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A’ja Wilson And Liz Cambage Are Elite On Their Own. This Season, They’re A Force Together.

In 2019, the Las Vegas Aces excelled with the duo of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson, finishing 21-13 and advancing to the second round of the WNBA playoffs. But the team’s overall performance was better when playing through either Cambage or Wilson. Of the 25 two-person Vegas lineups with at least 200 minutes played, Wilson and Cambage ranked 22nd, with a net rating of 2.9. That came in below Vegas’s 4.1 overall team net rating, which itself was well behind the title-winning Washington Mystics, who finished at 14.8.

After a 2020 season with only Wilson on the floor, the two are playing together again, and their numbers together have changed significantly — and, with them, the championship hopes of Las Vegas. Still, to hear Cambage tell it, there’s been relatively little difference, in her view, in how the two superstars share the floor together.

“I just see a lot of talent and a bunch of girls trying to find their chemistry and win a ring,” Cambage said after a recent shootaround. “That’s all I’m seeing.”

Even so, Cambage acknowledged that the team is winning more — 19-7, with a clear shot at taking the top overall seed in the WNBA playoffs and, with it, home-court advantage. That’s come alongside an improved performance when Wilson and Cambage play together — a 9.6 net rating so far this season, powering a league-best 10.7 overall rating for the team. Put simply, the Cambage-Wilson duo is now performing like a title contender in overall efficiency, not just a midlevel playoff team.

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And a closer look at the ways Las Vegas has adapted to the enviable problem of having a pair of elite bigs to deploy shows why the numbers for the team have improved significantly, even sometimes at the cost of each player’s individual numbers.

Let’s start with a basic reality for head coach Bill Laimbeer: He’s been able to place the two stars on the floor together more often. Back in 2019, the pair played a total of 429 minutes all season. Already, in 2021, they’ve played 466 minutes together

In her offseason preparation, Wilson accounted for how she would be playing with Cambage, and where she would need to find her shots.

“When you look at all the greats, when you look at people, they’re so good and consistent because they get to their spots,” Wilson said. “And they know where they can work … everyone talks about the elbow and knocking that down. Once I got consistent in that, I’m like, OK, where can I produce in other ways? So I just started working on little things around the basket. And then I knew when Liz got in, you know, space is going to be limited for the both of us — so how to create good shots for myself in a small amount of space.”

Jonquel Jones dribbling a basketball on the court.

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The resulting transformation of the 2020 MVP’s game is as rare as it is a sign of her willingness to change her game to meet her team’s needs. Nearly half of her shots this season are coming 3 to 10 feet from the basket — an area that she’s worked hard on. That serves a dual purpose: She can shoot or drive from there, producing points herself, or she can utilize more looks out of the high-low sets with Cambage, a goal Laimbeer set prior to the season.

Not only does Wilson have a career-high 16.5 assist percentage, but 24 of her 83 assists are to Cambage. The reverse is not happening nearly as often. Cambage is a willing and effective passer, but her assist percentage is down to just 9.6 percent in 2021, her lowest since her rookie year. And just eight of her 30 assists have been on Wilson baskets. This is not a story of selfishness, though; it comes down to following Laimbeer’s orders.

“We’re keeping Liz down low exclusively, correct,” Laimbeer said. This, too, serves more than one purpose. He said he’s got more shooters around the perimeter now than he did in 2019, while Cambage’s presence at the rim guarantees that defenders won’t help off her on drives from Wilson and others. Cambage, though, is getting fewer overall shot attempts, just 15.6 per 36 minutes, down from 17.4 in 2019.

There is another reason both Cambage and Wilson are finding their space on the floor, though, and it’s a change at point guard. That 2019 squad didn’t really have a regular point guard, with Jackie Young, playing out of position, the closest to the role. But the spacing equation changed dramatically this year when the team added Chelsea Gray, she of the limitless range and rainbow threes. Of those 466 minutes that Wilson and Cambage have shared the floor, 391 have come with Gray as well, and the three of them have a net rating together of 9.4.

“I think that’s the key to a good team, is having that good point guard that has that vision, that leadership that can see things and make it happen,” Wilson said of Gray. “You may not even see that you’re open, but Chelsea knows that you are.”

Still, a plan like this required Wilson, the reigning MVP and 2018 Rookie of the Year, to continue her professional shape-shifting. She’d done it once in 2019, when Las Vegas acquired Cambage, then again in 2020, when Cambage missed the season with a medical exemption, and now once more, showing the kind of versatility that helped bring Team USA the gold in this year’s Tokyo Olympics.

“Once I won MVP, my whole mindset shifted because it felt like I still needed to prove myself,” Wilson said. “People were like, ‘Oh, you won MVP, you’re good.’ It’s like no, not really, I haven’t won anything. So at the end of the day, my mindset shifted in the offseason. … I want to be better, I want to be a better teammate for my teammates, get them open, get them involved, and then they can play off me or I can play off them. So I think the biggest thing when it comes to adjustments is getting into the lab in the offseason and working on your game.”

It’s working against everyone other than the Connecticut Sun, who can counter the Cambage-Wilson duo with a pair of bigs of their own: Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones. The Aces are -11.3 as a team in net rating against the Sun, and Cambage-Wilson are a combined -17.6, meaning there’s at least one more adjustment to make if the Aces are to reach that WNBA title they seek.

But to hear Laimbeer tell it, letting Liz be Liz and asking A’ja to change once more wasn’t a hard conversation. In fact, it wasn’t a conversation at all. “[Wilson] understands that she hasn’t won a championship and we had to find a way to get good players to win championships,” Laimbeer said.

And that’s what Wilson said she keeps coming back to, when asked about the essence of what makes this partnership work.

“It definitely has just been moments where we would hit the high-low and I really look at it and I’m like, ‘Who’s gonna stop that?’” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, who’s gonna stop that?”

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Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.