May 18, 2023
2023 WNBA season preview: Las Vegas Aces
Is another title in the cards for the Las Vegas Aces?
A’ja Wilson smiled when asked what she did in her first offseason as a WNBA champion. For many years, the Aces had been so close to their first championship. However, it wasn’t until last season when franchise legend Becky Hammon was brought in to lead the club that they finally got over the hump. The Aces capped off a phenomenal 2022 season by winning their first-ever WNBA title and the first professional sports title for the city of Las Vegas.
Heading into the offseason, it would be easy for the reigning champs to be happy with what they had and try to run it back with the same group. However, the Aces weren’t satisfied with the status quo. Out went franchise stalwart Dearica Hamby in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks. In came two-time WNBA champion Candace Parker to play next to reigning MVP Wilson. In the backcourt, they added another two-time champion and two-time All-Defensive Team performer in Alysha Clark. With these strong veteran additions, the Aces will try to become the third franchise in WNBA history to win back-to-back championships.
A strong returning core
The Aces have a returning group that has won MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, All-Star Game MVP, Commissioners Cup MVP and Finals MVP, and in the last year. Everything for them starts and stops with A’ja Wilson. She is coming off a second MVP season where she averaged 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. She grew tremendously in her first year in Hammon’s system, recording a career-high in minutes played, field goal percentage, rebounds, steals and blocks. She also knocked down a career-high 31 3-pointers and shot 37 percent from behind the arc last season. She flourished under Hammon and the freedom given to her by her new head coach allowed her to dominate on both ends of the floor.
“I felt like as long as I’ve been in the league, I don’t think people ever liked the Aces and we didn’t have a championship banner,” said Wilson. “So now that we have one I can only imagine how much people really don’t like us. But I take it all in stride honestly. And I think it was Coach [Steve] Kerr that said that [it’s] not necessarily defending it or going back-to-back but winning another one. That’s my biggest thing is like, just winning another one.
I want to go get another ring. I’m approaching this just like I approached last season, nothing different. And I think that’s the joyful side of it is I still get to do what I love in a place that is like really caring for us. My approach and I think our whole approach is we’re just trying to get another one.”
Wilson is once again expected to lead this Aces group. With so much of what is around her the same, Wilson expects things to go even better. The Aces were under a first-year coach last year and Wilson thrived, so with a lot more familiarity under her belt, Wilson may even have a better year this upcoming season than she did last year. She is expected to be one of the preseason favorites for MVP.
Along with Wilson, there are three other returning starting guards who all saw their game grow massively in Hammon’s first season. It starts at point guard with the “Point Gawd” in Chelsea Gray. Gray had an up-and-down regular season a year ago but really came on strong toward the end of the regular season. Then, she exploded in the playoffs, taking over a lot of the Aces’ postseason games. Gray put up at least 11 points in every one of the Aces’ playoff games last year, including a 31-point outing in the closeout Game 4 victory over Seattle in the semifinals. Gray was absolutely dominating offensively, scoring from all over the floor but mainly with her signature midrange jump shot.
While Gray found her scoring in the playoffs, she was a passing machine throughout the season. She has always been known as the “Point Gawd” but she had her best assist season last year, putting up a career-high 212 assists a year ago. Her passing ability is second to none, she is incredible at finding open teammates and should once again thrive in her second year under Hammon.
“It feels like we’ve picked up where we left off rather than everybody learning something new at the same time,” said Gray. “Like we have sprinkled in some people that [are] kind of familiar with the sets because they played against it. And then people that’s coming back and it’s like they’re familiar with the terminology.
It’s not something new, the coaches aren’t learning new things about their players. We were trying to learn it all during training camp and getting in game shape. So now you’re looking at having more fun with it and different wrinkles, you can put in different plays because we have various personnel. We can put Candace in a different spot than we did last year, or we didn’t have a player to do that last year. I think it’s just a little bit more fun because our chemistry now — we’re just working on our chemistry and growing it that way.”
Last but certainly not least of the returning starters is Kelsey Plum. Plum, like Young, saw her game flourish under Becky Hammon. She had a career year in every category, making her first all-star appearance and finishing third in MVP voting. Plum was second in the WNBA in scoring (20.2 points per game) and led the league in made 3-pointers with 113 triples. For comparison, her career high in made 3-pointers in a season before last year was 47. Plum, like most of the other Aces, saw their game explode in Hammon’s freewheeling, high-paced offense. Another year in Hammon’s system and we may see Kelsey Plum start to look like she did at times when she played at the University of Washington.
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Jackie Young made incredible strides a year ago on her way to the Most Improved Player award. She seemed to almost come out of her shell right in front of our eyes. She increased her numbers in almost every statistical category. She became a consistent scorer who the Aces relied on, at times, to carry them last season. Her biggest area of growth was behind the arc where she went from a 25% 3-point shooter to a 43% shooter while knocking down 10 times as many threes (50 compared to five in 2021). Young should be even more comfortable in her second year in Hammon’s system, so perhaps her game will grow even more.
“I think it’s just trying to become a better player. Watching a lot of film. Spending a lot of time with [assistant coach/head of player development Tyler Marsh], obviously,” Young said. “Just talking to him, talking to the vets. [I] talk to Candace a lot on the sidelines. I love to learn so I’ll take feedback from anyone. I’m always asking questions and always just listening, trying to pick up new things and really just trying to be a better player in all in all aspects. I think one of the biggest things now [is] just having Candace here, she’s been in the league for a long time, and so just kind of listening to her and taking some feedback from how she sees the game.”
