May 4, 2024 

2024 WNBA season preview: Las Vegas Aces

The Las Vegas Aces return their core from last year's championship. Can they threepeat?

Very few franchises in professional sports have the opportunity to win a third straight championship. However, those that do usually get labeled as a dynasty. The only WNBA team ever to win three straight championships was the Houston Comets, who won four in the first four years of the league’s existence. The Las Vegas Aces are looking to win that third straight championship this season and cement themselves as another WNBA dynasty.

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Las Vegas returns every player who played major minutes for the team in last season’s playoff run. It also added a few solid veterans in free agency and stout rookies in the draft. This has made the Aces the favorite to lift the championship trophy for a third straight season.

A small wrench was thrown in the Aces’ plans when future WNBA Hall of Famer Candace Parker announced her retirement on the first day of training camp. However, the Aces still have the core to compete with anyone.

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The ‘core four’

The Aces’ success over the last few years has been largely due to their “core four,” which is comprised of A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray.

It starts with Wilson, the 2022 WNBA MVP and 2023 WNBA Finals MVP. Wilson is coming off the best overall season of her career. She averaged 23 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last year while shooting 56% from the floor on 15 shots per game. She led the league in blocks and was top three in both rebounding and scoring. She also tied the WNBA record for points in a game when she scored 53 against the Atlanta Dream in August. Despite her regular-season success, Wilson finished third in MVP voting, which may have fueled a strong playoff run for her.

Wilson’s size and athleticism make her incredibly difficult to guard, especially in the open floor. She dominates around the free-throw line, whether that means driving from the elbows to the basket or hitting her patented midrange jumper. Her defense has been off the charts the last few seasons, and she’s won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Wilson had a very busy offseason filled with a book tour and a trip to Paris, but now that she’s back in Vegas, she’s focused on the task at hand.

“I think going into this next season, I have this goal for myself … to be better than I was last year,” Wilson said. “No one’s perfect. There’s still a lot of things that we need to learn, need to do better as a team, and that’s what we’re going to start. …

“I think this offseason was a great offseason for a lot of us, but I think our chip on our shoulder is still there. We still have something to defend. I don’t think it’s necessarily like, oh my gosh, we need to go get this threepeat, more so just going to get another one.”

Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum shoots a left-handed layup. A Connecticut Sun defender can't contest it in time.
Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum (10) shoots during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 6, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

The longest tenured Ace and second-leading scorer from a year ago is Plum. Plum has seen her game unlocked since Becky Hammon took over as head coach. Over the past two seasons, Plum has averaged 19.5 points per game and been named an All-Star both years.

Last year, Plum’s numbers dropped a little bit, and she got off to a slow start, which Plum and Hammon attributed to how opposing teams were trying to take Plum away. Despite the slow start, she set career highs in 2-point percentage as well as steals. The Aces have built more confidence in Plum on defense and gave her some of the more difficult matchups as the season progressed last year.

Plum can explode at any moment on offense. She can get hot from three and is deadly with her speed in the open floor. She, along with her teammates, spent a lot of time in the Aces’ practice facility during the offseason working on her game.

“I’ve never been able to walk into the same gym at the same exact time and then lift and not have to schedule and call people and bribe people with doughnuts because I’ve literally had to do that my entire life,” Plum said. “I’m grateful just to be able to show up and do my job and do what I love.

“Jackie Young and I spent a lot of time in [the Aces’ practice facility]. I think Becky and the coaching staff were probably sick because they didn’t go on vacation, but they love us, and they’ll be all right. I think it was a great offseason to be able to build and be home.”

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Young is the youngest member of the core four and the one who saw the most growth last year, especially in her 3-point shot. She shot 45% from beyond the arc while taking almost 200 threes a year ago. Young credits her growth in her game to the confidence Hammon has given her and the work she has put in with assistant coach Tyler Marsh.

Beyond her 3-point shooting, Young is incredibly athletic and strong, as shown by her 58% shooting percentage from two and her ability to finish through contact. All this success led to Young being named All-WNBA Second Team last year, her first appearance on an All-WNBA team.

Young had an incredible playoff run a year ago, scoring in double figures in all but one of the Aces’ 10 postseason games. This includes scoring 26 and 24 points in Games 1 and 2 of the WNBA Finals. Young has always been elite at driving to the basket and is one of the best on-ball defenders in the WNBA.

The growth in her game has been shown by Hammon’s willingness to give her the ball to go get a bucket when the Aces have needed it or have her slow down the opponent’s best offensive guard. Her growth has been a major reason for the Aces’ success in recent years and why the team just gave her another contract extension through 2025.

