The Las Vegas Aces won't reach full potential without Dearica Hamby

The Las Vegas Aces won't reach full potential without Dearica Hamby

The Las Vegas Aces have the most prolific starting lineup in the WNBA.

No unit has played more than the 537 minutes they've logged together. Among high-volume lineups — let's say 150 minutes — their plus-13.9 Net Rating ranks second in the league. The Seattle Storm's original starting group — Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, Gabby Williams, Breanna Stewart and Ezi Magbegor — slightly edges them out (plus-14.4 NET in 324 minutes).

It's easy to see why the Aces lean on this group. A'ja Wilson is playing MVP ball, and should be the front-runner for the award in my opinion. Kelsey Plum will likely make the All-WNBA First Team. Jackie Young will be in consideration for a spot on the First or Second Team. We recently sang the praises of Chelsea Gray in this space, a former All-Star in her own right. 

Dearica Hamby is a gap-filler to the highest order.

She was an All-Star this season because of her ability to do whatever was asked of her. Defensively, she's been tasked with guarding up or down the spectrum: taking on power forwards (her natural matchup), banging with centers when asked to do so (read: take some pressure off of Wilson) and defending wings when the Aces go to their three-big lineups. And that's before getting into the multiple schemes the Aces employ on that end.

Offensively, Hamby has mostly taken what's been left over. She's a willing screener, a plus-passer in high-post actions, a heady cutter and someone who has a nose for offensive boards. There is room for aggression; her ability to grab-and-go after misses make the Aces even more difficult to deal with in transition. They don't call her "Big Guard" for nothin' folks.

Hamby's versatility has long helped the Aces dial up the pressure on both ends. The Hamby-Wilson frontcourt has been blitzing the league for years; from 2019 to 2021, the Aces outscored opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions in the 1,227 minutes the two shared the court together. It should come as no surprise that the pairing has been fruitful (plus-15.9 in 771 minutes) with Hamby's insertion into the starting lineup.

Hamby is a good, multifaceted and important player for the Aces. In regards to the Aces' title hopes, I'd argue that Hamby has a case for being their most important player.

She is the X-factor at best, and a primary question mark, at worst, among the starting unit.

Hamby's value defensively is derived from her ability to do just about anything in a pinch; I would not say there is an elite skill present — and that's okay. That does leave the door open from subs, namely Kiah Stokes' name being called upon when the Aces want a little more beef against opposing centers.

The real question mark comes offensively. While she can be used as a passing or handoff hub, she is the worst of great options for the Aces. Pick-and-rolls with Plum or Gray at the helm are more fruitful; Young has grown as a creator out of ball screens; clearing the floor for Wilson is the bailout option of all bailout options in The W.

With that dichotomy present, Hamby has seen her on-ball usage drop. In a literal sense, Hamby's usage rate (16.5%) and assist rate (5.8%) are career-lows for her. Roughly 20% of her offensive possessions have come via pick-and-roll screening (13.9), post-ups (4.1) or handoffs (2.0) per InStat tracking data; post-ups alone accounted for over 18% of her possessions last season.

And with Hamby not having the ball in her hands as a post or handoff hub, the spotlight has been put on her off-ball chops. Or, more accurately, there's been little spotlight put on her by opposing defenses.

Tuesday night's contest between the Aces and Washington Mystics featured plenty of possessions where Hamby was the help-off point. When spaced in the short or weak-side corner, the Mystics were okay with rotating off of her to blow things up elsewhere.

It's generally a safe gambit for defenses because Hamby doesn't have a reliable three-point shot. She's bumped up her volume to career-high levels (2.2 attempts), but that number isn't high enough to force closeouts, nor is her perimeter percentage (23.9%) close to high enough to scare defenses right now. 

The Aces are a machine when they're able to play with flow, force help defenders to commit and attack scrambling defenses. That becomes muted if teams are ignoring Hamby on the perimeter, mucking things up at best or turning half-court offense into a 4-on-5 affair at worst.

The "duh" solution is to hope Hamby regains form with her shot. It's gone right now; she made four triples in July (4-of-26), and has not made one since July 17.

Though Hamby's never been a high volume shooter, she's only a couple of seasons removed from a 47.4% clip on similar volume. Once the playoffs hit, you don't have to be a sniper; you just have to hit enough to survive a game or two.

Fundamentally, the answer may be in channeling her screening and hand-off abilities as counters to disrespectful defenses. Similar to Draymond Green's snappiness when he's ignored off ball, Hamby can hurt defenses with timely flare or pin-in screens, or flow into quick-hitting exhanges with guards. Her on-ball screening has been much more effective than her off-ball picks; it'll take real commitment, but there have been enough flashes to signify that it's possible.

Without a solution, the trend of Hamby finishing games from the sideline will continue. The Aces have closed with Stokes and Iliana Rupert in Hamby's spot in different spots this season. There's value to each of those options — Stokes is better equipped to deal with true centers, and Rupert is a more willing and effective three-point shooter — but neither of them bring the connective tissue that Hamby does on both ends of the floor.

The best version of this Aces team — the team that has enough talent to win it all this season — is with Hamby on the floor.

Or at least it should be.

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