'It doesn't matter what we look like on paper': Star-studded Aces learning to play together

What we learned from the first week of training camp

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The first week of the Las Vegas Aces’ training camp is in the books, complete with roster moves, a preseason scrimmage, and TikTok dances.

It’s no secret Vegas’ roster is stacked this year. From the addition of players like Chelsea Gray (who we have yet to see at camp) to the return of reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson and everyone in between, one wouldn’t be faulted for saying this is a championship team before the season even starts.

But, of course, things are more complicated than that — rosters don’t win trophies, teams do. And the Aces still need to focus on becoming a team before the rest can fall into place.

Some assembly required

Right now, the Aces are an incredible puzzle that still needs to be put together, and if you ask head coach Bill Laimbeer what his thoughts are about how to put those pieces in place, he’d say: “Clear as mud.”

Looking good on paper and looking good on the court are two very different things, and as we saw in the scrimmage Sunday afternoon, the Aces still have some growing pains to go through before they’re playing to their potential.

Wilson says that’s what training camp is all about — that it doesn’t mean anything except figuring out how to gel with your teammates and become an efficient team.

“I know everyone’s expecting us to be this super team because we look really good on paper,” Wilson said after the scrimmage. “But at the end of the day, we have to bring it within ourselves, within our locker room. And that’s what makes the super team — you earn that. It doesn’t matter what we look like on paper. If we can’t produce on court, then it’s nothing.”

The Las Vegas Aces dropped an 80-71 decision to the Los Angeles Sparks Sunday afternoon in the first preseason scrimmage for both clubs. Vegas has a chance to bounce back at the end of the second week of training camp, when they travel to Los Angeles for another preseason game Saturday, May 8 (1 p.m. PT).

It was a chance for both teams to try out multiple players in multiple combinations, and an opportunity to start throwing newcomers into the mix.

Wilson, led the Aces with 14 points, while Liz Cambage added 10 after sitting out the 2020 season. JiSu Park, who also sat out 2020, chipped in nine points, while second-round draft pick Destiny Slocum was the top-scoring newcomer with 10.

More important than the numbers, though, is the chemistry that is finally starting to develop on and off the court. This has been a challenge since players are actually still living under some pretty strict quarantine rules and are very limited in what they can do outside of practice.

But 11-year vet Angel McCoughtry knows the secret sauce to a winning team is that chemistry, and with TikTok videos, dance-offs, and half-court shot battles, we are starting to see this team of big talent, and even bigger personalities, develop a deeper bond.

“When you have players that hang out off the court, as well as on the court, and the locker room is fun — those are championship teams,” McCoughtry said. “And they say it’s statistically proven that teams that pat each other on the back the most are the most successful teams. I think we have a great locker room … It’s a fun group and I think that helps with chemistry, always.”

When the chemistry and on-court prowess catch up to the sheer dominance of this team on paper, success will come naturally to Las Vegas.

Fresh deck

There are a few new cards in Laimbeer’s hand this season, whether that’s a new draft pick like Arkansas’ Slocum or it’s someone that missed out on last year like Lauren Manis or Kelsey Plum.

This is their chance to go out and prove why they belong on that final roster, not just to Coach, but to their teammates as well.

A few newcomers that have stood out to vets like Wilson and McCoughtry so far in camp are Manis and Slocum.

“She’s the type that’s going to do all the little things,” Wilson said of Manis. “She’s someone that can really get to the hoop and just body. I feel like she surprised us all in practice with just her movement — She’s more than that [a shooter]. I think for all the rookies, they’ve just got to trust themselves … Know that you belong there and play through that.”

And Slocum has been impressing nearly everyone in Black and Red since she arrived at training camp, but her cool and calm composure in Sunday’s scrimmage especially stood out to Dearica Hamby.

“I think Destiny looked very good — she pushed offense well and she looked for her shot,” Hamby said of Slocum. “Coming in as a rookie point guard is usually a tough spot to fill in. I think she looked really composed and even through our training camp she’s done a good job of listening and taking everything in.”

Even Laimbeer, who in the same breath admitted rookies typically struggle in the first week, said he thought Slocum performed “admirably” on Sunday.

One thing that sets Slocum apart is her inherent desire to constantly learn and fully immerse herself in her team’s culture and plays. Wilson said the young point guard even showed up to meetings with a dry erase board to take notes on the playbook, joking that her own playbook gathered dust her rookie year.

Another newbie catching eyes is Shakayla Thomas, who was somewhat of a last-minute addition to the training camp roster. She’s moved from power forward to a small forward position, where she’s impressing Coach Laimbeer.

Thomas has also caught the attention of Wilson, who played against her in college.

“I knew her potential, but to see her play at this level, with the strength she has and the athleticism she has, it’s incredible to watch her literally raise above some defenders that are right there in her face,” Wilson said. “I’m going to be biased and say we have the best rookies. You can tell they’re just having fun and getting comfortable and that’s always good to see.”

Getting the ball rolling

The Aces are just taking things a day at a time, not putting too much pressure on themselves to be the superteam they are on paper. Their focus is on little steps every day toward playing as a more cohesive unit.

Training camp can be challenging when it comes to learning how to play together because you’re always playing against each other.

That’s why losing a preseason scrimmage is less about the final numbers on the scoreboard and more about figuring out how to mesh all the pieces together.

“I think we’re finally starting to just kind of play with each other,” Wilson said. “In practice we play against each other, which is hard to get in the flow with different rotations. We’re only a week in — this is a good test for us. I don’t know if Bill [Laimbeer] would say we’re on track, but I think we’re on track starting to finally learn each other.”

The Aces have another preseason game this Saturday in Los Angeles and then will open their season on the road in Seattle on May 15.

Making moves

The Aces currently have 13 players on their roster, and will only carry 11 into the season. So far, the team has waived Kionna “Melo” Jeter and Kate Cain.

Jeter, the 36th pick of this year’s draft, is the first Towson Tiger to ever be drafted into the WNBA. She finished in the top ten in the nation in scoring as a senior, with 23.0 points per game on her way to her third-straight All-CAA First Team selection.

Cain is a two-time All-Big Ten selection and a three-time All-Defensive Team honoree. At Nebraska, she blocked a program-record 352 shots, 72 of which came in her senior year (14th in the nation).