Those who return for the bench are four veterans, Riquna Williams, Kiah Stokes, Sydney Colson, and Kierstan Bell. Williams missed a lot of time last year with an injury but made her presence known when it mattered most. She played big minutes in the Aces small ball lineup during the playoffs and had her best game in the championship clinching Game 4 victory in Connecticut. If she can stay healthy, she can have a big impact in the Aces’ guard rotation off the bench.
Stokes jumped into the starting lineup late in the year but played big minutes throughout the season as a defender and rebounder. Her ability to alter shots at the rim made up for her lack of offense a year ago. However, with the additions of Parker and Cayla George, it may be hard for her to stay in the rotation. Colson didn’t play a lot last year but her energy in the locker room and chemistry played a factor for the Aces throughout the year.
Lastly, Bell showed flashes a season ago, but never got consistent minutes in the rotation. Bell didn’t see as much time as Aisha Sheppard, who was cut, but spent some time this offseason playing in Athletes Unlimited where she averaged 15.9 points over 15 games.
The new faces
The Aces came out of this offseason with a few new faces and a couple of them are significant players. The first is Parker, a WNBA legend who Parker comes to Las Vegas on a one-year deal after 11 years in Los Angeles and most recently, two in Chicago. Parker has been a dominant post player her entire career and should be able to fit pretty seamlessly into this Aces team. Last year in Chicago, she averaged 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
“I think it’s been great,” Parker said about playing with Wilson. “I mean, obviously, we’re gonna make mistakes. I’m going to turn the ball over. But I think just in terms of figuring out the positions and the spots that she likes to be at, figuring out where I can throw it and sometimes that’s gonna be in practice, figuring out where I can’t. She’s got great hands, she rolls. She’s got great touch. I know that from playing against her.
I think it’s just getting more time and more reps together. I think we’re gonna get more comfortable. But at the same time, I think we’re talking about one end of the floor, I think defensively we can be just as good if not better. And I think that that’s where I’m excited about as well, is being able to help her on that end and her help me and us kind of clean up for each other and help the guards. And I think our biggest thing — our biggest offense is gonna be the rebound.”
Where Parker will fit in best is her passing and ability to knock down the outside shot. As we saw last year, Hammon values sharing the ball and players who can score at all three levels. Parker is coming off a season where she hit her second-highest number of 3-pointers and recorded her third-highest number of assists. Her basketball IQ should be on full display with the Aces and she is expected to complement A’ja Wilson well in the frontcourt. Parker may see a late-career resurgence playing in this Aces system.
Another veteran face the Aces brought in was Clark, who won two WNBA championships in her career during her time with the Seattle Storm. She is your typical 3 and D player, as a career 38% 3-point shooter who has twice been named to an All-Defensive Team. She is coming off a down season a year ago after missing all of the 2021 season recovering from Lisfranc surgery. Clark had her least efficient season shooting the ball from beyond the arc last season with the Mystics but still started every game she played for Washington last season. If she can return to her 2020 form, Clark will fit right in off the bench for the Aces and could see significant minutes guarding the opposing team’s best guards.
George was the last big Aces signing from the offseason. George hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2018 but is coming off an outstanding season in the WNBL. She was the second leading scorer in the league averaging 18.5 points along with 11.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.1 blocks, and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 42% from behind the arc as well. All her success led to her being named as the league MVP. The Aces seemed to be very impressed with George’s passing ability and 3-point shooting, especially from someone of her size at 6’4. She will be a much different look than Wilson or Parker at the forward position and should give the team more versatility in the frontcourt.
“I have become a mom in this past year, and it’s been an incredible journey and probably the last maybe 6-8 months may have been probably the highlight of my career with the things I’ve been able to achieve,” said George. “How I feel in myself, my body and what I’ve been able to do at my age. So mentally and physically, I’m probably the best I’ve ever been in my career. I think the opportunity to come back here was just too good to say no to.
We’ve got the likes of this girl right here [A’ja Wilson] and Candace and the facility. I’d be a fool to say no to this and experience this. I guess the journey, I’ve always just kind of gone hard with whatever I’ve done and the opportunities I’ve had in whatever league around the world. I’ve been out of this league for a little while, but I don’t feel like I’ve — I’m out of touch out there. I feel like I fit in and I’m not an impostor at all. I feel like I belong, so [I’m] happy to be back here and give it my all.”
The background noise
Despite the fact the Aces are coming off their first championship, this offseason hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. The Aces have been under scrutiny after it was announced they were going to be under two separate investigations. The first one was regarding the organization’s treatment of Hamby and her departure from the team, as she was traded in the offseason but said her exit was due to her pregnancy.
Secondly, the league is investigating the club for circumventing the salary cap to pay players more through outside marketing deals. The Aces are accused of paying players more than their salary by having outside firms give them money for minimal work for marketing deals. This payment method may have been part of the reason the Aces were able to sign both Parker and Clark at under-market value deals.
It was announced on Tuesday that the Aces would have their 2025 first-round pick rescinded and Hammon would be suspended for two games as a result of the investigations. The rescinding of the pick was in response to circumventing the salary cap and the suspension of Hammon was for the treatment of Hamby by the Aces after they found out she was pregnant.
On top of the two investigations, head coach Becky Hammon was recently given permission by the club to talk to the Toronto Raptors of the NBA about their head coach vacancy. The uncertainty about Hammon’s future will be hanging, but it is just one more piece of background noise that will be hanging over the Aces this season.
The Aces are coming off the most successful season in franchise history. They just won their first title and return a strong core of young and talented players. Adding Parker and Clark to that mix theoretically should make the Aces a plausible bet to repeat as champions. However, there is a lot of basketball still to be played and anything can happen once the ball is tipped. The Aces seem to have all the right cards to win back-to-back titles but whether they do so remains to be seen.
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.