I know what it takes to build a winning program — because I’ve seen one built firsthand.
When people think of South Carolina Women’s Basketball now, they think of the top of the top. They think of one of the true powerhouse teams in the country, led by one of the best coaches in the world, Dawn Staley — a coach so good that she also coaches the U.S. women’s national team. They think of five straight seasons of finishing in the Top 10. They think of thousands of fans, paying for tickets, and selling out the Colonial Life Arena, all to watch us play. And of course — and I will never, ever get tired of typing this — they think of our 2017 national championship.
But what people forget, when they think about SC women’s hoops — it’s how tough things were there, and not even so long ago. Coach Staley’s first year on campus, in 2008, that team finished 11th in the conference, at 2-12. They went 10-18 overall. SEC teams would always talk about how much they hated to play at South Carolina’s place, because we would never have any fans there watching. Our gym was like a ghost town.
And then they started building.
Every year, new players arrived and put in the work to push the program forward. By the time my class came in, in 2014? SC had won an SEC title, reached the Sweet Sixteen, and finished No. 8 in the nation. So I really felt like, with our class — our job was just to push it over the top. We wanted to finish the job that all of these other amazing women at SC had started. And we did that.
And I’m so proud to have been a part of it.
But in a lot of ways, the truth is, sometimes I also think we had it a little easy. Because like I said — for us, it was all of these amazing women who came in to Columbia before our class that had to fight through the losing seasons, the skeptical fanbase, the lack of respect and whatnot. Those women, they built a winning foundation. And then we came in and put a national championship on top of that foundation.
And so it was funny when people would ask me how it felt to be drafted by the Aces, this team that was new in so many ways — new city, new fans, new head coach, a lot of new players, and no real tradition?
My honest answer was that I loved it.
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I loved it, and I welcomed it. Because I already know what it feels like when you win a team’s first-ever championship — and I know I want that feeling again. But I also knew how this time, with the Aces, I’d have to do it the hard way. There wasn’t going to be a winning foundation waiting for me — waiting for any of us — in Vegas. Nah. As the Aces? We were going to have to be a project. That’s what I like to call teams like ours, or challenging moments in life like this: projects. And here’s the main thing about projects: You start them from scratch.
So that’s what we set out to do.
We set out to plant our new flag in our new city — and build our own, new bandwagon for fans to hop on.
We set out to convince them to hop on.
We set out to build a winning foundation — a winning culture.
And we set out to spread the word, the new word, as simply as possible, that, listen — y’all like hoops? Well, there is something good going on in Las Vegas.
And I loved that about this year. I loved that. Even when we were 1–7, when we started the year so bad — you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking, Man, I can’t wait to stick around here for this come-up. And then God-willing, years from now, when we’re this powerhouse, I’ll get to be that veteran player, who — I mean, you know the one. That vet who takes some hotshot rookie aside for one of those learning moments. Hey, rook. Do you realize that not even a few short seasons ago, at this same time, we were 1–7? Do you see what we’ve been building here? Do you feel me? I was already thinking about that future moment — when I’d get to use that slow start as a learning experience for someone else. As a way to teach someone who was just coming on board that when you put on a Las Vegas Aces jersey, that means something. And it means something because of the hard work that we all put in, day in and day out, back in seasons like these — when nothing was coming easy.
And nothing did come easy for us this season.
So, you know, to fall short of the playoffs here … I’m not shedding any tears over that. I know, and this team knows, and our fanbase knows, and the rest of the league most definitely knows, how hard the Aces worked this season, and how much grinding we did — just to get ourselves into this position where there were even playoffs to fall short of. And I’m incredibly proud of this group for that. We were 5–11 around the end of June — and we took this thing all the way to 12–13 by the end of July. That’s perseverance. And you know what else it is?
So with all due respect to the assignment the Players’ Tribune gave me — which was to rank the seven best players, 25 and under, in this year’s playoffs — I’m going to have to call an audible here, and do a different kind of playoff preview.
