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Aces season preview: Sights set on 3-peat, building a legacy

Becky Hammon doesn’t need to tell her players what’s at stake this season.

The Aces coach, entering her 27th year in professional basketball, says she has never seen a team with chemistry and drive quite like the one she’s leading.

“These ladies are masters of managing expectations,” Hammon said. “The beauty in all this is that the expectations they have of themselves and each other is probably far greater than anything any outside noise could put on them.”

That said, the back-to-back WNBA champions have an opportunity to make history this season.

Three NBA franchises have won at least three straight titles. Only one WNBA team has accomplished the feat. Led by Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, the now-defunct Houston Comets won four titles from 1997 to 2000.

Those championships were the first in the league’s history, and the Aces stand at the precipice of a similar new beginning for the WNBA.

This will be the first season in which teams will have full access to charter flights during the regular season, a deal made possible through “business growth and anticipated future revenue from the next media deal,” according to USA Today’s Christine Brennan.

Amid the period of heightened attention on the league, 2023 Finals MVP A’ja Wilson isn’t feeling any pressure.

“It’s fun to me,” Wilson said when asked about the historic potential for the upcoming season. “I really enjoy doing what I love with people that I love.”

The 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick recalled her rookie year with the Aces, when they failed to make the playoffs.

“Now, we’re building a whole culture where it’s like, ‘No, this is how we do things here. So either get with it or get lost,’” she said with a laugh. “To stand in the moment and understand what we’re building here, the legacy that we are forming here, is something that’s so cool to be a part of.”

Depth on the bench was a major focus for the Aces in the offseason, and the team beat the odds by acquiring some major talent in the draft without a first-round pick.

Through multiple waves of preseason roster cuts, they’ve held onto Syracuse guard Dyaisha Fair (16th overall pick) and Iowa guard Kate Martin (18th overall). Virginia Tech center Elizabeth Kitley was selected 24th overall, but she won’t play this season or count on the roster because of an ACL tear.

The roster was immediately in flux ahead of training camp, as WNBA legend Candace Parker announced her retirement the day before the Aces’ first offseason practice.

The team picked up other new additions via waivers and free agency, including 6-foot-3-inch center Megan Gustafson and forward Emma Cannon. Cannon, who spent most of training camp with the Dallas Wings, previously played for the Aces in 2020 and ’21.

The team could choose not to make anymore changes, but the roster deadline isn’t until Tuesday, when the Aces open the season against the Phoenix Mercury at 7 p.m. at Michelob Ultra Arena.

“We’ve understood that over the years there’s a bigger target (on the team’s back),” assistant coach Natalie Nakase said. “Who’s going to play the right play, who’s going to put team over self, that’s just kind of been our identity. From there, (the newcomers) are really going to have to fit into the team that has already won back-t0-back championships”

Despite the roster changes, the Aces’ “Core Four” of Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young is more connected than ever. The team will aim to build more widespread chemistry Saturday during its sole preseason game, against the Puerto Rico national team at South Carolina.

The exhibition game at Wilson’s alma mater will honor the two-time MVP, who was recently named the No. 1 WNBA player in ESPN’s preseason poll.

Wilson and the entire “Core Four” are in the running for Team USA’s Olympic roster, which has yet to be finalized. It will be a unique season, as the league will break for almost a month — July 18 to Aug. 14 — so players can participate in the Paris Games.

With Wilson at the helm, the possibilities seem endless for the defending champions.

Contact Callie Lawson-Freeman at clawsonfreeman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @CallieJLaw on X.

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