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Is this the year the Las Vegas Aces break through?

The Aces are ready to move past being title contenders and become champions.

Phoenix Mercury v Las Vegas Aces - Game Two Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If there were ever a moment that crystallized the transition from former head coach Bill Laimbeer to new head coach Becky Hammon, it happened after the only Las Vegas Aces preseason game of 2022.

The Aces had just taken 23 3-pointers against the Minnesota Lynx, tying a single-game record for the Las Vegas iteration of this franchise, and Hammon was asked how long she expected that mark to stand.

“Into Phoenix on Friday,” the first-year head coach said, chuckling. “It’s an emphasis for us. We shoot a lot of threes every day, and everybody has the green light.”

For a team that already comfortably led the league in offensive rating a year ago — the gap between the Aces and the second-place Mercury was bigger than the gap between second and sixth place — adding more 3-pointers to their shot diet is a terrifying prospect. Las Vegas attempted 625 2-pointers outside of the paint last season compared to 427 threes. If that ratio flips, and that seems conservative given what the team is preaching during training camp, the Aces would add about two more points per game.

Of course, if Las Vegas selectively distributes those extra long-range shots to its snipers, Riquna Williams and Kelsey Plum, as well as rookie Aisha Sheppard, the ACC’s all-time leader in 3-pointers, then those point totals get even more favorable. Perhaps we’re looking at the first team since 2010 to average 90 points per game.

The introduction of a modern offensive system is one of many reasons to keep an eye on the Aces in the 2022 season. Let’s run through some of the others.

A’ja Wilson is one of the best players in the world

At 25 years old, Wilson already has a resume to rival some of the very best in the WNBA. The fifth-year big is an MVP, three-time All-Star, two-time all-WNBA selection, and one-time all-defense honoree in 2020. Wilson was also one of the top two players on the Olympic team that brought home a gold medal in 2021.

Good luck trying to stop her when she gets deep post position — her endless array of moves on the block and soft touch make her a nightmare to guard inside. Her midrange jumper is near-untouchable with her high release. Wilson even dished out 3.1 assists per game in 2021, the third-highest total among bigs behind Candace Parker and her podcast co-host Napheesa Collier.

The 2018 no. 1 pick has already lived up to the promise of her draft selection, but she’s itching for more after a disappointing exit from the 2021 postseason and then watching her alma mater capture a second national championship last month. Wilson doesn’t play overseas, so the WNBA season is her only chance to win a title. It’s not as if she’s running out of time — again, she’s only 25 — but the best players in the world have hardware to back up that claim. No time like the present for Wilson to add to her trophy collection.

Dearica Hamby is finally starting

There has been a sense of annoyance with Las Vegas in recent years watching their best players come off the bench, Dearica Hamby in particular (though Danielle Robinson playing behind Lindsay Allen wasn’t a picnic, either). Hamby is critical to the identity of the Aces, a fixture of the team’s closing five, and yet has been a sixth woman for as long as she has been in Vegas. It was one thing when Liz Cambage was playing at center next to Wilson, but even Carolyn Swords slotted in front of Hamby for the entirety of the 2020 season.

No longer. Hamby appears to be in Hammon’s starting five, and not a moment too soon. The Aces are stockpiling centers at a surprising rate, with Kiah Stokes and Theresa Plaisance already in tow, Victoria Macaulay on a training camp deal, and 2021 first-round pick Iliana Rupert rumored to join the team later this summer. That caused some concern that Las Vegas would play Wilson at power forward, but she suited up at center next to Hamby in the preseason. That duo, both of whom were All-Stars a year ago, is the best two-way tandem of any Aces frontcourt pairing, and with Hammon intent on pushing the pace, Hamby’s guard skills could come in handy.

A year ago, Hamby was part of the top three 2-player lineups for Las Vegas in terms of net rating. Wilson and Hamby were plus-15.0 per 100 possessions, the highest net rating of any duo involving Wilson. The two-time sixth woman of the year has a way of bringing out the best in her teammates, and it’s only right that she is on the floor with them as much as possible.

Projected Aces Rotation

Point guard: Chelsea Gray / Kelsey Plum / Sydney Colson
Shooting guard: Riquna Williams / Plum / Aisha Sheppard
Small forward: Jackie Young / Kierstan Bell
Power forward: Dearica Hamby / Wilson
Center: A’ja Wilson / Kiah Stokes / Theresa Plaisance / Iliana Rupert

The Aces have unfulfilled potential

Las Vegas was arguably the most talented team in the league top to bottom a year ago, but came up short of the ultimate goal. Losing in the playoffs is one thing, but to bow out to a Phoenix team that was running on fumes after playing two single-elimination games and had lost Kia Nurse to injury was unbefitting of the Aces after their dominant regular season.

This group has gone through some changes, namely on the bench and at the center position, but enough of the core is in place to feel the sting of last year’s defeat. Perhaps Las Vegas will benefit from no longer being considered the favorite — Chicago, Connecticut, and Seattle have all picked up that mantle. The Aces thrived with lower expectations in 2020, and this squad has far more firepower than that one.

If Wilson really is the next face of the WNBA and Gray is the next great point guard and Plum is as unguardable as everyone claims she is, then Vegas has the talent to contend with anyone. For three years, it has felt like the league has been there for the taking for the Aces, but they haven’t been able to seize the opportunity. Maybe this is their chance.