Las Vegas Aces point guard Kelsey Plum gave one teammate a
ringing endorsement following the team's win on Friday night: "A'ja
Wilson. Let's start the campaign now, people. Defensive Player of
The Atlanta Dream lept out to a surprising 2-0 start to the
season, their best start since 2017, spurred on by the play of rookie Rhyne Howard.
Their defense has been cohesive, transition play has sparked their
offense and the veterans they brought in via trade and free agency
in the off-season have provided a rock-solid foundation.
The Aces simply had other plans Friday night.
Vegas flattened out much of what the Dream wanted to do out of
ball screens, switching the majority of actions not involving the
five spot, something they've done routinely this year. With former
starting center Liz Cambage now a member of the Los Angeles Sparks,
the Aces have restructured and shifted to Wilson as a member of the
The Aces are certainly smaller, but they've made up for it with
activity and aggression on ball screens. If Wilson is facing a good
interior presence, the weak-side defender digs into the post, and
the rest of the defense rotates accordingly. It's a more strenuous
brand of basketball, but the Aces are embracing it, something head
coach Becky Hammon pointed out after last night's win.
"We're small, [Wilson[ is at our five, so we gotta scrap, and
they've all really bought into not making anything easy, especially
post catches," Hammon said. "Her alertness as to what's going on in
the paint has been sensational. I told her, she's gotta be Tim
Duncan for us, she's gotta be Draymond Green for us, where she's
talking constantly and sniffing out anything that comes through her
paint, and she's bought in and done a fantastic job... she's been
Wilson often plays up to the level on screens, making it
difficult to dice up the defense from the middle of the floor.
Seemingly half of Wilson's blocks have been on jump shot contests
when she plays at the level.
Through four games in 2022, Wilson has 15 blocks, a stellar
mark, and the league leader by a longshot. She blocked 55 shots her
rookie season in 2018, the most she has in her career, and she did
that over 33 games. She's been expert not just at getting the
rejections, but at keeping the ball in play. After going back
through all her swats, roughly half of them directly resulted in a
transition opportunity. It sounds minor, but it's a minute skill
that can make a significant difference.
It would be unfair to expect her to keep up this pace all
season, but the hot start is a notable and palpable change in her
defensive approach. Hammon repeatedly has mentioned Wilson's
"buy-in" on the defensive end. The activity is ratcheted up and
setting the tone for the Aces.
"We've got to scrap. We're scrappers, and that's something we
missed against DC (The Mystics)," said guard Kelsey Plum. "That was
something that needed to be in the forefront tonight, so I was
really proud initially when we came out. We had a ton of energy,
we're rotating, boxing out, we're getting in transition, and that's
when we're at our best."
They're getting out in transition and playing with pace often.
Per HerHoopStats, the Aces are 7th in pace at 84.5 possessions per
40 minutes, right around average. Don't let that fool you, however,
as the league-high pace in 2021 was 83.8 possessions per 40 minutes
by the New York Liberty. That would rank only 9th this current
year. It'll be interesting to see how that does or doesn't level
out as the year goes on, because teams are flying.
The Aces' ability to get stops and create turnovers (they are
1st in blocks per game) has been essential in kickstarting their
already potent offense.
This possession is such a great example of the Vegas defense and
Wilson's impact. There aren't many bigs in the W who provide the
coverage versatility and instincts that she does, allowing the Aces
to get a little funky and aggressive.
A'ja shows and recovers on the first pick and roll, allowing
Jackie Young to release from her high tag early to get back out to
Sue Bird in the slot. Bird calls for the ball screen in an
empty corner from Ezi Magbegor. Wilson angles herself well to both
recover or contest the shot as Young chases overtop and Magbegor
quickly rolls off the brief screen. Bird throws the pocket pass,
Wilson recovers and gets the block with her off hand before taking
the ball up in transition herself.
In the event that a screen is more solid and it's harder to
chase over for the point-of-attack defender, Wilson shows and
recovers once the chaser regains connection, or she will outright
peel switch if it's called for. The communication from the Aces in
general has been impressive.
While the offense of the Aces has taken the league by storm
early, the defense is tethered to its success. How Vegas continues
to mesh and workshop on that end will be fascinating to keep up
with throughout the season. Can they keep playing such a small
rotation with this frenetic play style? How will it hold up against
more stout post presences? Right now, it's hard not to feel good
about the state of the Aces' defense, due in part to the improved
defensive play of star A'ja Wilson.