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June 26, 2019

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Aces up: Las Vegas’ WNBA team looks poised to break through in year two

McBride

Aaron Lavinsky / Star Tribune via AP

Las Vegas Aces guard Kayla McBride drives against Minnesota Lynx forward Cecilia Zandalasini during a game Friday, July 13, 2018, in Minneapolis.

The Aces are back for their second season in Las Vegas after narrowly missing the playoffs in 2018, and no WNBA team appears more poised for a breakthrough campaign. The squad opened training camp at the beginning of the month, and with the first public look at the team set for an exhibition May 19, it’s time to get reacquainted with the city’s professional basketball franchise.

Who’s still holding it down?

K-Mac is back

Kayla McBride remains the heart of the team. The veteran All-Star averaged a career-high 18.2 points last season while hitting 39.3 percent of her 3-pointers. She was arguably even better in the WNBA offseason, when she went to Russia and helped her UMMC Ekaterinburg squad win a EuroLeague championship.

As the Aces’ team leader, McBride says she feels it’s her responsibility to set championship goals. “I want to bring that here,” McBride said. “Obviously we have great players: A’ja Wilson, Tamera Young, Kelsey Plum. So we’ve got a lot of talent, but are we going to be able to outwork the other teams?

“That’s what’s going to carry us to the playoffs,” she continued. “We know we’re going to be efficient on the offensive end, but how tough mentally can we be on the defensive end, and in those small moments like 50-50 balls and the defensive rebounds that are going to carry us to 2-point wins and 3-point wins? Because that’s where we failed last year.”

Sharp shooter

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Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum (10) maintains control of the ball while being defended by New York Liberty guard Brittany Boyd (15) during their game Friday, June 22, 2018, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The Aces won 88-78.

Kelsey Plum was one of the top shooters in the league last year, finishing fourth in the WNBA in 3-point accuracy at 43.9 percent. Now heading into her third pro season (and second under hard-driving coach Bill Laimbeer), the southpaw guard is set to become the kind of player the franchise expected when it drafted her No. 1 overall in 2017.

What’s new?

Liz

Is Liz Cambage the best player in the WNBA? If she's not, she's really, really close — and by acquiring her in a trade last week, the Aces have instantly turned themselves into title favorites.

Cambage was the MVP runner-up last year in her first season back in the WNBA after a five-year hiatus. The 6-foot-8 center averaged 23.0 points and 9.7 rebounds per game for the Dallas Wings, and she set the league's all-time single-game scoring record with 53 points. Adding that kind of dominance to a team that already features a pair of All-Stars in A'Ja Wilson and Kayla McBride should pay off with championship hardware. 

Another No. 1 pick

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Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale, left, is congratulated by teammate Jackie Young after sinking a 3-point basket to defeat Mississippi State 61-58 in the final of the women's NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament, Sunday, April 1, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio.

Jackie Young should be one of the most impactful rookies in the league. The Aces chose the 6-foot guard with the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft—their third top overall pick in three years—after Young averaged 14.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game at Notre Dame last season.

The sooner Young gets acclimated to the professional game, the better off the Aces will be. That’s been a focus for the team during training camp.

“It’s definitely different than college,” Young said. “It’s a lot harder up here. ... I think they’re pushing me to be more of a leader, to get me out of my shell and play more freely.”

Look for the rookie to play big minutes right away and give Las Vegas another dynamic presence on the perimeter.

Host city

The WNBA All-Star game is coming to Las Vegas. The 2018 edition was staged in Minneapolis and drew an announced attendance of 15,922, so hosting the game is a big deal for the Aces, who play their home games at Mandalay Bay Events Center.

The venue holds 7,800 for basketball, and the Aces averaged 5,208 per game last year, so the All-Star game July 27 should be the biggest event of the season.

Extended schedule

The Aces’ first season in Las Vegas was a little rushed, and it wasn’t the team’s fault. The entire WNBA schedule was condensed in order to finish the campaign before the beginning of the FIBA women’s basketball World Cup, leading the Aces to cram 34 games into 92 days.

The 2019 season will be more spread out, as the team will go through a full training camp before tipping off the regular season May 26. Las Vegas will then play its 34 games over 106 days, wrapping up the slate September 8.

Who’s better?

MVP potential

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Las Vegas Aces center A'ja Wilson (22) shuts down Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot (22) during their game at Mandalay Bay Events Center Thursday, July 5, 2018.

Is A’ja Wilson the best player in the WNBA? Cambage certainly has a case (see above), but Wilson was so productive as a rookie last year that it’s now a reasonable question to ask.

Wilson was the league’s fourth-leading scorer (20.7 points per game), sixth-leading rebounder (8.0) and fifth-leading shot blocker (1.7). She was also a physical presence in the paint—her 7.5 free throw attempts per game led the league.

If her game takes a sophomore leap in 2019, she’ll be an MVP favorite.

Wilson’s case for that award will also have to be built on team success, though. After missing the playoffs last year, there’s no reason why the new-look Aces can’t make a deep run in the postseason when September comes around.

Look for Las Vegas to advance as far as Wilson and Cambage can take them.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.