth all-time in assists in WNBA history. Hammon has also well known for breaking barriers, becoming the first female coach in the NBA as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach for the past eight years. She has learned from one of the greatest coaches of all time in Gregg Popovich. Hammon is in her first ever head coaching job but the early reviews are positive from her players.
“She’s allowing us to dictate it. She’s coming in and she’s given us the foundation and the platform. She’s allowing us to really get a flow and a feel for one another and go from there. I think that’s how she’s going to shape this culture,” A’ja Wilson said.
Hammon is expected to bring a completely different style of play to the Aces this season. Under Laimbeer, the Aces were known for playing a twin tower lineup with Cambage and A’ja Wilson. The Aces led the league last season in points per game as well as pace. The Aces had this prolific offense despite being at the bottom of the WNBA in three pointers attempted and second to last in threes made last season. Hammon has already stated those three-point numbers will change this season.
Not only are the Aces expected to shoot a lot more threes but with a new coach comes a change in offense and a change in scheme. Under Laimbeer, the Aces played two traditional bigs together a lot. They also had Wilson and Cambage in the painted area together often This years Aces team will play a lot more four around one and we may even see them play five out offense as well. Hammon wants her team to play with pace and space out the floor. While they led the WNBA in pace last year, they expect to play even faster and look possibly more efficient in transition. There is an emphasis on a cutting and flowing offense that will look much different than the Aces team of years past.
“I’m putting in a whole new system. Both offensively and defensively I’ve just been trying to focus on the basics…the fundamentals in our offense and the staples in our defense,” said Hammon. “I really have been hitting home on spacing, pace and playing the right way and sharing it with each other.”
The Perennial M’VP
A’ja Wilson has been in the WNBA for four years now. She is gotten better every year and is large part of why the Aces have been so successful the past few seasons. Even though Wilson has a new coach and new offensive system to learn this year, don’t expect her to take a step backwards. Wilson’s game is incredibly versatile and can fit on any team. We may even see an increase in Wilson’s game because Las Vegas made an emphasis on adding shooters to space the floor around Wilson. This will allow her to have more space inside to operate.
“Last year we were two-side, three-side on offense but now it’s just spaced out. I don’t think she is asking me to do anything I can’t do or anything I’m not used to doing,” said Wilson of her role in Hammon’s offense. “I think we just have more space now and just managing that space and not getting in the way of one another is key.”
Not only is Wilson an incredible player but she is also one of the leaders of this team. She has brough so much to the franchise and her teammates value everything she does both on and off the court. Hammon trusts her as the leader of this team and has been involving her and some of the other veterans heavily in building her culture.
A Stable core of returning veterans
Besides Wilson, one of the main reasons Las Vegas is expected once again to compete for a WNBA title is the strong returning group of veteran players the Aces have. It starts in the backcourt with reigning 2021 WNBA Sixth Player of the Year Kelsey Plum. Plum was the Aces second leading scorer at 14 points per game last. Plum has really developed her game into an elite all around scorer and has a great ability to find open teammates as well. She has become an aggressive guard who can score at all three levels and runs the Aces offense. We may even see Plum move back into the starting lineup this year in Hammon’s offense. Many of Plum’s teammates have noticed she has come into this year with a much different mindset than last year and that she seems really focused on winning it all this year.
“She has a bigger goal,” said Riquna Williams of Kelsey Plum’s focus this year in camp. “Her drive is different, she always put in the extra work but the mental focus, you can definitely tell she shifted something.”
The other two returning backcourt players for the Aces are Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams. The two of them were the Aces starting backcourt for every game last year. Gray was the engine for the Aces on both sides of the floor, leading the team in assists and steals while also averaging double figures scoring the ball. Williams was the Aces best three point shooter, hitting 42% of her shots from beyond the arc while taking the most of anyone on the team. Williams expects to see her three-point numbers go up in Hammon’s pace and space offense.
“The system is so open and fun, you just naturally make a basketball instinct. If you draw two, you know to kick it. With the majority of the team returning, it’s easy to know where Kelsey is going to be or that A’ja is going to pop here,” said Williams on the new offense. “For me, shooting threes, that’s how I eat…it’s definitely going to be fun for me to put up a couple more threes.”
The Aces only true returning wing player is Jackie Young. Young was second on the team last year in minutes played and that has a lot to do with her versatility. Young has the ability to do so many different things on the court, she was second on the team in both assists and steals last season. Young is coming off an MVP season in the Australian league and feels her time down under helped her become a better leader both on and off the court.
