June 21, 2023 

Las Vegas Aces offense attacking inside more as opponents try to stop Kelsey Plum

"I get trapped every ball screen, it’s fricking annoying ... This year, man, some days I feel like I'm in prison."

Since Becky Hammon became the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces two seasons ago, they have become the deadliest offensive team in the WNBA. In her first year, they were the highest-scoring team in the league, which was due in large part to the fact that they were knocking down almost 10 threes a game.

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While this year the Aces are still the highest scoring team in the league, they are doing it with their three-point shooting being down. They are averaging only 8.6 made threes a game while taking almost three less a game compared to a season.

But the Aces are making up for it by leading the league in scoring around the basket. They are the only team in the league averaging over 40 points in the paint this year and scoring 44% of their points around the rim. Last year, they averaged 34 points in the paint and only got 38% of their points down low, which was dead last in the league. The Aces are shooting 56.9% from two and if that continues, it would be a WNBA record for a single season.

Many would attribute this change to the addition of Candace Parker, but it has more to do with Kelsey Plum and how teams are guarding her.

“I think there’s a mixture of a couple of things,” Chelsea Gray said. “One, they’re putting a lot more pressure off the ball screen or on the ball screen on KP a lot. You’re seeing traps that it’s not really going away. So we’re able to hit in the middle of their defense and get layups. So are off the dribble threes, we don’t have as many whereas last year, we would have some walk up threes coming off the dribble or coming out of a timeout. They’re showing a lot of attention to detail to run us off the line. And when you have defenses like that, I mean, we’ll take layups as well.”

Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum (10) shoots during the WNBA game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 06, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Last year, Plum was No. 2 leading scorer in the WNBA and lead the league in 3-pointers made. She flourished in the Hammon offense that gave her freedom to attack and score like she did during her college. Teams were challenging her to beat them with her three ball and she was doing it with pleasure.

This year that isn’t the case. Opposing teams don’t want Kelsey Plum to pick them apart with her three-point shooting so they are trapping her on ball screens and picking her up full court the majority of the time.

This has led to less shot attempts for Plum (specifically from three) and her scoring is down from the 20 points a game a season ago to 16 this year. Plum has recognized how teams are guarding her and has really focused on making the right pass. This has led to a lot of open teammates on the backend, especially in the paint.

“I get trapped every ball screen, it’s fricking annoying,” Plum said. “If my teammates get open shots, that’s what happens. I don’t think last year people game planned for me. I think they were kind of content with me, like, scoring or whatever. But now, there hasn’t been one team we played that hasn’t trapped off ball screens, pick me up, double when I get into the paint. People are really making my job a lot harder.”

Not only has this change in scheme opened up things in the paint, but it has also created open shooters on the perimeter and the biggest beneficiary is Jackie Young. Young is having a career year from three and is making teams pay for leaving her open. The attention Plum has been getting has created a lot more opportunities for Young and she is taking advantage of them.

Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum (10) shoots during the WNBA game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 06, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Despite how the Aces run their offense, teams have specifically been picking on Plum when it comes to full court defense and trapping the ball screens. Plum has found a way to take advantage of this though by creating a lot of hockey assists (the pass before the assisting pass), a stat Plum wished was tracked more. She also has been taking advantage of opponents switching bigs onto her in ball screens situations and using her speed to attack the basket.

“They don’t really switch with me. They usually just trap or hedge and I just get it out,” Plum said. “I think that especially compared to last year, it’s not even close. Just the amount of attention. Career highs in the paint for our team and offensively points per possession and things like that. Eventually, I think it’s going to adjust. But right now, we’re just going to keep playing the way that we’ve been playing and keep burning them on the backside.”

Plum is having a career year in terms of shooting percentage from inside the arc. Hammon says Plums ‘rim reads’ have been amazing since July of last year. Rim reads are what players do when they drive in around the basket, whether they are looking to score or passing to open teammates because opposing defenders stepped up to help. Hammon says that her decision making around the rim has evolved her offensive game to another level.

“If you look in May of June last year, her shooting percentages in the paint, and then the rest of the year and then even into this year, her rim reads have become next level,” Hammon said. “She’s become a lot more difficult to guard because now people are afraid of her passing, which is another weapon that she’s added to her arsenal. I think before people were just like, ‘Oh, she can only shoot or she can only do one thing with the ball offensively and that’s put it in the basket.’

“And I think she’s just expanded her game so much more, become that much more dangerous and a threat with her finishing, but that finishing comes along with the rim reads.”

Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum (10) defends Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman (2) during the WNBA game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 06, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

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Despite Plum’s struggles on the offensive end, she has shown a lot of growth on the defensive end. Hammon has shown confidence in her to play her through the dip in her offensive production to start the season because she has picked it up on the defensive side. She even says they have given her special defensive assignments and she has improved drastically on that side of the floor.

“What I can say is she hasn’t quit playing the other end of the floor,” Hammon said. “At the end of the day, her shooting the ball is the least of my worries. Whenever she shoots, I always think it’s gonna go in, as well as do all of you every time she shoots but where she’s really had growth is on the defensive end… so even if she’s not making shots, she’s still gonna play because of her defense and just the threat of her being out there opens up other things. Not only offensively, but defensively and that’s what people need to start recognizing is her tenacity on the defensive end of the floor.”

While Plum has struggled at times to start the season, she seems to have found her groove. After back-to-back games without making a three, she’s made at least three 3-pointers in three of her last four games including a season high four in the Aces’ win over Minnesota on Sunday. Plum has figured out how to adjust to the new way opponents are guarding her and while it frustrates her, she understands it means teams are respecting her game now more than they ever have.

“I think there’s a there’s a different level of respect,” Plum said. “Last year, I think people said prove it. And I think that maybe towards the playoffs there was a little bit more of an adjustment, but overall, I wasn’t seeing doubles, I wasn’t getting trapped a ton. Maybe here or there but not consistently. This year, man, some days I feel like I’m in prison, man. That’s what happens when you play on a really good team.

“I hope that when people watch the games, they see what is actually happening because, you know, I don’t think numbers tell the full story. But that’s okay. I know who I am as a player, and I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about winning games.”


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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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