The Pivotal Presence of the Las Vegas Aces Rookies

When Teresa Weatherspoon nailed one of the most iconic shots in basketball history, a contested half-court heave coming up the right side of the floor to win Game Two of the 1999 WNBA Finals, you might have forgotten that Becky Hammon was on the court as well. She was the first player to pile onto Weatherspoon as she sat on the floor in euphoria.

She played just over 200 minutes that season, her rookie year, a small role on a deep playoff team.

The Las Vegas Aces won their first title in franchise history, willed on by Hammon at the helm, rostering three rookies; Iliana Rupert, Aisha Sheppard, and Kierstan Bell.

Rupert actually played slightly more than Hammon did her rookie season, but all three first-year players had deep roots on the bench on a team with five All-Star caliber starters. Yet, they played a pivotal part in the best season in franchise history, even if it didn’t manifest in extensive playing time.

Throughout the season, the rookies were extremely visible as a vital part of the team; check Instagram Live, Tik Tok, or Sydney Colson’s Twitter feed. The Aces’ season was defined by their all-encompassing chemistry as much as their success on the hardwood.

“Everybody enjoys everybody’s company,” says Bell.

“There’s no beef, no drama on the team. Everybody gets along. The vets help us out a lot, we ask them questions, and they’re willing to step aside and help us out. Everybody gels together.”

Bell had the highest usage rate in the NCAA last season (38%). Sheppard started at Virginia Tech in her previous three seasons and was a prolific shooter on high volume. Rupert led her French Club, Tango Bourges, in points and rebounds per game. Coming into an already established playoff team was a significant adjustment for all three.

There’s already difficulty in acclimating to the pro game. Finding your way in a different and smaller role than you’ve been accustomed to for most of your playing career brings an added hurdle to work through. Sheppard harped on that sentiment but also pointed out how the Aces as a whole smoothed the transition.

“Bell and I talked a lot about how Natalie (Nakase) would always text us after games or even during training camp and check in to see how we were doing just so that we weren’t falling behind and feeling left out. It always felt like family and home. It was really nice to understand that our coaches and people cared.”

Hammon herself went undrafted. She has a unique understanding of how hard it is to make the league and solidify your spot, which I’m unsure many other Hall of Famers possess.

“I’ve been in their shoes. I was the last person on the Liberty roster my first year,” says Hammon.

“It’s really important to keep everyone engaged. We’re a unit. We’re a team. Whether you’re A’ja Wilson or Aisha Sheppard, I try to be fair with everybody. Equal doesn’t always mean fair, but I will be fair with everybody,” says Hammon as she closes out with a laugh.

Even from the start of training camp, the rookies were never treated like rookies or like they “didn’t belong,” as Sheppard puts it. It’s a family-like atmosphere, something Hammon has repeatedly echoed throughout the year about how she wants it to be in Las Vegas. She wants it to become a special place that means something more to players. The winning is important, but that buy-in and togetherness are a large part of why the Aces made it to and won the Finals. 

Tyler Marsh, an Aces assistant coach and the head of player development, paints the picture of that environment that Hammon has wanted to create since she first took the job. All of the veterans on the team play a role in leadership. Whether that’s emotional, vocal, or by example depends on the individual.

“Credit to our rookies for being in tune to that,” says Marsh.

“Mimicking the stuff that they’ve seen from the vets who have been around and done it at a high level. That helps each and every day in practice and then builds a competitive environment across the board.”

Rupert, a native of France (you can catch her playing at the FIBA World Cup the next week) and the only foreign player on the team, didn’t experience a culture shock coming over to the Aces for her first pro season (she was drafted in 2021). Her personality meshed with the team instantly, and the staff helped her transition to the W seamlessly.

However, her eyes were opened to ways she could improve her work ethic, something Sheppard and Bell agreed with.

Seeing how the Aces’ vets cared for their bodies around the clock, handled themselves with rest and recovery, and practiced routines upped the rookies’ learning curve.

“I was working before, but coming to the league made me realize you need to work your….” Rupert trailed off before pausing and apologizing for almost swearing, getting a raucous laugh out of myself, Bell, and Sheppard.

“It made me think about how I’m going to work in the next few months to prepare for the next season. It’s the biggest thing I took away this year.”

Sheppard jumped in and spoke on the weirdness of having so much free time. In college, everything was planned out. There wasn’t much downtime outside of school, practice, and traveling for games.

“I’ve learned how to be a pro watching them (the Vets) on and off the floor…Now we’ve learned that you lift on your own, you eat the right things, stuff like that didn’t come naturally at school,” says Sheppard.

Bell believes she’s grown most this season in patience.

“I’ve always been the type to rush. This year really settled me down and made me think a lot more, letting things come naturally.”

The trio regaled in a trip Hammon took them to in Dallas, a dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse. Any and everything that could be imaginably grilled made it out to their table during a multi-course meal.

“That was fun because she (Hammon) just wanted to do that out of the kindness of her heart. She does a lot of stuff like that. But, that was just a memory that was cool for us,” says Sheppard.

Rupert can’t pick out a single memory, but she loves practice. She knows she will always laugh and have fun while still getting her work in. She hasn’t had that same experience with other teams, having had squads where it was very much a slog to go to practice and deal with an unenjoyable environment. 

The team doesn’t really spend tons of time together off the court, says Bell, but in some ways, that seems to strengthen them when they’re together. When they’re together, they’re locked in. She feels the locker room led to some of their best moments as a team this season.

“We got Syd posted up just clowning,” says Bell.

And while Colson’s humor is what tends to be a focal point, her veteran presence can’t be undersold, something the rookies highlight.

Drafted by the Sun and then traded to the Liberty in 2011, Colson was in a similar position to where Sheppard, Bell, and Rupert were this season. She didn’t see much court time on a veteran-laden team that made the playoffs. Essence Carson, Kia Vaughn, and Kara Braxton were just a few of the vets who helped instill some of those same mentalities and perspective shifts that Colson has brought to these rookies in turn.

“It was a great group of vets, even though they weren’t hype people like that, that’s something I’ve just always had and brought when I’ve played, but they showed me work ethic and how to be a professional in the WNBA,” says Colson.

The bench stood out routinely if you watched the Aces at any point this season. Colson and any number of other players on the bench, but particularly the rookies, were active and energetic in celebrating made baskets, defensive stops, and highlight plays of any form. While I can’t speak to the inherent impact of winning off an engaged and uplifting bench, the team did just win a title!

“Every team I’m on, I’m always about making sure the bench is never going to look like you feel a way about not playing or being out there. We’re going to compete when we’re in practice against the other team, and then when we’re out there for games, we’re their biggest fans and vice versa. When we’re in the game, they cheer for us like that too. They’ve (the rookies) come in and done that. You’ve seen our bench, our antics. It’s because we like each other, we love each other, and we wanna see one another do well.”

The future isn’t secure for Bell, Sheppard, and Rupert, but the present is guaranteed. While the 2022 Las Vegas Aces will be remembered for their title, the magical run of Chelsea Gray in the postseason, A’ja Wilson’s award-studded year, and a plethora of other reasons, it’s worth noting how important this bench and these rookies were to this title run.

Their impact can’t be found on Her Hoop Stats or Basketball Reference. It wasn’t always seen in games. As much as this team was analyzed and noted as lacking depth on the court, it was largely unseen how important that mesh of personalities was to the Aces’ overall ethos, which can’t be undersold.

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.