“Coming in, being aggressive, being confident in the player that I am. Building off of last season, I had a good season last season and just knowing what I need to work on from last year,” Young said. “I think being in Australia helped me a lot…to be more vocal and working on my three, getting a lot of reps up so I have the confidence to shoot the three when I get the ball.”
The two returning frontcourt players are Kiah Stokes and Dearica Hamby. Stokes was added by the Aces midseason last year after being waived by the Liberty. Stokes got the starting nod in eight games next to Wilson when Cambage couldn’t go last season. Stokes brings a veteran presence in the post and is a great backup to Wilson. She is also coming off an appearance in the Euro league championship game but hasn’t been in camp yet due to overseas commitments.
Hamby, meanwhile, was competing with her teammate Plum for WNBA Sixth Player of the Year. Plum ended up winning the award, but Hamby gave her a run for most of the season. Hamby had a great year off the bench averaging 12 points and seven rebounds. Hamby also can knock down the outside shot and brings versatility to the Aces roster. Hamby, along with Wilson, is the heart and soul of the Aces roster. She and Wilson are besties and Wilson even joked in a recent press conference that Hamby is the face of the franchise.
New Aces, young and old
With a new coach and new GM brought some new faces to the Aces this year. The Aces added to veteran players to their training camp roster in Sydney Colson and Theresa Plaisance. Colson hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2020 but was part of the Aces organization in 2019. She also participated in Athletes Unlimited during the offseason which took place in Las Vegas. She had an excellent showing there, averaging 11 points and seven assists during her time there. Colson, who sees herself as a defensive point guard, said it was nice to get back to being aggressive on the offensive side of the ball while playing in AU.
“From my time in Athletes Unlimited…trying to find more of my offensive side while still remaining a defensive minded point guard and still looking to set teammates up,” said Colson of her time in Athletes Unlimited. “Being more competitive while I was in AU…getting a chance to keep playing it made me even more grateful to play the game.”
Their other veteran addition was Theresa Plaisance. Plaisance, an eight-year veteran of the WNBA, played last season in Washington and had the second-best year of her career scoring-wise. Plaisance is an excellent reserve big with the ability to stretch the floor. Plaisance has a career three-point shooting percentage of 33.4% from three. Her ability to stretch the floor at the four position is something the Aces have clearly coveted and a big reason why she could see success with Las Vegas. She is yet another versatile piece for Hammon to play with.
The Aces have two rookies who will be a part of this year’s team. The first is Aisha Sheppard, a combo guard. Sheppard is a knockdown outside shooter, who knocked down 96 threes last year at Virginia Tech. She has really been impressing people in training camp with her approach to the game.
“By far this camp, Sheppard [has been the most impressive rookie]. Really impressed with the will to not only be great but ask questions on and off the court,” said Williams of the rookie. “She’s interested in taking care of her body…how to create longevity and I think that’s key. Coming in I wasn’t thinking about that.”
The Aces added wing Kierstan Bell with one of their two first round picks. Bell is another versatile player who brings a lot to the table. She has ability to create her own shot and has great size for her position. She can shoot the three and can guard a multitude of positions. Bell feels the transition to the WNBA has different that she expected, but she had been ready for this opportunity since she was young.
“It’s been crazy honestly. It’s just a lot, never had this much attention before. A lot of the times people ask the question ‘Are you nervous’ but I’ve been ready for this moment since I was a little kid.” Bell said. “It’s definitely different. Coming in as a rookie you have to try to gel with [veteran players] and build relationships and create bonds.”
The last player who could be apart of this Aces team is Iliana Rupert. Ruper is the Aces’ first round pick from last year from Sévres, France. Rupert didn’t come over from France last year but is expected to come over after the French season ends in June. The 6’4 forward averaged 14 points, seven rebounds while shooting 55% from the field while playing for her club team, Bourges, this year. When she comes over, she could play a major role for the Aces with her size and ability to score.
The Aces had a lot of changes this offseason. A new coach, new GM and seven new faces who have a chance to make the roster. With all these new things brings excitement but also questions. Will the players adapt quickly to Hammons’ system? How will they replace the production of Cambage? Can they compete for another WNBA championship with a first-year head coach and GM? Buckle up, because it will be a wild ride.
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.