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A’ja Wilson is the only center the Las Vegas Aces needed

A matchup against former Aces big Liz Cambage made Wilson’s dominance all too clear.

Minnesota Lynx v Las Vegas Aces Photo by Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images

Liz Cambage is a four-time WNBA All-Star, two-time all-WNBA selection, and owner of the highest single-game scoring performance in league history. There aren’t many talents like hers in the WNBA now, or in the past 25 years.

But the face of the Aces was and continues to be A’ja Wilson, who was the no. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, a year before Cambage arrived in Las Vegas. And Cambage and A’ja Wilson never really brought out the best in each other. In 2019, the Aces had a plus-9.0 net rating with Cambage on and Wilson off the court, and plus-4.7 with Wilson on and Cambage off. Together? Vegas managed plus-2.5, per Pivot Analysis, a negative synergy among the team’s two best players.

In 2020, with Cambage sitting out the season, Wilson managed to earn league MVP honors, and if Dearica Hamby were healthy in the postseason, the Aces might have captured a WNBA title. But when Cambage returned in 2021, the team was once again better with one of their star bigs on the floor than both. And after a disappointing loss in the postseason to the Phoenix Mercury, it was time to change course.

Wilson was the obvious player to hold on to for a whole host of factors — age and contract status among them — while Cambage headed west to Los Angeles. But even after a season that included a gold medal and a second-team all-WNBA nod, Wilson had some questions to answer thanks a worse-than-expected playoff performance. Las Vegas was minus-1 in the 101 minutes Cambage played against Phoenix without the 2020 MVP, but was outscored by more than eight points per 100 possessions with Wilson and not Cambage on the court. It was a result that ate at Wilson, leaving her “pissed” and “ticked off” during the offseason.

Eight games into the 2022 WNBA calendar, those struggles seem like a lifetime ago.

Wilson has been off to a roaring start in her fifth season, punctuated by a dominant performance against Cambage and the Los Angeles Sparks Monday. The Aces were plus-24 in her 20 minutes of play in the 104-76 win, which seems outrageous until you realize that Wilson has a net rating of plus-22.7 for the year. The center came into the game averaging a ho-hum 14.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game — she notched 14 points and four rebounds in the first quarter alone as Las Vegas set a franchise record with 39 points in a period and built a 20-point lead.

The numbers are one thing, but Wilson showed a level of versatility befitting a superstar. Knowing that Cambage would be reluctant to leave the paint on defense, Wilson stepped behind the arc on two of the team’s first three possessions. She had only ever taken two threes in her previous four seasons, but hit two in a game — and in a quarter — for the first time in her career. Look at how smooth that shot is.

“I just try to put the ball in the hoop,” Wilson said postgame. “My teammates trust me enough to let me do that. And I know it’s vice versa for them as well. So I mean, my confidence is always there. I mean, you all heard me tell J to shoot. So I’m not afraid to tell anyone to shoot, and if I’m not afraid, of course I’mma shoot it. So I think at the end of the day, I was just gonna shoot.”

Wilson’s burgeoning perimeter game hasn’t come at the expense of her existing dominance in the post. She smoked her first layup — which she was quick to bring up after the game when discussing the team’s otherwise hot start — but she finished the game shooting 7-of-9 at the rim. Wilson can roll out of screens, face up and drive, and post up shoot over smaller defenders. Her offensive arsenal is downright terrifying.

Wilson’s true shooting percentage is 62.4 through eight games, obliterating her previous career high of 54.7 percent. She’s upped her efficiency despite adding threes to her shot diet because she’s getting to the foul line more than ever, earning about one free throw for every two field-goal attempts.

This offensive explosion (second-highest offensive rating in the league behind Bri Jones) has come while Wilson is submitting a DPOY-worthy season. She’s become an elite rim protector after shifting from the 4 to the 5, blocking 7.7 percent of 2-pointers while she’s on the floor. That trails only Ezi Magbegor among rotation players. Some of her blocks on perimeter players have been especially highlight-worthy.

Despite being relatively undersized for a center, especially compared to players like Sylvia Fowles, Jonquel Jones, and yes, Cambage, Wilson has held her own against bigger bodies. Cambage had only 10 points in her return to Las Vegas, on occasion being pushed away from the basket by the slighter Wilson.

“I thought A’ja really set the tone,” head coach Becky Hammon said postgame. “Yeah, she came out she made some shots. Okay, we know that. But defensively, she just worked. She just worked all night. Cambage to get nine shots, like that’s really hard to do. And so she was just locked in and we gave her good support behind her.”

There is a lot going right for the Aces in their blistering start to the season. When at least four starters score in double digits every night, good things are going to happen. But the fulcrum of Las Vegas’ success is Wilson, and the big bet the team made this offseason that she could hang as a full-time center for longer than 22 games.

That bet is paying off handsomely. Wilson has only had one breakout scoring game so far, and her team is still wrecking opponents. The rest of the league is on notice: The Aces have finally figured out how to optimize their best player.