Dearica Hamby has made one thing clear in her fourth WNBA season: there’s more than just one young Las Vegas Aces frontcourt player worth getting excited about.
You’ve heard about rookie All-Star forward A’ja Wilson by now. It’s time to also take note of Hamby, who is also contributing to winning basketball for a team already making a surprising run at a playoff bid in Bill Laimbeer’s first season as head coach and president of basketball operations.
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Hamby, 24, is a mobile 6’3 forward that has been taking and making more 3-pointers this season (13-of-42 — 31 percent through 31 games). Though she isn’t quite as tall as some of the league’s most dominant centers, Hamby is the kind of player that can both body up inside and move her feet out in space on the perimeter. She’ll be one of the more intriguing players to follow from the upcoming crop of 2019 restricted free agents.
“She’s shooting the ball from the perimeter,” Laimbeer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in June. “It’s what I asked her to do. It’s like pulling teeth to get her to do it, but she has a quality shot. More so, it’s the energy she brings.”
Laimbeer has mixed and matched throughout the season with his other spot up front alongside Wilson. Kelsey Bone brings a little more one-on-one back to the basket scoring punch. At 6’6, Carolyn Swords is a consistent presence on both ends that knows where to be. JiSu Park, another rookie, has flashed a nice shooting touch from the midrange and also has the frame of a more traditional center. Isabelle Harrison, currently on the temporarily suspended list (personal reasons), can face up and use two dribbles to get to the basket.
While each of those players has brought value to the table in their own way, none of them can open up the lane for the team’s stars (Wilson and All-Star guard Kayla McBride) quite like Hamby. And as mentioned, she moves well laterally to defend away from the basket when called upon, while still bringing enough physicality to bang down low.
Las Vegas enters Friday’s showdown with the Dallas Wings with a playoff spot still up for grabs. But even if the Aces don’t qualify for the postseason, Laimbeer will get another crack via the lottery to add another talented young player to their up-and-coming roster.
The Aces’ roster may look very different by this time next year, but as they compete now and continue to build for the future, it’s become clear this season that Hamby is capable of contributing to winning on both ends of the floor.
Being a mother is what’s most important to Hamby. She gave birth to her daughter, Amaya, last February. Hamby announced that she was pregnant late in the 2016 season, then returned to the court for the start of the 2017 season. A key person in her life both then and now is current Aces assistant coach Vickie Johnson.
“She’s an excellent mom,” Johnson told High Post Hoops after a recent Aces home game. “I’m firsthand with Dearica. Just seeing the way she interacts with her child — she’s a mother first.”
At the same time, Johnson also admired Hamby’s dedicated to her profession and to her team as she and then head coach Dan Hughes arrived at the decision to miss the remainder of the 2016 season.
“She really cared about the team. She loves playing the game. Just toughness. She didn’t want to let her teammates down,” Johnson said. “But one thing she told me — she’ll be back.”
Johnson, head coach of the franchise in what turned out to be their last season in San Antonio last year, felt Hamby already showed improvement over the player she had been by the midway point of the 2017 regular season and that she has continued to get better since.
“I think the year she spent overseas in Italy really helped her because the competition is different from here in the United States. Their one guards are 6’3-6’4, so she had to defend off the dribble. So she’s a better defender.”
And what has stood out about Hamby’s performance this season with the Aces?
“I think her energy. Her ability to guard one through five is key,” Johnson said. “Her ability to run the court the way she does and then knock down that three is very important as well. She’s a stretch four, so if she can consistently knock down that three ball for us, it’d be great. And then being able to put the ball on the floor — it’s pretty amazing.”
Below is my Q&A with Hamby after a July practice at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on motherhood, her game, the year-round grind, her daughter’s favorite Aces and more. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for quality.
High Post Hoops: After giving birth to your daughter last February then getting right back to the grind to be ready for the start of the 2017 season, are there any moments or games now that stand out to you in your journey to get back to where you wanted to be on the floor?
Dearica Hamby: I think there were a lot of up and down games for me. But it was just a matter of me regardless always playing hard and that it would come. Nobody would ever experience that until they actually go through having a child. I was just always playing hard regardless of whether the ball was going through or not. My coach [Vickie Johnson] worked hard with me and she understood what I was going through but she was always still encouraging, “You’re playing hard. It’s going to reward you.”
Your body changes. I lost a lot of weight afterwards. It wasn’t a matter if I was going to lose it or not. It was losing all my muscle and still trying to stay strong, fighting through contact. Even your hips change. So your body movement’s different by the slightest degree. But if you’re not used to that it’s obviously a shift in your game. And I was a step slow with everything. So just getting into a rhythm and momentum was the big thing for me.
HPH: An area of growth for you on the floor has been your 3-point shot. Bill Laimbeer has given you the green light from out there. How do you balance that while still looking for opportunities to get to the basket?