We’ll do the five best players, 25 and under, in the playoffs.
But then I’m going to have to go ahead and save two of these spots for the Aces.
Because whoever the young guns on our team are a few years from now, I need something for them to go back and read. I need them all to be able to see about the time back when we weren’t always winning. About the time back when we started off slow.… but then scratched and clawed and ended up coming within a game or two of shocking the league. And about the time when we had missed out on the playoffs, but then A’ja — man, A’ja, she had so much pride in everything that we had accomplished, that she still put some Aces players in her d*mn playoff preview.
A few years from now, I want those young guns to bring me this article, laughing.
And then I want to look them in the eye.
And I want to tell them about how — no matter what this franchise does between then and now, whether it’s losing or championships or whatever — no season will ever mean more to me than that 2017–18 Las Vegas Aces season. Why? Because that was the season when we started off with nothing, and ended up with something.
That was the season when we started off as a project and ended up as a program.
Here are the five best young guns in these WNBA playoffs — plus two more who you’re going to be hearing from again, real soon:
(7) A’ja Wilson
I still have so much to learn. That’s my main thing. I have so much to learn still about this game that it excites me. Every day, I am motivated by what’s going to come next for me in this league, and what’s going to come next for my team, and what’s going to come next for our city.
The biggest hurdle for next year, obviously, it’s making the playoffs. That’s got to be the goal. We know how loud our fans can get — how wild Mandalay Bay can get — even for a regular season game. And so we’ve got to make it a priority to get some playoff basketball in front of these people. They deserve it.
And we’re ready for it.
I’ve been watching LeBron in the playoffs this last bunch of years, and it’s so inspiring to me. I mean, the way that he just wills his teams to victory, you know? The way he wills it. The way that he always seems to have this extra gear when the stakes get high — not just physically, even, but also mentally. The way that people now just expect greatness from him. That’s something that I’m always studying up on and always admiring.
I don’t want my greatness to sneak up on people — you know what I mean? I want them to expect it. And then I want to deliver.
But I also know that in order to have my chance to deliver, and have a chance to show the world my playoff gear, and show people how I can raise my level when the level gets raised on me — I know we have to get to those playoffs first. So I’m just very excited for that moment to get here.
And all I have to say is: Soon.
(6) Kelsey Plum
I think Kelsey has really been slept on coming off of the season that the Stars had in 2017, with all of that losing, and with her having been the No. 1 draft pick and going through injuries and things. Our business has such a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture, and I think it’s really telling how many people kind of forgot about Kelsey after one year that didn’t quite go her way.
Man, newsflash for those people though: Kelsey isn’t going anywhere. That woman can flat-out play. What did she shoot — 44% from three this year? While also fulfilling her everyday point guard duties? The trick with Kelsey, I’ll just tell you it right now, it’s that she has the quickest release in the league. So you’re out there guarding her, respecting her court awareness as an elite point, respecting those passing lanes, respecting the handle, and then — one flick of the wrist and it’s over for you. Kelsey’s already got you for three. I mean, let’s be real: How do you stop that, when it’s that fast, and it’s that pure?
And it’s not going to get any easier. Because Kelsey Plum — she works hard. She works her absolute butt off. “First one to the gym, and last one to leave.” I’ll be honest, I always thought that was a cliché, until I met Kelsey. But that’s who she is. I think this team has been blessed to have a lot of leaders but there’s still always that core leadership a team needs from its point. And Kelsey really stepped up this season, I think, and provided us with it. I know that I got a lot of attention this year, myself, as one of the rookies doing well. And I know that Kayla — I mean, Kayla’s our other All-Star, and she’s a genius player….. don’t even get me started on her because I’ll be here all day. But I think Kelsey really held it down this year in a way that she hasn’t always gotten the proper credit for. To me, she’s been as responsible for our success this year as anyone.
