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Aces begin season with new roster, same title expectations

Updated May 13, 2021 - 6:07 pm

A’ja Wilson thought back to her time inside the WNBA’s bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Back to the playoffs.

Back to the WNBA Finals before attempting to explain how the Aces have grown since last September — and arriving at a simple but true conclusion.

“It feels like we have a completely different team,” said Wilson, the reigning WNBA MVP. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. We’ll see when the games get going.”

We’ll see at noon on Saturday.

That’s when the Aces begin their quest for the franchise’s first WNBA championship by facing the Seattle Storm in rematch of the finals. The Aces lost the series in three games, prompting Wilson to refer to the Storm as a “measuring stick.”

But there’s a catch.

The team that played the Storm last fall is almost entirely different this spring, save for Wilson, third-year guard Jackie Young and reserve forward Emma Cannon, who signed with the Aces days before the 2020 regular-season finale. The other seven healthy players on this year’s roster didn’t play a single minute in that series, and coach Bill Laimbeer is anticipating some growing pains early in the season.

Especially after the struggles the team had during two scrimmages against the Los Angeles Sparks.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to learn how to play with each other,” Laimbeer said.

Perhaps an understatement.

A brand new team

Wilson says the loss in the Finals fostered personal and professional growth. But she couldn’t quite explain how it affected the rest of the team — and for good reason.

Two-time reigning Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby missed the series with a torn meniscus. All-Star center Liz Cambage opted out of the 2020 season in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and sharp-shooting combo guard Kelsey Plum missed the year with a torn Achilles.

All-Star guards Kayla McBride and Danielle Robinson left the franchise via free agency, having combined for 15 playoff starts. Last year’s starting center, Carolyn Swords, retired. As did reserve guard Sugar Rodgers, who has since joined Laimbeer’s coaching staff.

All-Star wing Angel McCoughtry was the team’s second-leading scorer last year but will miss the upcoming season after tearing her right ACL in a scrimmage last Saturday against the Los Angeles Sparks.

On the flip side, Cambage is back and Plum and Hamby are healthy. The Aces signed All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray and fellow sharp-shooter Riquna Williams away from the Los Angeles Sparks. Backup center JiSu Park is back, too, after playing last season in her native South Korea.

Rookie point guard Destiny Slocum provides depth.

Training camp was about building chemistry and the regular season will be, too, especially early on. But the talent and depth prompted a majority of the WNBA’s general managers to pick the Aces to win the WNBA championship Thursday in the league’s annual preseason poll.

Players and coaches are mindful of the internal and external championship expectations but believe they’ll need time to develop the cohesion required to accomplish such a goal.

“We’re going to continue to work through those bumps early,” Plum said. “This team has had a core group that’s been together, and we’ve added some veteran players with experience. … That experience is going to help when we continue to be in tough situations.”

Even without McCoughtry, the Aces are two deep across the board and have the flexibility and personnel to play a variety of styles. Wilson and Cambage form the league’s most dominant low-post duo. Gray is a pick-and-roll maestro and one of the league’s most complete perimeter players.

Plum and Williams provide shooting and additional ballhandling, Hamby is among the most versatile players in the league. Young is emerging as a multifaceted wing.

“The expectations are there. Pressure might be there, and you’ve got to start all over again,” Wilson said. “We’re still keeping the ultimate goal on our minds, which is a championship.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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