May 9, 2022
The Becky Hammon experience is off to a high-flying start
What are some early takeaways after two opening weekend wins for the Las Vegas Aces?
LAS VEGAS — Becky Hammon walked out on the floor to a roaring crowd of 6,200 ahead of the Aces home opener on Sunday night against Seattle.
And while wasn’t the prettiest game — the Aces were able to gut out a win 85-74 over the Storm — so far through two games, the Becky Hammon experience has been exactly what the Aces were looking for when they brought the Hall of Fame player in as a coach.
Even though it has been a small sample size, this year’s Aces team looks drastically different than the one that lost in the WNBA semifinals last year. Through two games, the Aces are averaging 96 points per game. They are shooting 51.5% from the field, 45.6% from three and 87.5% from the free throw line. They also are sharing the ball at an incredible clip, with 45 assists on 69 made baskets so far this year. The offense looks different, and the players are having fun moving the ball.
“Yeah, it’s been fun just playing free and running in transition,” said Jackie Young on the new offense. “At the beginning of the season, Becky said that we’re just gonna play really unselfish and I think that you guys can see that. If somebody is open ahead of us, we’re gonna get it them and it’s just been really exciting for us and for the fans too.”
Last year under Bill Laimbeer, the Aces were a triangle offense which focused heavily on pounding it inside to Wilson and Liz Cambage. Under Hammon, they have turned into a free-wheeling, moving, cutting, pace-and-space offense, mimicking the way the NBA has gone. Players are cutting constantly, sharing the ball and pushing it transition at every opportunity. They also are playing with immense amount of confidence and freedom. Hammon is allowing them to make reads and just play basketball. As Hammon says, it’s a team full of hoopers. The offense is difficult to guard even for one of the best defensive teams in the league in Seattle.
“Last year’s team was trying to overload it, slow pace, slower pace. Intentional about post ups. Becky’s offense is more free flowing, is NBA-like right the evolution of our game kind of mimic with the men’s a little bit when we talk about spacing,” said Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn. “You know, all the things that come with that. I think the tempo is different. They’re obviously shooting for threes. And I…would say the pace more than anything.”
One of the biggest changes is in who starts. Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum, two different WNBA sixth players of the year, are now starting for Las Vegas. Hamby had an incredible scoring night Friday in Phoenix, tallying 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting, and followed that up with a career high 19 rebounds Sunday against Seattle. She is aggressive in taking advantage of mismatches and making great cut to the basket.
Plum, meanwhile, is averaging 17 points through two games and is shooting 50% from behind the 3-point arc. She looks like her college days, with the ball in her hands and creating offense for both herself and her teammates. Having both of Plum and Hamby start has completely changed Las Vegas outlook on the offensive end.
Another player who has thrived in her short time in Hammon’s offense is Jackie Young. Young is averaging 19.5 points after the opening weekend and has looked like a completely different player. She had always been a versatile player but never someone the team expected to contribute heavily on the offensive end. However, through the first two games, she has looked more aggressive, she is creating her own offense and at times, Hammon has been calling her number because other teams have been unable to stop her. Both Hammon and A’ja Wilson have seen tremendous growth and an increase in confidence from Young to start this season.
“She is the key to the puzzle,” Hammon said of Young Sunday. “She’s our lock up perimeter defender. She can legit guard one through four. That being said, I thought she was really good offensively today.”
Wilson added, “Jackie, you know I said when we were in Phoenix, I think Jackie is starting to develop herself as a guard in this league and understanding that people in front of her she doesn’t need to see it, she just needs to attack the basket. I’m loving the confidence that’s beaming through her.”
Probably the most impactful change Hammon has made is shifting Wilson to the five position permanently. Wilson isn’t a small player by any means but can be smaller compared to some other five players in the WNBA. However, despite being undersized at times, Hammon’s new offense has opened up a lot of space for Wilson to drive to the basket.
Last year, the paint was clogged with the other big but now it’s open for Wilson to post up or drive depending on the matchup. Hammon has also asked her to be their defensive anchor and Wilson has shown so far how effective she can be in that role. She did a tremendous job guarding Tina Charles in the first game and showed her ability to protect the rim with five blocked shots on Sunday night. Hammon feels Wilson should be recognized as one of the best defenders in the WNBA.
“A’ja in our two games … her defensive effort has been off the charts. As we go through the season, there should be talks about her being one of the best defensive players in the league,” Hammon said. “She had a couple of big blocks, just effort plays, moving her feet. She’s outsized most nights down there and she just continues to outmaneuver people, out technique with her feet and then obviously, she has great hands too.”
Hammon has brought a different defensive mentality to this team as well. They are scrapping, playing tough and smart on the defensive end. They are switching a lot of ball screens, throwing double teams at specific players and even showed a zone against Phoenix, all to keep their opponents on their toes. Hammon knows that players take on the energy of their head coach and she described herself and her team as scrappers.
“You know we’re small but we’re scrappers. I guess at a certain point you just inherent the personality of your coach and I’m a scrapper,” Hammon said. “I like that energy. I like that focus, and it’s a possession-by-possession game…we have to be present in the moment. For every second of it and luckily this team is cerebral enough that they pick things up really fast.”
Though the Aces have been successful in these first two games, there are few concerns for the team. They play very fast and loose on offense and that has led to some turnover issues. In the first two games, the Aces are averaging 16 turnovers. Last year, the Aces were second best in the WNBA in turnovers averaging only 11.6 a game. It may just be learning a new offense but is something the Aces will have to clean up.
The other issue the Aces are facing is fouling too much, as they are averaging 22 personal fouls per game after their first two games. It hasn’t cost them a game yet, but could be costly in tight games later in the season. Hammon says Sunday’s turnover issues were just a case of over-dribbling.
“Well I though we flat out overdribbled at times. Get off the ball, pass it — if somebody is open, give them the ball,” Hammon said. “There’s a tendency a lot of times as a player especially when you have a lot of really good players and capable players that it can just get a little bit like it’s not going good. Somebody’s got to do it. So might as well be me.”
Even with these areas of concern, the Aces have seen a lot of positives through the first two games of the Becky Hammon era. The home opener had a lot of energy with over 6,000 fans in attendance and even a few celebrities in the crowd. Hammon was very appreciative of the crowd and felt they brought energy at just the right moments.
“I think you I mean, if I can feel the energy, I know that the players definitely can feel the energy when you walk into the arena,” Hammon said. “I love the energy. I thought they got loud at the right moments and our players, you know as a player, you can feel that.”
The Aces took a chance hiring a first-time head coach to replace the winningest coach in the WNBA over the last three years. There is a lot of basketball still to be played and two games is an incredibly small sample size … but for now, the Aces should be ecstatic with what Hammon has brought to the table and perhaps believe it could be the start of something special.
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.