DH: Now that I’ve been shooting a little bit more I’ve gone away from the inside game which is where I’ve always been at. But I think finding a way now, people play me for that, to still get that shot or if it’s even the guards creating a little bit more to get that separation from my player because I’m still sitting at the top of the key. So if I get it I’m gonna shoot it now, but it’s just a matter of now people know that I’m gonna shoot it, so they guard me a little bit closer.
HPH: There have been moments this season now where people run hard to you at the 3-point line and suddenly you fly by them for an uncontested layup.
DH: That’s more of my game in the past. So now that people respect my shot it’s a lot easier to get those drives.
HPH: Coach Laimbeer has said that he prefers to keep A’ja Wilson from having to guard the most physical post presence on opposing teams. What have you learned in your time in the league that has helped you when you’re up against some of the most dominant centers?
DH: I like being physical. I’m an energy player. So I wanna be that person to be physical with players. I’ve gotten a few offensive foul calls on players like [Liz] Cambage and [Brittney] Griner. I might not necessarily be the biggest, tallest, strongest, but I’m gonna outwork that other post player as much as I can.
HPH: We often hear players asked what it’s like playing with Wilson. To flip that script, how does the growth of your perimeter game help her to make the two of you such an intriguing pairing?
DH: I think A’ja and I work well together because of that. She can have that space and I can have the outside the key area. So we don’t really clog each other up. It’s a good balance because she does want that area and I can help. My person can’t go down and double because they’re afraid that I’m gonna shoot. I like playing with her.
HPH: Which players in the league did you lean on and learn from most during your pregnancy?
DH: Bria Hartley and I were pregnant around the same time. Her son is a month older than my daughter. So we stayed in contact a lot and got close during that time. I reached out to Tayler Hill, and she actually had a natural birth which is what I did. I knew that she had done that, and she had given me advice. I talked to her here and there. And then of course Candace Parker. Her daughter’s a lot older but she still remembers those experiences and she was able to talk to me a little bit and encourage me on some things.
HPH: Every season we see so many powerful images of the postgame embraces between Parker and her daughter, and it’s always fun to see the L.A. crowd showing her love whenever she’s up on the big screen.
DH: Yeah. My daughter obviously isn’t as big as her yet, but sits right behind us. You can always hear her clapping. She’s kind of confused at this age, she can see me but she can’t get to me. I hope I’m around long enough playing that she can sit courtside and enjoy the game and actually know what’s going on.
HPH: What’s it been like navigating this condensed regular season schedule?
DH: It’s tough. Last year, [Amaya] traveled every single game with me and even overseas until I stopped breastfeeding. It’s tough because being a mother comes first for me. Basketball and everything else comes after. So it’s tough because I really do want to me home, but I also know that this provides for her and for my family and fiancee. So it’s what has to be done.
HPH: Does Amaya have any favorite Aces?
DH: Nia [Coffey]’s sister, Sydney, she helps us if I’m at practice and my fiance’s at rehab. She’s around a lot. Nia and her sister, they look a lot alike. She sees Nia and I think she thinks it’s Sydney, so she’s always reaching for her. [Kelsey] Plum is really involved with her, she spends time with her. [Kayla McBride] and Moriah [Jefferson] last season spent a lot of time with her. They live a little further this year. [Tamera Young] a little bit, too.
HPH: We’ve heard that the Las Vegas community has really done a good job of supporting this franchise in year one after relocating from San Antonio. In the time that you have had to explore the city with your family, how have you like it so far?
DH: I had never been to Vegas before I got here for the team. You hear stories and see The Hangover and stuff like that. I was excited before I got here, still am excited — there’s so much to do. There’s a lot of parties and clubbing, but even outside of that just a lot of shows and I’ve never seen so many outdoor parks with splash pads, so we take Amaya there. There’s a lot of indoor baby parks because it’s so hot outside. We’ve gotten out and done a lot and we’re gonna continue to and see what the city has. Where we live is a little out of the strip, so we almost forget that you have access to all of that.
HPH: What do you make of just the language used in covering expecting mothers and how those announcements are covered, sometimes just one quick note like there is when somebody sprains an ankle?
DH: I remember after I announced my pregnancy, me and a few other teammates that were injured were watching the game and it was like, out — injuries. Mine said pregnancy. It sucks because the way this league works, obviously some of us are fortunate. We can return. But I think it makes it hard for other women that do wanna start families because it’s like, “If I have this baby now, I may not get back into my career or I’m gonna lose my job.” So I think a lot of women battle with that — starting a career vs. the family. You can have both but obviously it’s hard.
HPH: WNBA players don’t have an offseason in the same way NBA players do, where we see videos of them playing pickup and adding to their game during the summer months. What’s it like for you when you’re playing overseas while also having specific things in mind that you may want to work on for the upcoming WNBA season?
DH: It’s hard because there is not really an offseason. They consider overseas an offseason, but we’re still playing games and the conditions are obviously not what they are at home. So treatment’s a little different, your travel is as well. You’re just in a completely new environment. And I know for me, being overseas is exhausting, especially with a baby. When I’m overseas, I wanna get back home to my child. It’s hard finding a good balance of not mentally exhausting yourself and getting that extra work in, but also being able to still compete.