The Las Vegas Aces bet they will be enough — Hear from Becky Hammon, A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, July 13, 2022
BROOKLYN — You wouldn’t know that Kelsey Plum, A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young were playing the kind of minutes we seldom see these days in pro basketball from the animated way the trio interacted at the postgame media podium Tuesday night.
The three of them posed with various products, would-be spokespeople for everything from sunglasses to deodorant, before settling in to answer our questions. Young played 35:08, typical for her — she’s second in the WNBA in minutes played this season, averaging 34.3. Plum is just behind her at 34 even, and logged 33:50 in the 107-101 Aces victory over the Liberty.
It was a game Las Vegas led by as many as 24, before New York stormed back. And how you look at the toll of a season can dictate what you think of the load these players are carrying — fully five Las Vegas starters can be found in the WNBA’s top 25 in minutes played.
Did the Liberty storm back because the Aces are getting tired as games go on? Does the fact that they played their starters big minutes and still barely held on indicate that Hammon is right to play them big minutes?
There are capable bench players in Las Vegas. Riquna Williams and Aisha Sheppard can provide shooting. Syd Colson, defense. Theresa Plaisance and Kiah Stokes are bigs with skillsets that can handle various second unit lineups. Iliana Rupert and Kierstan Bell are promising.
Even so, only the Phoenix Mercury are playing their starters heavier minutes this season.
It’s not as if this isn’t on Becky Hammon‘s radar. It’s almost as if her training on Gregg Popovich’s staff, a place that pioneered load management in the NBA, is doing battle with Hammon’s career itself, when she averaged 33 mpg or more in six seasons, making All-Star games in three of those. She knows a little something about being indispensable, too.
“It’s something we always keep our eye on, but Kelsey and Jackie can go for days,” Hammon told me postgame. “They just can. So after that, there’s only so many minutes.”
And perhaps no more vital Aces player exists than Wilson, who is back down to 29.9 MPG after being well above 30 for much of the year, and 31.9 last season for Bill Laimbeer. Wilson downplayed the question, saying that “when it comes to the fourth quarter and you have a chip on the line, no one thinks about fatigue.”
It is notable, however, that Las Vegas does see a significant decline in fourth quarter production this season. The Aces, overall, are fourth in net rating at 5.4, solidly in that group of five championship contenders. But in the fourth quarter? -6.8, good for ninth in the league. And the top two in the final frame, Chicago and Connecticut, are the two deepest teams in the league. This doesn’t look like a coincidence to me.
Then again? The Aces hit 34-of-35 free throws Tuesday night after flying west-to-east following All-Star weekend for a lion’s share of players and coaches. Would a fatigued team have been capable of this?
“When Kelsey gets rolling, it’s hard to take her out,” Hammon said.
And Plum, for her part, isn’t eager to get any more bench time. Not when her entire career has been working to get out on the floor as often as possible.
“I mean, if I’m keeping it real, I was complaining last year about not playing enough minutes,” Plum said. “… Jackie and I put in a lot of work in the offseason to prepare our bodies for this. So you know, strength wise and conditioning-wise, Jackie’s as good as anyone. I like keeping up with her. She eats clean. She goes to bed, she takes naps. Like I tried to do the same thing. So I feel like honestly for us, we’re competitors. And I know I don’t get tired and I know she doesn’t either.”
Shortly after that, the three players who are committed to bringing a championship and their coach who valiantly returned to the league she once dominated walked off — Hammon, her voice tired, in pursuit of some relief, her young core into the New York night. They’ll all return to it Thursday morning, 11 AM New York time, 8 AM Vegas time, with 13 more games over the next 31 calendar days and then, the playoffs, the chip on the line, as Wilson put it.
Hammon said she intends to get her bench more involved over the last month of the regular season. But will it happen in critical games amid a tight race? Vegas has been betting everything it has on its stars in the starting lineup. Perhaps the single biggest tell in the remainder of the 2022 WNBA season will be how wise that turns out to be.
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