Aces season preview: “We’re not rebuilding anymore. We’re here.”

The Aces are ready to win it all

Las Vegas Aces general manager Dan Padover admitted he was a little surprised that Jackie Young elected to declare for the 2019 WNBA Draft after completing her junior campaign at Notre Dame.

Padover and the Aces surprised the rest of the league Thursday morning by officially executing a deal to acquire All-WNBA center Liz Cambage in a deal with the Dallas Wings.

The up-and-coming team already stocked with lottery talent received two more major infusions of talent in Young and Cambage heading into the 2019 season. The Aces finished with a 14-20 record last season, just missing out on the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2014.

Expect the growing fan base in Las Vegas to aim much higher than a mere playoff berth. A quick look around the league, beyond what the Aces have done internally, will justify the high expectations.

This 2019 season will be very different. Every superstar player was healthy and available for a majority of 2018—a rare occurrence in the WNBA, in part because of national team commitments and injuries that occur while players compete overseas during the offseason.

Reigning regular season and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart will miss the season due to an Achilles injury suffered playing overseas. Phoenix Mercury All-WNBA guard Diana Taurasi will miss several weeks after undergoing back surgery. Atlanta Dream All-Star forward Angel McCoughtry is hoping to work her way back from an August ACL tear.

Minnesota Lynx superstar forward Maya Moore announced this offseason that she will not be playing in 2019. Dallas Wings All-WNBA point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith recently gave birth to a son; a timetable for her return to action has not been set.

Not only do the Aces not have to worry about guarding Cambage, another wildcard as the season approached due to her standing trade request. They’ll be adding her into the fold as some of the league’s top contenders play on without key players or bide time until their return.

Aces All-Star guard Kayla McBride is excited just to be in camp with her team at this relatively early point in the WNBA calendar. She understands the high expectations for the team.

“I think we have enough pressure on ourselves, but I think the chip on our shoulder is huge,” McBride told High Post Hoops at Aces media day. “Everybody keeps telling us we’re so young and we’re rebuilding. No, we’re not rebuilding anymore. We’re here.

“For us, it’s about being consistent. We came out to a tough start [last year]. So how do we gradually become great? We added a great piece in Sugar [Rodgers]. I think Dearica [Hamby] and [Kelsey] Plum will have breakout years. The pieces are there, but it’s about how do we put them together?”

LAS VEGAS, NV – MAY 13: Kayla McBride #21 of the Las Vegas Aces poses for a portrait during WNBA Media Day at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Monday, May 13, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images)

McBride had the most efficient shooting season of her career last season while averaging a career-best 20.3 points per 36 minutes according to Basketball-Reference. The presence of 2018 No. 1 overall pick A’ja Wilson next to McBride gave the Aces a formidable inside-out scoring duo.

“It’s easy to play with a great post player when you’re a shooter and a scorer,” McBride said. “They draw so much attention that all you’ve really gotta do is make open shots.

“As a scorer and a leader, I have to understand who she is and be the best version of myself to complement her. That’s what I worked on a lot in the offseason—I played with Brittney Griner and Courtney Vandersloot, two great players—how can I complement them to make us all really great players? So I’m coming in with the same mindset with A’ja.”

Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer is faced with an exciting challenge to get the most out of each of his three stars. One factor sure to help? Waving goodbye to last season’s condensed schedule.

“I’m looking forward to rest,” McBride said with a smile. “It’s just nice to be able to have more practice time. And when we travel, we can take care of our bodies a little bit better. Obviously, we fly commercial; we don’t fly charter. Having those extra days and that extra time is really beneficial, especially as somebody who’s been playing year-round for five years. It’s really beneficial when you see five days between games sometimes.”

The addition of Rodgers—an extremely versatile and experienced 3-point shooter—will go a long way in upping the chances that each of the three All-Stars will get to work from their preferred spots on the floor. She arrived via a trade with the New York Liberty and comes with experience playing for Laimbeer and with another premier post hub in Tina Charles.

“3-point shooting was a big thing,” Padover said. “Bill and I took a look at our numbers from last year and they just weren’t where we needed them to be along with the type of style he likes to play as far as hammering it inside. You need to be able to space the floor.

“So Sugar obviously provides 3-point shooting; defenses just have to respect her. The other thing we wanted to add was defense, another veteran presence. Sugar is a really sound defender—chases after guards, hard-nosed player.”

The trio of Rodgers, McBride and Plum will solidify the backcourt rotation while Jackie Young and Tamera Young soak up minutes on the wing. Sam Gordon of the Las Vegas Review-Journal has reported that Laimbeer expects Jackie Young to handle some of the point guard duties.

A key ripple effect of that decision: Getting Plum off the ball more often to further leverage her shooting ability. Young’s versatility, among other things, has impressed a Notre Dame alum in training camp.

LAS VEGAS, NV – AUGUST 15: Kelsey Plum #10 of the Las Vegas Aces shoots against the New York Liberty during their game at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on August 15, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Aces won 85-72. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

“I think she can play one through three and guard one through four in some cases,” McBride said. “Her versatility—she has the body for the WNBA. She’s strong, fast and powerful, and I think that that’s kind of underrated in this league. And to be able to score that way, we’re excited to have her. I’m looking forward to seeing how her rookie season goes. I think she’s going to be great.”

Wilson and Cambage are sure to form one of the most dominant frontcourt pairings in league history. The Aces have a very versatile and diverse group of players behind them, too, to mix and match based on the strengths of the opponent.

The addition of Cambage, however, will intensify the roster crunch facing that group. Carolyn Swords emerged as the starting center next to Wilson last season. Hamby re-upped with the club this offseason as a restricted free agent on a multi-year deal.

JiSu Park started 11 games last season as a rookie, flashing promising shooting touch from the midrange. Kelsey Bone was acquired in a sign-and-trade deal last offseason with the Phoenix Mercury. Bone’s current deal is guaranteed, which is sure to be a factor in how Padover finalizes the 12-player roster.

Adding to the excitement leading into the season for the Aces is the work done by the MGM ownership group to bring the franchise to Las Vegas last season and up the team’s visibility to foster relationships with the community.

“MGM is best in the league by far. The way they’ve pushed us, allowed us to have the fan base at the Mandalay Bay, it’s been unbelievable,” McBride said. “Being a part of this organization has been nothing but professionalism and greatness.

“Being a part of something like that, knowing that they care that much, they want to show out and support, makes you want to play twice as hard to bring a championship to this city because I think that they would go crazy. Even if we make the playoffs, I think that they would show out, so we want to give them that.”

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