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The Aces are finally playing their best players more

Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum have always been productive for the Aces, but their minutes totals finally reflect that output.

Phoenix Mercury v Las Vegas Aces Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

The Aces have one of the thinner rosters in the WNBA this season, with five players accounting for more than 75 percent of the team’s total minutes. Their bench averages 9.8 points, last in the league by a large margin, and that figure is propped up by a three 20-plus point showings in blowouts.

In fact, Las Vegas has won three games this season in which its bench has put up a goose egg, including its last two contests against the Sparks and Wings. It’s a far cry from the team that sported the past three Sixth Women of the Year, all of whom individually eclipsed that bench output in their award-winning seasons.

But those Sixth Women haven’t gone anywhere: Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum are simply starters now, and the Aces are benefitting spectacularly from having their best players on the floor more.

Seattle Storm v Las Vegas Aces
Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum are both having All-Star worthy seasons in the first five for Las Vegas.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Hamby was already an All-Star in her 24.5 minutes per game in 2021; now, she’s even more efficient while playing six more minutes per contest in 2022. She’s shooting better on twos, threes, and free throws than a year ago, and she’s averaging career-bests in total points and rebounds, as well as rebounds per 36 minutes.

The eight-year vet does a little bit of everything, whether that’s diming up cutters or moving off the ball herself. She runs the floor better than arguably any big in the league and averages the second-most fast-break points per game (3.9), behind only Kahleah Copper. But in order to be a perfect fit in new head coach Becky Hammon’s system, Hamby knew she’d have to be a threat behind the arc, so her primary focus during the offseason was shooting threes. It didn’t take immediately, as Hamby made 4-of-18 threes during May, but she’s making half her triples in June.

“I’ve had a mental roadblock the last few weeks, so it was nice to kind of feel like I can get my confidence back tonight,” Hamby said after making three 3-pointers against Los Angeles on June 11. “I’ve really just been waiting to see a few go in, so I’m hoping this will be the jumpstart of me shooting the ball well, but my teammates have still been encouraging me to shoot it even when — I’ve been airballing so much in practice, and when I do my little warm up — so it felt good to finally see the ball going in. Like every time I’ve been making a three, I’ve just been like thank God.”

Hamby’s had to be more prolific from distance because she moonlights as a small forward in the Aces big lineups alongside two of A’ja Wilson, Theresa Plaisance, and Kiah Stokes, given that Plaisance and Stokes are the only reserves Hammon really trusts. Those lineups require Hamby to be a credible spacer to create breathing room on offense.

Fortunately, even if the offense is inconsistent, Hamby is at home defensively playing on the perimeter. Las Vegas regularly deploys Hamby on the opposing team’s best guard or wing scorer — she spent heavy minutes on Arike Ogunbowale and Allisha Gray against the Wings last week — but she’s also the team’s stopper on post threats like Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. That versatility is key when Hamby toggles between wing and big within individual games.

While Hamby’s role is ever-evolving, Plum has a specific assignment: get buckets. Back in the starting lineup after a brief hiatus and averaging the most minutes of her career, Plum is now second in the WNBA in scoring (20.1 points per game) behind Breanna Stewart. As this thread from Positive Residual lays out, Plum is so much more than just a shooter.

Her handle and acceleration, combined with the threat of her stepback jumper, allow her to get into the paint no matter the defensive coverage, and she’s taking a career-best 24.5 percent of her shots at the rim. It also helps that the Aces space the floor with at least four shooters at all times to open up drives to the basket, and that Plum is a crafty finisher who has great touch when she floats the ball at the hoop.

But it’s no surprise that the all-time leading scorer in college basketball history would be able to put up points at the pro level, even if Plum’s progression has been a bit slower than some might have expected. Plum is fifth in the WNBA in assists with 5.9 per game, even ahead of teammate and point gawd Chelsea Gray.

That may make it seem like Plum is taking on more of the playmaking load, or at least an equivalent amount, but the way Plum puts it, she’s simply following Gray’s lead. The high-level decision-making comes from Gray, and then Plum executes the simple plays that garner her lofty assist totals. Most of Plum’s assists come on dump offs at the rim or drive and kicks, the natural result of help converging when she attacks. She’s the first to admit that Gray sets the tone in terms of how Las Vegas manipulates the defense and she’s able to flow off her backcourt partner.

“She’s the brain,” Plum says about Gray. “I think for me, I really lean on her heavily to make a lot of the reads. I’m a beneficiary of that. And she’s calling plays, and she’s looking at matchups and she’s thinking. I think that helps me get in the rhythm, and I kind of piggyback off of that. But we lean a lot on her experience, not just offensively, but defensively, what she’s calling on the floor, matchups, so she’s definitely the brain.

“I think that she’s a big reason of why I’m able to just play, not really, you know, worry as much about like running the team. I think she gets us in a rhythm and then from there, I try to take the rhythm and take it another notch up.”

When Plum tries to run the show without Gray on the floor — as she had to often last year since she came off the bench — the offense scores 106.5 points per 100 possessions, per Pivot Analysis. But the two of them together create a 117.5 offensive rating, and that combination is why Plum has been able to elevate her game.

And with Plum reaching another level alongside Hamby, the Aces have become world-beaters. They have the best net rating in the WNBA and the top seed in the standings, and are on the shortlist of every major award, with the exception of Rookie of the Year.

Oh, and Las Vegas isn’t collecting any more Sixth Woman trophies. All of this team’s best players are starters, and the Aces’ ascent is only getting started, too.