May 11, 2021 

2021 WNBA season preview: Las Vegas Aces

What kind of hand is Bill Laimbeer holding?

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On paper, the Las Vegas Aces have one of the best teams in the WNBA this season. But championships aren’t won on paper, they’re battled out on the court. And the Aces still have some work to do to get to playoff form.

Not to mention the unfortunate wrench thrown into the game plan that is Angel McCoughtry’s season-ending knee injury.

Last year, the Aces came *this* close to winning the Finals and, of course, taking home that trophy will be their goal this year. But in reality, this is a completely different team in red and black, with different personalities and in a different, non-bubble environment.

They’re poised for a comeback, and the pressure is on for these young Aces.

Let’s talk about five big things Las Vegas faces this season — 2021’s poker hand of questions the team must answer.

How can Angel make an impact from the bench?

Monday we got the news we’ve all been dreading to hear since we saw Angel McCoughtry go down in Saturday’s scrimmage: torn ACL and torn meniscus. This time on her right knee (she suffered a similar injury to her left knee in 2018).

This is devastating news to everyone and especially to McCoughtry herself. But she is handling it with her ever-enduring positive mentality.

However, she can still make a huge impact from the sidelines. An 11-year veteran in the league, McCoughtry is an invaluable source of knowledge to younger players. She may not be able to physically teach on the court, but she can fully assume a mentorship role on the bench.

“Now I see myself in certain players, and now I know how to help them,” McCoughtry said. “The leader in me wants to see the kids do well. You don’t want to see the kids nervous or with anxiety … You don’t win gold medals and you don’t go to Finals for no reason. It’s not just for yourself, it’s to help others that are coming and paving the way under you.”

How can A’ja follow up an MVP season?

Think about the year A’ja Wilson has had. She helped lead her team to the Finals in a WNBA season unlike any other, where she was also named MVP. She’s a member of the league’s Social Justice Council. She had a statue unveiled in her honor at her alma mater, South Carolina.

Where do you go from there?

Well, besides the obvious answer of winning a championship, there’s plenty of other things Wilson is focusing on this year: her mental health, social justice, consistency, raising up young players, playing better basketball.

“I don’t see my role changing at all — I’m still going to be who I am, the player that I am, and I’m also going to contribute and produce for my team,” Wilson said. “I hope I can be an even more vocal leader in the locker room. I really have to be on my stuff now, everything has to be right place, right time because we got that target on our back, like we pretty much always do. So I’m excited for it and I’m just ready to play.”

Wilson also said Seattle played some of the best basketball in the 2020 Finals, and that that’s her measuring stick for where she (and her team) needs to be this year. She says getting swept helped her grow a lot.

The value of her selfless nature and infectious personality for this Las Vegas team also cannot be understated. 

Whether it’s another MVP-worthy season, or she’s getting her first ring this year, A’ja Wilson knows who she is and what she’s about… and she’s playing with abandon. She’s even shooting threes now.

How do the Aces stack up against the rest of the league?

Vegas made some solid acquisitions this off-season, and have some strong players returning that missed out last year: Chelsea Gray (from L.A.), Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum.

The return of Cambage could mean a boost to the team’s dangerous and efficient offensive play style, which features a moderate number of threes. Though, with long-range threats like Gray, Plum, Riquna Williams and Destiny Slocum in the mix, we could start to see Laimbeer utilize triples a bit more this season.

Top threats for the Aces this season include:

  • Minnesota Lynx (added Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa)

  • Chicago Sky (added Candace Parker)

  • Phoenix Mercury (scary top-six)

  • Seattle Storm (who doesn’t love a playoff rival?)

What newbies should you keep an eye on?

* A note: The Aces have not settled their final roster at the time of this writing

“I’m going to be biased and say we have the best rookies. You can tell they’re just having fun and getting comfortable and that’s always good to see.” — A’ja Wilson

Destiny Slocum

Las Vegas’ second-round draft pick has been putting on an impressive show at training camp, even earning praise from head coach Bill Laimbeer after week one. Her cool and calm composure under pressure, combined with her inherent desire to learn and immerse herself in her team’s culture and playbook have certainly not gone unnoticed.

Shakayla Thomas

Since first being drafted in 2018 by the Los Angeles Sparks, Thomas has worked to improve her game by developing a three-point shot and working on her ball-handling, becoming a more well-rounded player overall. Her physical strength and sheer athleticism makes her a tough competitor and fun player to watch. She’s also moved from power forward to a small forward position, where she’s even impressing Coach Laimbeer.

Lauren Manis

This 6’1 forward was drafted by the Aces in the third round of the 2020 draft and was waived that year. In her senior year at Holy Cross, she averaged 18.6 points and 11.5 rebounds and shot 46.3 percent from beyond the arc. But what’s impressed her teammates at training camp this year, is that she’s so much more than a shooter. Her movement and physicality at practice surprised everyone. Watch out for her muscling her way to the hoop.

What do the new assistants bring to the coaching staff?

The Aces added two new assistant coaches to their staff this year: Vanessa Nygaard and Sugar Rodgers. Both of them compliment head coach Bill Laimbeer and second-year assistant coach Tanisha Wright quite perfectly thanks to their relatively softer sides.

Both are WNBA veterans. Nygaard played for five years and Rodgers played for eight, six of which were under Laimbeer.

Laimbeer joked that he’ll be thankful Nygaard and Rodgers are there to help fix problems he creates.

“I grind on people to the point I sometimes embarrass them, and they yell and scream and holler at me and call me names,” Laimbeer said. “Sugar’s more on the soft side. Tanisha’s a lot like me and then we have Vanessa and Sugar who are their own little world.”

And really, you need both sides in a coaching staff. Tough love is just as important as positive reinforcement.

On top of that, Rogers believes coming off the heels of her playing career will help her transition into the players’ coach she aspires to be.

“Just being a player and understanding what these players go through — I think that’s the most important,” Rodgers said. “The trust that comes with me being a player, and they know that I played on this exact team with some of the same girls.”

Looking ahead

  • May 13: opening roster cut-down deadline

  • May 15: last day to extend contract for drafted players following third-year rookie scale contract; last day to exercise fourth-year options for drafted players following second year of rookie scale contract

  • May 15: season opener vs Seattle Storm, 12 p.m. PT (ABC)

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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