LAS VEGAS—Dearica Hamby no longer qualifies as a breakout candidate.
She has outgrown the label.
Emerging as a Sixth Woman of the Year frontrunner shouldn’t be seen as much of a surprise performance from the 6’3” forward. She’s been aiming for a mantle with much higher stakes laid out by Las Vegas Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer when he re-signed Hamby this past offseason: The best bench player on a championship team.
She has handled the weight of that expectation and performed at a high level all season for a top-four seed.
“Everybody knows that I do what the team needs,” she said. “Sixth woman for me is a little more than scoring points. It’s being effective in different ways—defense, hustling, just playing hard. People tell me all the time that they can just tell how much heart I play with. I think that’s what being sixth woman represents.”
Hamby is one of five Aces seeing their first playoff action as they host the Chicago Sky for Sunday’s second-round single-elimination contest and one of four former San Antonio Stars donning the black and red for the franchise in its new home.
None of the Aces, especially the three fellow former Stars, are surprised by Hamby’s body of work. They’ll be quick to tell you that the spark plug swinging games for the 2019 Aces has largely been the same player all along.
“Honestly, she came into the league and she still had this skill set,” said Sydney Colson, who spent three seasons in San Antonio. “She played hard and was that kind of 4 who got out and was active, got steals, went in transition, could step out and hit the three.”
All-Star guard Kayla McBride, part of San Antonio’s last playoff team as a rookie in 2014, noted with a smile that she’s been driving the Hamby bandwagon all along.
“Even though we haven’t been to the playoffs, you could always see her progression,” McBride said. “These are things that we expected of D.”
Those ‘things’ are numerous. The rim runs, hustle plays and rebounding are often cited. But does tell the whole story about such an impactful player?
“I think she’s an all-around player,” Colson said. “She talks, she’s gonna be active on defense. She reads within the pick and roll … She has a mind for the game. She’s trying to take advantage of mismatches, defending some of the better 4 players in the league and doing that consistently.”
Hamby opens doors for the Aces’ top-ranked (95.0 points allowed per 100 possessions per WNBA.com) defense with her rebounding, quick feet and versatility to switch or matchup with different types of players.
Kelsey Plum, selected No. 1 overall by the Stars in 2017, had high praise for Hamby’s defensive hunger and approach at such a demanding position in today’s WNBA.
“She’s super active,” Plum said. “She usually takes on the best player defensively. That says a lot. The best position in our league, I would say, would be the stretch 4. You have [Elena] Delle Donne, Nneka [Ogwumike], A’ja [Wilson], Jonquel Jones. There’s people that are so talented playing the 4. For her to take on the defensive assignment and then be able to produce offensively, it’s pretty remarkable.”
That short list alone includes some of this season’s top MVP candidates. It will only grow stronger as 2018 regular season and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart (Achilles) returns from injury.
Frontcourt play, headlined by Hamby and All-Stars Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson, has been the Aces’ biggest strength all season. Hamby slides in nicely next to either star or even at the 3, where she has closed several games this season.
“It helps on defense when we’re able to switch. We’re just a little more versatile, especially in end-of-game situations. And if we need an easy bucket, you know you can just jam me inside. It’s a good problem to have, but I know it’s hard for Bill right now to figure out when three of your four best players are post players. So how do you get them all there and then also use them effectively? I think long term, it’s definitely something he’s gonna look into. I’m okay with it. I’m versatile enough.”
That trio logged 62 minutes together this season. If nothing else, it gave Laimbeer a chance to find her some extra minutes while creating at least one mismatch for his team to look to attack inside.
“She embraces it,” McBride added. “I think she likes the challenge of having to guard a guard and then being able to take advantage of them on the post, too. It’s just something that she’s been able to add to her game. I think overseas has helped with that a lot because everybody’s pretty much a guard over there. So for her to be able to come back and do that at this level is huge. It allows us to diversify us as well when you can have three post players in with two guards.”
Overall, Hamby logged a career-high 842 minutes appearing in all 34 regular-season games. This season, in particular, may not look all that different when you just glance at the numbers. Her teammates have seen the difference in how she performs consistently for a winning team that counts on her to produce. Could a sweep of Sixth Woman of the Year and Most Improved Player awards be in her immediate future?
“It’s not just her energy, but I think that energy in everything she does it what sets her apart,” Colson said. “She’s just been more solid, more focused. I’m proud of her transformation as a teammate and a friend.”
“Her production in her minutes is what, I think, speaks volumes to how much she’s improved,” Plum added. “She’s come in and seamlessly made a transition from starting to not starting and she’s still extremely productive. She has been doing it for a long time, so it’s really cool to see her hopefully get the accolade that she deserves.”
Hamby enjoys referring to herself as a big guard, especially now that she’s spending some time at the 3 and unleashing more of her handle and finishing ability leading the break. “I wouldn’t go that far,” McBride said with a smile. “But she definitely has a case not only for Sixth Woman of the Year but for Most Improved Player.
“Sometimes earlier in her career, you would see her have these big games. And then she would kind of fall off. She would kind of get in her head a little bit, whereas now I think she kind of uses it as motivation, uses her energy as her greatest weapon. She just has more of an understanding of who she is. I think she has a big case for most improved because of that consistency, being able to come out and dang near get a double-double every game and make big plays. It’s just who she is.”
The Aces are still learning how to play with their new pieces and win at the highest level. They just need wins this time of year, no matter how ugly. One gets them to a best-of-five series. Three more would send them to the Finals.
Armed with the backing of her teammates and coaches, plus the confidence stemming from a very productive regular season, Hamby will have a lot to say about her team’s championship window.
“I think just more opportunity—being on the floor more consistently, more consecutively—helps,” she said. “Not just two minutes here or two minutes there. I think Bill trusts me. If we need to win, he’s gonna leave me on the floor.”
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