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Aces’ interim coach ready for homecoming challenge

Updated May 24, 2023 - 5:31 pm

Aces interim coach Natalie Nakase has to measure up to a high standard.

Assistant Tyler Marsh served as the Aces’ interim coach for the season-opening game against the Seattle Storm. He replaced coach Becky Hammon, who was suspended for violating league and team workplace policies regarding the treatment of former forward Dearica Hamby. Marsh said his only goal was to “not mess it up.”

He more than delivered, guiding the Aces to a 105-64 win, a 41-point margin of victory. Now, Nakase — who will serve as the team’s interim coach Thursday — has been tasked with bettering her fellow assistant.

“Becky said I’ve got to win by 42,” Nakase said. “But a win’s a win to me.”

Nakase, the team’s first assistant, will get her chance to lead the Aces at 7 p.m. Thursday when they take on the Los Angeles Sparks at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. It’s the final game of Hammon’s suspension, and while the Aces coach wasn’t thrilled about the circumstances, she was excited to give Nakase and Marsh a chance to get some important experience.

“I definitely wanted to give both of them an opportunity sitting in that big chair,” Hammon said. “It’s different, so I’m excited for them. I wish I could be there.”

Similar to Hammon and Marsh, Nakase joined the Aces (1-0) with a career full of NBA experience. She spent a decade working various roles within the Los Angeles Clippers organization, beginning in 2012 as an intern for former coach Vinny Del Negro, before earning a promotion to assistant video coordinator as part of Doc Rivers’ coaching staff.

She was named an assistant by the Clippers for the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League, becoming the first woman to sit on an NBA bench according to the team.

Nakase became an assistant for the Clippers’ G-League affiliate, then called the Agua Caliente Clippers, in 2017, before returning to become a player development coach for Rivers and his successor Tyronn Lue.

Nakase returned to the G-League to reprise her role as an assistant for her final season with the franchise before joining Hammon and the Aces ahead of the 2022 season.

First-team All-WNBA guard Kelsey Plum said Nakase has often stepped in when Hammon is unavailable and usually leads one of the two teams during scrimmages, rotating with Marsh. WNBA Finals MVP Chelsea Gray added she’s extremely confident in Nakase.

“She brings intensity,” Gray said. “The hard work is behind it. She puts in the time, watching film and getting us ready.”

The game against the Sparks (1-0) will also be a homecoming of sorts for Nakase. A former point guard at UCLA, where she rose to become a starter and team captain after arriving as a walk-on player, Nakase grew up in Orange County, California. Many of her friends and family are still in Southern California.

Nakase said Thursday will be the first time her mother, Debra, gets to watch her coach with the Aces. She added that she’s excited to share this moment with the friends and family who’ve supported her career for so long.

However, Nakase’s not going to let any homecomings or sentimentality distract her from her main goal — coming back to Las Vegas with another win.

“The girls are playing so well and so confident,” Nakase said. “Becky’s prepared them for these games, so we’re ready to go.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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