And she’s going to be a problem in this league for a while.
Actually, you know what else — I’m going to flip this around and give Kelsey a hard time here for a second. Too many compliments so far!!! You know what I mean??? Alright…. so every practice, we do this fun little thing to blow off steam, where we all take our turns putting up half-court shots, and then it’s this contest to see who can make one first. And if you’re looking through our roster, and you were going to pick someone who should just be cleaning up at this game, it’s like — it’s gotta be Kelsey, right??? One of the best pure shooters alive, broke all these records and whatnot. I’ll tell you what, though: I think Kelsey is the only member of the team who didn’t win a half-court shot competition, all season. Can you believe that!! So I like to give her a hard time about it.
In conclusion, there it is, my official scouting report on how to stop Kelsey Plum: Give her that open look from half-court 🙂
(5) Elizabeth Williams
Y’all, I’m telling you: Don’t forget about the Dream!!
That’s all I’m going to say right here. I know that Angel went down, and she’s their All-Star, and one of the best players in the entire league. But having played against the Dream, I can also tell you this much for sure: They’re no fluke. And that roster, you know…… it goes deeper than just any one player. Of course you have a star like Tiffany Hayes, who is playing some amazing basketball. And you have a role player like Renee Montgomery, who is just shooting it out of her mind. But no player right now is a better example of Atlanta’s depth, to me, than Elizabeth Williams.
Elizabeth is the glue. She does the little things — the things that don’t stand out in the box score. So when you’re maybe looking at the Dream right now, and thinking they’re about to fall back a bit, just remember that they’ve been doing this all year long. They’ve been taking care of their business, and showing up in the ways that don’t always show up. And as long as they have players like Elizabeth on the floor, I don’t necessarily see this run of theirs stopping anytime soon.
(4) Allisha Gray
Allisha’s a big guard, and I love that.
Wait, no — no no. I have to back this up a second. This is where a good journalist I think has to make a “full disclosure.” O.K., full disclosure: Allisha Gray is my best friend.
Alright, I feel a lot better now. Now you know. Allisha and I are tight, we’re basically sisters, and we go way back. Been best friends since early in college. And since she was a draft class ahead of me, she really helped me out a lot, just in terms of giving me advice, you know, as far as what to expect as a pro. (See, you think it’s a lot of talk about Xs and Os. But really it’ll be like, A’ja — they have this thing called UberEats.)
So anyway, I just wanted to do my journalistic duties there for a second, and get that out of the way. But also now that we’re done with that.…. I’ll say this: If you really think Allisha is only on my list because of our friendship?? Then you aren’t watching enough of the W.
We’re talking last year’s Rookie of the Year — who has only gotten better this year.
Like I said, Allisha is a big guard, and that makes her such a challenge for teams to plan against, especially in the pros. And what I mean by that is — you know, it’s interesting: One of the things I’ve really picked up on this year, comparing college and the pros, is just the huge difference in scouting. Scouting, man, it’s so different up here in the W. Because in college, we’d have all of this time between games. So we’d spend so much time scouting each opponent. But then in the WNBA, it’s nothing like that, because the schedule is moving too fast. And you probably just have a shootaround, or maybe one practice, to go over the next team y’all are gonna play.
So one thing I’ve found is, a player like Allisha, someone who brings something truly unique to the table, like her size for her position, and her ability to move and make things happen without the ball in her hands — that’s especially tough to scout for and to plan for at the professional level. Like, how are you going to be prepared for something you’re seeing maybe three times a year? Allisha is dangerous like that.
And I think the sky’s the limit for her. Obviously it was a real battle, over these last few weeks, going toe-to-toe with Dallas for that final playoff spot. And we wanted it so bad. But my feeling this whole time has been — if we’re going to lose out on that last spot? Then there’s at least the silver lining of my loss being my best friend’s gain. And I know already that no one is sleeping on the Wings — not with Liz doing her thing, and Skylar doing her thing, and really that whole team coming together after a lot of adversity. But I’m telling you: Keep an extra eye out in these playoffs for my girl.
