UPDATE (Aug. 30, 2022, 1:55 p.m.): Shortly after this article was published, A’ja Wilson was named WNBA Defensive Player Of The Year.
It’s no surprise to see the Las Vegas Aces — led by franchise cornerstone and 2020 league MVP A’ja Wilson — playing in the WNBA semifinals, three wins away from a Finals bid. (Las Vegas dropped Game 1 of its series against the Seattle Storm on Sunday.) Ever since relocating from San Antonio in 2018 and making Wilson the team’s first-ever Las Vegas draft selection, the Aces have been among the WNBA’s most dominant squads. In the total years since Wilson’s arrival, Las Vegas is one of three teams to record at least 100 victories, including a franchise-record 26 wins this season.
Wilson has continued to thrive and add new layers to her game under the leadership of first-year head coach Becky Hammon, who has asked Wilson to adapt in the name of progress. In maximizing the team’s core as it pursues its first-ever championship, Hammon, who was named the WNBA’s Coach of the Year last week, has made sweeping changes to Las Vegas’ playing style this season — bolstering Las Vegas’ title ambitions in the process.
Again, it must be emphasized just how great Wilson has been over her first five seasons as a pro. Since being drafted first overall in 2018, she ranks either first or second in the league in most major statistical categories.
|Free throws made||745||1st|
|Free throws attempted||923||1st|
So if parts of the Aces required fixing after former coach Bill Laimbeer retired following the 2021 season, Wilson was not among the faulty components. But her lofty status and production didn’t keep Wilson from being open to Hammon’s new tactical approaches.
The most drastic change for Las Vegas upon hiring its new coach was the team’s collective embrace of 3-point shooting. The Aces’ second-place finish in total 3-pointers during this regular season (a team-record 343) marked the franchise’s highest ranking since 2014 (226) when the team was still located in San Antonio. Over those interim years, the team never ranked higher than ninth in made threes, finishing 10th or lower on six occasions, per WNBA Advanced Stats.
Such a shift necessitated an adjustment in approach for Wilson, who expanded her shooting range in a big way for Las Vegas this season. Though she sported an effective mid-range jumper entering 2022, she typically did little damage from the outside. Because Wilson entered the league with incredible footwork in the low post, the Aces leaned on her interior scoring as an immediate go-to option for easy buckets.
But when the team’s center Liz Cambage left for the Los Angeles Sparks in the offseason, Hammon’s best recourse proved to be pairing Wilson with two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby in the frontcourt, prompting the former MVP to add a new long-range shooting dimension to her game. Already noted as a consistent mid-range shooter, Wilson had more room to expand her game once Cambage took her interior-centric game further west.
Wilson shot only 1-for-2 on 3-pointers during her first four seasons in the WNBA, though such an approach didn’t stop her from trailing only Brittney Griner in total points over that span. This season, her evolved shooting touch resulted in 31 made buckets from deep to help space the floor for Las Vegas’ guard-friendly offensive scheme.
It’s working for the Aces — at least as long as Wilson is on the court. So far this postseason, they are shooting 45 percent from deep in 98 minutes with Wilson in the game. When Wilson sits on the bench? That clip decreases to a team-low 39-percent mark over a 22-minute sample, per WNBA Advanced Stats.
“Shooters [are] always gonna shoot, and that’s what I’m gonna do,” Wilson explained earlier this season when talking about her increase in long-range attempts. “But, you know, it’s just something I worked on in the offseason — this isn’t new to me. This is something I’ve had, it’s my game.”
“I’m glad I’m having my teammates telling me to shoot it even if I’m stinking it up because I’m gonna say the same to them. At the end of the day, that’s just something I’m proud of actually, that I’m able and Becky’s letting me do that.”
With her newfound shooting ability, Wilson’s impact both near to or away from the basket gives Las Vegas one of the WNBA’s most potent all-around threats. In addition to half-court scoring, Wilson’s ability to run the floor has played a key role in Las Vegas leading the league in pace four of the last five seasons.
And the new dimension Wilson added to her game on offense hasn’t lessened her importance on defense. Though the Aces’ defensive ranking this season (sixth) marked the team’s lowest since Wilson’s rookie year (ninth in 2018), her defense helped Las Vegas prevent easy looks near the rim in 2022. The Aces allowed the second-fewest shot attempts in the restricted area this season after having the best such defense in 2021. Wilson’s value in Las Vegas’ stingy defense is evidenced by her shot-blocking prowess. Her career-high 70 blocks this season nearly matched her total from the previous two years combined (84).
Playing closer to the rim as Las Vegas’ de facto center allows Wilson to use her mobility when recovering or offering help on defense. Here is the Aces’ defensive anchor busting up a play against the defending-champion Chicago Sky earlier this season. Wilson does an incredible job maintaining active feet when offering help on the perimeter before recovering just in time to intercept a pass intended for a temporarily open Azurá Stevens:
And here Wilson is against the Phoenix Mercury in Round 1, hustling over from the weak side to reject Brianna Turner on what would have otherwise been an easy layup:
“She has the stats and everything, and she leads in categories,” Aces starting point guard Chelsea Gray said of Wilson’s impact. “But I think [it’s about] her willingness to be that leader and not go up and down. I can’t speak about anybody else, but what I see on an everyday basis is somebody that’s working on both ends of the floor.”
“She’s doing it all.”
For the Aces to bring a championship to the desert, Wilson must remain the elite scorer she’s been throughout her career. Though she has been plenty valuable as a passer1 and defender this postseason, she enters Game 2 against the Storm having scored in single-digits twice in her three playoff outings. After tying her lowest point total for all of 2022 (8 points in games 1 and 3), Wilson can’t let an increased focus on all-around play come at the expense of old-fashioned scoring.
But however she contributes, Wilson’s presence will be ever-critical in this semifinal series against Seattle — who have won each of the teams’ past four postseason meetings dating back to 2020, which included the fourth-worst loss in WNBA playoff history. Game 1 proved that the Storm, with Wilson’s MVP rival Breanna Stewart leading the way, pose a viable threat to the Aces’ title hopes. But Las Vegas is hoping that Wilson’s leadership and well-rounded brilliance — growing as it is all the time — still gives the team the ultimate advantage in its’ title chase.
Check out our latest WNBA predictions.