The Las Vegas Aces have the best record in the WNBA. They have won five straight games. They have three starters on the All-Star Game coming up on July 27. A game, by the way, they are hosting in their home arena at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Things are going pretty well, right?
“Ugh,” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer groans in response to a question about how he believes his team is playing right now.
Groaning doesn’t quite seem like the right response here. Unless you are Laimbeer, a man with high expectations and the inability to be anything but totally frank.
“He just knows our potential,” said second-year forward A’ja Wilson, who was selected as an All-Star captain and ranks fifth in the league in scoring at 16.4 points a game. “He just sees the potential in you so quickly. I think he groans because we are still figuring it out. Nobody remembers what a young team we are.”
For Laimbeer, this team is in the second year of a three-year project intended to lead to a title. Are they ahead of schedule at this point? And here comes another groan.
“We are nothing special at this point,” Laimbeer said. “We are winning games. We are making plays when we need to make the playoffs. But we have a long way to go.”
Laimbeer said his team is still growing and learning. They are “tightening things up.”
“These are the dog days of the season, and the end is not in sight. We just need to grind it out.”
Before playing gracious host to the rest of the league for All-Star weekend, the Aces have a road game against defending champion Seattle and then home games against Minnesota and the Storm again.
The Aces rank second in the league in scoring behind Washington, and first in rebounds and assists.
“We are not remotely close to where I think we need to be,” Laimbeer said. “This is year two of three. And I don’t buy it yet. We could come together this year. But we still have a process to go through. But we are gaining on it.”
Five of the Aces players have less than three full years’ experience in the league. Liz Cambage has been a game-changer since she arrived via trade in May, but one who has been with the team only 15 games.
“We don’t have an older team that has been together for a while and knows the system,” Wilson said. “Last year was our first year in Vegas and we barely missed the playoffs and I think people came away thinking ‘OK, now we know what it takes’. Now in year two, people are like ‘Championship or bust’. That is literally what people are saying. Bill is just trying to keep us on track, no matter what the expectations are.”
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Wilson is adjusting to her own set of expectations. After being named 2018 Rookie of the Year and finishing among the league’s leading scorers in her first season, she admitted she didn’t fully know what she had gotten herself into. She joked that she would just show up for games and play.
“I mean I knew how tough the league was, but mentally, I was just a college kid coming in and I was just going to play the way I’d always played,” Wilson said. “This year, I’ve definitely been more locked in. I knew I wanted to be a leader, be more efficient, things I didn’t think about last season.”
Despite seeing her scoring average dip, a testament to a balanced Aces offense and Cambage’s presence in the paint, Wilson has improved both her field-goal and free-throw percentage over her debut season.
“We have so many great players and we share the basketball,” Wilson said. “I’m not going to average the same amount of shots and I’m perfectly fine with that. I’m going to capitalize on taking whatever the game gives me and I feel like I’m getting pretty good at it.”
Cambage, Wilson said, has brought the Aces a “healthy balance”. She’s become Wilson’s partner, the two players becoming one of the most dynamic duos in the league and gracing the cover of SLAM magazine this week. But the transition has been undeniable and the team is now starting to bear the fruits.
“It was going to be an adjustment, people wondering how she is going to fit in with us,” Wilson said. “Liz is getting used to us as well, but everybody has welcomed her with open arms and I feel like we are all getting to know our roles.”
Laimbeer knows that Wilson, and others to a degree, is sacrificing for the greater good of the team.
“We have young players who want to make their mark in the league and establish themselves individually,” Laimbeer said. “But I think people have made the commitment to team success rather than individual success. A’ja isn’t a 20-point scorer anymore. (Kelsey) Plum has committed to playing better defense and her defense has been spectacular. Everyone has made a commitment to the team and to sacrifice themselves.”
Look at No. 1 draft pick, Jackie Young, for example.
“I told her clearly, ‘There is no way you are going to be anybody’s vote for Rookie of the Year’, because that award is mostly based on stats and she wasn’t going to get the big stats,” Laimbeer said. “She is a ball-distributor for us rather than a go-to-player. I’m watching that same commitment from all of our players.
“How do we win now? That’s the learning experience.”
And learning, apparently, comes with the occasional groan.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.