(3) Chelsea Gray
You know that playoff gear that I was talking about wanting to show to the world?
Chelsea did that.
Chelsea did that, man. I’ll never forget it: 20 points off the bench, in 24 minutes, in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals, against the defending champs — at 23 years old. And then that very next game: 11 straight points, in a back-and-forth second half, to lead the Sparks to the championship.
That’s what you call rising to the occasion. And that’s what I call Playoff Chelsea.
She’s just a straight-up killer out there. And I’ll just always gravitate toward players like that, I’ll always love their games: players who have that special gear where they can just say, O.K. — you know what? We’re not losing. Not on my watch. And put their entire team on their shoulders.
So, yeah, no doubt — we could scout Chelsea, and we could talk about the numbers. We could talk about how she’s instant offense, instant buckets … and also somehow fourth in the league in assists. We could talk about the 1.4 steals per game, or the three straight seasons over 50% from the field, at a guard position. We could talk about the 40% career mark from three, already fourth all-time among active players. We could talk about all of that.
But to me, over the next few weeks, you can take or leave any of that stuff. Because come these playoffs — all that really matters is one thing: Do you have a playoff gear or do you not. A lot of players, they’re still looking for theirs. But Chelsea? Nah.
Chelsea did that.
Don’t bet against her doing it again.
(2) Jewell Loyd
“Jewell Loyd is a SILENT ASSASSIN.” That’s what I tell people about Jewell.
She’s that kind of player where, you know, she’ll be out there, just staying within the flow of the offense and all of that, playing her style, not forcing it or anything, and you’re watching her and you’re thinking, Yeah alright — she’s having a good game, she’s nice…. but then you look up at the scoreboard and it’s like, wait, hang on, what? She got us for 35?!
She’s — I want to say a “classic” combo guard, but classic might be the wrong word. Because the classic model of combo guards, I think historically that’s been like, you’re a “tweener” Where it’s maybe this case of, “you can’t quite guard twos,” or “are not quite a primary ball-handler,” giving them a little of this, a little of that, but her game has these flaws.
Jewell, though, when they call her a “combo guard,” they’re talking, like — it’s the full opposite of that. With Jewell, it’s more of a best of both worlds situation. She can score like a shooting guard. She can pass like a point guard. She has the handle to get to wherever she wants on the court, any time she wants to. And she can check both guard positions, on defense, no problem. They just really don’t make many guards like Jewell — she’s almost a whole new blueprint.
Oh, yeah, and her team is also doing pretty alright 🙂
Which leads me to……
(1) Breanna Stewart
Best player 25 and under — it’s gotta be Breanna, right?
She has it all. She can shoot the three, she can take you off the dribble, she has that mid-range jumper….. her versatility is just not the kind of thing you see a lot — and especially not from a player her age.
And then the other thing with Breanna, to me, that really sets her apart, is her will. A player of her talent level, a player who is that gifted — a lot of the time, you’ll see a player like that, and yeah they’re skilled, but they don’t have the will to get in there and be physical with it. Like, they just don’t have that killer instinct to really put their foot down and dominate you. But Breanna, I’ll tell you what, I think she’s as legit tough as any other player in the league. You guard her for a night — and I have — and you’re going to feel like you really went through it.
And to me, that’s a lot of what you’re seeing this year in Seattle, with the way the Storm are really getting after it. The way that they move the ball around the floor on offense, I mean, it’s insane. But then you’re also seeing them bring it every night with that grit. And I think that’s the sign of a team where, if maybe in past years they were just getting by on talent — now it’s like they’re saying, O.K., it’s time to take things up a level. It’s time to see what we’re about. The Storm, to me, I think they’re a great example of what happens when your best players are also your best leaders.
And I think they have a really great chance this year of winning a championship.