Nobody got more attention in the WNBA last year than the Las Vegas Aces, who scored Liz Cambage late in the offseason to add to a brilliant young core that already included three No. 1 overall picks in Kelsey Plum, A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young, as well as sharpshooter Kayla McBride and do-it-all forward Dearica Hamby. The harsh and bizarre realities of the 2020 WNBA season are as present in the Aces as any other squad, as the version of the team that made it to the “Wubble” site at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., is without both Cambage and Plum, likely stripping the Aces of their chances to avenge a semifinal loss.
Muggy Florida clearly isn’t the best place to serve up ice-cold revenge, but that won’t soothe the Aces, who lost a season of cost-control for Wilson and Plum. They will be well worth watching this season anyway, but simply won’t have the firepower without Cambage (COVID-related opt-out) and Plum (ruptured Achilles’ tendon) to reclaim a top spot in the standings.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
A’ja Wilson: It’s no overstatement to say Wilson is an MVP candidate this year. Entering her third season and without Cambage to adjust to, Wilson could top the 29.2 percent usage rate she put up as a rookie in 2019, and Las Vegas will need her at her best to make a playoff run. In a league that is increasingly transitioning toward stretch bigs like Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne, the 23-year-old Wilson does it her own way, still scoring efficiently from the post and creating her own shots with quickness and craft. Wilson will likely play center this year with Hamby at the 4, creating more space in the halfcourt while also demanding more out of Wilson as a scorer than last year. There might not be a single player in the WNBA this year who will dictate the outcome for her team more than Wilson.
Angel McCoughtry: The main change for the Aces this year is the presence of McCoughtry, whom the Aces swiped from Atlanta this offseason. This will be the first year away from the Dream for the 33-year-old McCoughtry, who missed 2019 with a torn ACL. The notoriously ball-dominant scoring forward may actually have a better pathway to success this season with Cambage and Plum gone, as the Aces can space the floor more and allow her to go to work with the ball in her hands. Last time we saw McCoughtry, in 2018, she shot just 42 percent from the field and 28 percent from deep, with a noticeable downtick in her free-throw rate. Yet the Dream still made a run to the WNBA semifinals, showing she can still succeed within a team concept built entirely around her. If the Aces can cede the offense to her a bit more than expected, and if she and Wilson can co-exist offensively, Las Vegas still boasts the talent for a playoff run, even if their ceiling is now more limited.
At 21-13, the Aces in 2019 announced their presence as a major force in the WNBA, and put Las Vegas on the map in the franchise’s second season in Sin City. Without Cambage and Plum, expectations are obviously muted, but for a team with a loaded roster full of overlapping young pieces, 2020 could be an opportunity for some to separate themselves. Plum’s contract expires after the season, while Cambage is on a one-year deal for 2020. Even if a championship run is unlikely, coming together to make the playoffs could teach the Aces a lot about themselves.
Jackie Young: After Oregon sensation Sabrina Ionescu opted to return to school for the 2019-20 season, the Aces pivoted to Young with the top overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft. That placed high expectations on Young, as did head coach Bill Laimbeer’s decision to start her over Plum all season. Young’s jump shot is a work in progress (.352 effective field goal percentage), but she is strong and mobile on defense and a steady play-maker. Expect Young to play point guard full-time this year without Plum around, and if she can become a more efficient shooter and orchestrate the offense more effectively in year two, maybe the Aces miss less of a beat without Plum than expected.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
Can the Aces space the floor better in 2020? Las Vegas shot the fewest threes in the WNBA in 2019, a signal of the challenges of putting Young, Wilson and Cambage on the floor together. The fifth-ranked Las Vegas offense could potentially get a boost from running things entirely through Wilson, with great shooters in McBride and Hamby dotting the floor. Sinking lower than tops in the league on defense but improving the offense could mean the Aces look quite different on the floor but in effect are comparably competitive. All of it will be based on whether Las Vegas can modernize its offense and adjust to new personnel.