“I think my 3-point shot is probably the most obvious one,” said Young of her growth over the past few years. “I think the first step was just shooting it. A lot of times I’d be wide open and not shoot it. I think just having the confidence to step in and shoot it. Also, I spend a lot of time in the gym with Tyler, just working on my shot, made a few tweaks and that’s made the biggest difference. Now we just spend a lot of time just getting in reps.”

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Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray (12) shoots over two New York Liberty defenders, using a screen from center Kiah Stokes (41), during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The final member of the core four is Gray. She has been the Aces’ starting point guard for the past three seasons but may not start the season that way, as she is coming off a foot injury she suffered in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.

Gray had one of the best offensive seasons of her career a year ago. She set career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists per game. She also ranked third in the league in assists per game. All of this led to Gray recently signing a one-year contract extension with the Aces.

Gray has yet to practice in training camp, as the Aces are taking their time with her coming off the injury. She missed her entire rookie year in 2014 after recovering from a knee injury she suffered her senior year at Duke. While Gray did spend a lot of her offseason recovering from the foot injury, she also had her first child, and that’s helped her gain perspective.

“He’s giving some laughs now that he’s getting older, so that is pretty cool,” Gray said of her son. “It’s not made me softer, but it’s like, you have a bad day at work, you come home [and] you see this little baby. They don’t have any care in the world. [He’s] just like, Hi, talk to me, happy to see me, rock me, put me to sleep. So it’s kind of very lighthearted once I get home.”

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Key returners

The Aces return four more players from last year’s championship run, and all played major roles in the team’s success a year ago.

The biggest among them, literally, is Kiah Stokes. The 6’3 center has been a huge contributor for the Aces since she was traded to Las Vegas in 2021. Over the past two seasons, Stokes has stepped into the starting lineup at various times to replace injured starters. Last year, she did it when Parker went out with an injury, starting the final 22 games of the season.

While she hasn’t ever been much of scorer, Stokes provides the rebounding and defense that the Aces need in their frontcourt. Wilson even called Stokes on stage to accept Wilson’s Defensive Player of Year award last year.

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Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner (24) shoots as Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes (41) defends during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 6, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Like Gray, Stokes missed Game 4 of the WNBA Finals due to a foot injury, but she has been practicing so far in training camp. With Parker’s retirement, Stokes may once again step into the starting lineup. She is never going to blow anyone away with her offensive game, but Hammon loves Stokes because she knows her role and executes it at a very high level.

“Just being more confident in my abilities,” Stokes said. “Knowing that I can look to be more aggressive, shoot open shots and just continue to be a good teammate. My focus was just getting healthy. So that was kind of my main priority. [I’m] feeling good now, just trying to bring everything that I can to this team because all the other teams in league are elevating their game. I think we all are kind of taking that same approach. We’re gonna have to kind of elevate and take a step up.”

Another key returner is reigning WNBA Sixth Player of the Year Alysha Clark. Clark is one of the oldest Aces, being an 11-year WNBA veteran. She came in last year and gave the Aces a strong presence off the bench. Her positional versatility, especially on defense, allowed the Aces to do a lot of different things. Clark’s defense on WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals was a big reason why the Aces were able to win that game despite being down two starters.

With Parker retiring, we may see more lineups with Clark playing the four. Her ability to space the floor from this position will allow Las Vegas more flexibility, which Hammon likes in her offense. She can also guard the one through four positions, which makes it easier to play her as a small-ball forward. Clark is also another year removed from a foot surgery that caused her to miss the entire 2021 season. With a season under her belt in Las Vegas, Clark only feels more comfortable with her Aces teammates.

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Las Vegas Aces forward Alysha Clark (7) gets set to shoot during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 6, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

“Any time you can get some time and be able to build chemistry with your teammates and with an assistant, you always feel more confident,” Clark said. “There’s definitely a new level of competence that I have. For me, it’s just continuing to find ways to get better, whatever that looks like, whatever is needed. Your role changes every year, so just being prepared for that. … I just want to be more consistent and be the best that I can be in whatever facet that looks like for this team.”

Kierstan Bell also returns for her third season with the team. She increased every one of her statistics from her rookie year but still didn’t see a ton of minutes. She once again spent her offseason playing for Athletes Unlimited as well as overseas. Her skillset has gotten her on the court sparingly over her first two years, and whether she gets more playing time this year remains to be seen.

The final returner is the heart and soul of the Aces, Sydney Colson. While Colson doesn’t provide much on the court, her presence on the bench and in the locker room has been vital to the Aces’ success. Colson has been a big influence on the Aces’ guards, giving them a perspective from the bench that they may not see from the floor. She also helps to keep the mood light in the locker room. Her IQ and energy are why she’s stuck around through the Aces’ first two championships and why she’ll be on the roster again this season.

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New faces

The Aces have added six new faces to compete for roster spots this season. The biggest signing they made in free agency was adding center Megan Gustafson from the Mercury. Gustafson comes to the Aces after having the best season of her career so far, averaging 7.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game. She also has the ability to knock down 3-pointers, hitting 15 of 43 attempts (34.9%) last season.

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Phoenix Mercury center Megan Gustafson stands with her hands on her hips during a game against the Washington Mystics at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Gustafson has developed her game well since she graduated from Iowa in 2019. Expanding her range has allowed her to find a role in the league. Her offensive game has grown, and she is a tough defender down low. She spent a lot of time focusing on defense this offseason, which will be important as it is something Hammon requires for you to play for the Aces.

Wilson said she is happy Gustafson is on her team because she hated playing against her. With Parker retiring, Gustafson could see some time at the four, possibly even starting, as well as backing up Wilson.

“Obviously, coming out of college, I was a scorer,” Gustafson said. “I think for what I’ve really focused on, at least in improving year after year, is setting good screens. I know how important that is to be able to get my teammates open and be able to get better options for floor spacing. …

“Also, working on my defense. … So far in training camp, it’s been really fun to focus on that and really just to bring a whole other level of aggression defensively. That’s something that I’ve really, really focused on in this offseason. So I’m really excited to show my improvements there.”

The Aces also signed Kamaria McDaniel and Bria Hartley to training camp contracts. Hartley is a nine-year WNBA veteran. She didn’t play in 2023 but has shown herself to be a capable backup point guard who can score and defend a little bit as well. She had a career year in 2020, but injuries have limited her abilities to stay on the floor the past few years. With Gray coming off an injury and the Aces lacking a consistent backup point guard, Hartley may be able to carve out a role with the Aces.

McDaniel comes to the Aces after graduating from Michigan State in 2023. The 5’10 guard started her college career at Penn State before transferring to Baylor and finishing her career in East Lansing. She played overseas in Turkey last year for Yalova VIP, where she averaged 37.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game.

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Connecticut Sun guard Bria Hartley warms up before a game against the New York Liberty at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on July 19, 2022. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

The Aces also added three draftees to their roster: two second-round picks in Dyaisha Fair from Syracuse and Kate Martin from Iowa as well as third-round pick Angel Jackson. The Aces also drafted Elizabeth Kitley, but she didn’t sign a contract as she recuperates from a torn ACL.

Fair ended her college career as the third-leading scorer in NCAA history. She is a small guard but has quite a large scoring bag and has been lighting it up at times during training camp. Hammon wants her to be a pest on defense, but her ability to score and the Aces’ need for a young point guard should lead to opportunities.

“I think that being undersized my entire career has been the main thing that a lot of people focus on,” Fair said. “I got where I am today at this size, and I’ve only grown maybe one or two inches since I was 12 years old. I think that has pushed me a lot, given me the boost over time.

“All of the adversity that I’ve faced in my life and in my career at the same time, that might have been looked at as a setback or may have been able to use as an excuse to quit or to slow down. But I’ve always just used everything that was formed against me to prosper and I’ve done one heck of a job up until this point, and I plan to continue to do so no matter what is thrown at me.”

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Martin was the Robin to Caitlin Clark’s Batman this past season at Iowa. Martin is a jack of all trades who finds a way to impact both sides of the floor. She can score at all three levels and is a strong defender as well. Hammon has already nicknamed her Kate “Money” Martin.

Jackson, meanwhile, was the final pick of the draft and is known for her defense down low. She was a two-time SWAC Defensive Player of the Year after blocking 171 shots in two years at Jackson State. With Parker gone, the Aces have a need for more bodies to fill the paint.

The final roster spot may come down to Jackson and Martin.

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Iowa guard Kate Martin (20) looks to pass against UConn guard Paige Bueckers (left) in the Final Four at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The Aces return the core players who were involved in their championship run a season ago and now have another year of experience and growth under their belt. The Aces also have some new faces, which should help to add depth.

There will be some bumps in the road with the new players and injuries. However, as long as the Aces have the core four, they will have the roster to compete with anyone — and possibly make WNBA history by winning their third championship in a row.

Want more team-by-team previews for the 2024 WNBA season? Read them all here!

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.

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