Where do the Aces go from here?

Life without Kelsey Plum in 2020

The Las Vegas Aces announced Thursday afternoon that starting point guard Kelsey Plum had suffered a torn left Achilles tendon and would miss the 2020 WNBA season. For The Next, I spoke with Aces general manager Dan Padover about the injury and what to expect from the franchise in the coming days and weeks with their open roster spot.

Today we’ll dive deeper into what the Aces will be missing on the floor in 2020, how the rotation might pan out, and the types of players they should pursue with that 12th spot. 

Plum was absolutely dealing in the 2019 semis against the Mystics. She actualized the team’s desires to run off misses and makes alike, at times setting great looks up before the shot clock had even hit 20. 

The Mystics only had a few options to really turn to against Plum. That alone was a telling lesson coming away from that series. Plum often commanded the attention of two defenders in pick and roll, giving herself chances to set teammates up in advantage situations. 

Washington often paid a price when they didn’t focus first on bottling up Plum’s potential drives. She had little trouble blowing right by anybody they threw at her. (This also meant switching wasn’t going to be a viable tactic.) Sag off too far, and she’s drilling a pull-up 3-pointer. Allowing Plum to get too deep into the lane was death because she was working so well with a massive vertical target in the form of All-WNBA center Liz Cambage. 

If Cambage’s defender constantly had to slide over to help, the Mystics would likely just get burned on the next pass. Cambage was already so much bigger than each member of Washington’s frontcourt. Helpers dropping down stood little chance breaking up an accurate delivery from Plum. 

Plum’s finishing around the basket was terrific. She prevented Washington’s bigs from timing her up with some wrong-footed finishes and converted some tough looks over and around length. Washington had to bend to account for the damage Plum was doing in getting her own right at the rim. 

Of course, Plum’s prowess as a pull-up shooter also factors into opposing gameplans. Wanting to see a full regular season of Playoff Plum, truly given the keys to run the team, was one of the big takeaways from that series.

We’ve already pointed to a number of key things she did to put pressure on Washington’s defense without mentioning her prowess as a pull-up shooter. She let these 3-pointers rip with 19 and 21, respectively, remaining on the shot clock.

On top of all of that, Plum saw the whole floor, making some of the most difficult passes—crosscourt lasers to a shooter in the opposite corner. 

There are only eight seconds left on the shot clock as Plum comes off that screen. The necessary angle for the release of that pass to avoid a deflection is ridiculous. Plum knew she needed to use that last dribble to keep Natasha Cloud off balance. Notice that Plum is also leaping in the air to then lead Kayla McBride to the corner with the pass. Emma Meesseman was prepared to run out to contest the shot, but because the pass was a strike, McBride had plenty of time to rise and fire. 

In a similar situation in Game 3, Plum was met with high hands from both Kristi Toliver and Elena Delle Donne. That’s not fun. 

Plum left them both swiping at air. But the job wasn’t done. A’ja Wilson initially looked like the easy outlet. But Ariel Atkins had come across the lane to take that pass away. Plum processed that quickly and fired a strike right into the shooting pocket of Sugar Rodgers. 

The eventual 2019 champs had a serious Kelsey Plum problem. They needed to throw aggressive coverages at her to keep her out of the lane. Plum (in her first playoff appearance!) responded, mercilessly pushing the pace while still making sound decisions in the halfcourt to put her team in good positions to score. 

All things considered, the Aces are built well to withstand an injury to a perimeter player. But they can’t replace Plum’s impact. Opponents will have an easier (a relative term, mind you) time guarding and preparing for this team if and when we get around to the 2020 postseason. Plum has a special, diverse skill set. Only a handful of players are that quick, that confident finishing around length, that dangerous as a pull-up threat, AND that capable diming up teammates all over the floor. 

The other ball-handlers on the team bring some of those elements to the table, but it’s just easier to force them into something you can stomach as a defense. The Aces will be much more dependent upon Angel McCoughtry in her return from that 2018 ACL tear. There will be more pressure on Jackie Young to show meaningful improvement as a jump shooter. Plum and Kayla McBride are the two best 3-point shooters on the roster. Taking one out of the starting lineup will have some serious ripple effects. Life will get much tougher for Cambage and Wilson inside. 

The question, at least in the near term, for the Aces centers around that open roster spot. Padover addressed that need, admitting Plum’s injury will probably expedite that process. I shared a rough outline of what I thought a post-injury rotation might look like, with Young, McBride, McCoughtry, Wilson and Cambage in the starting lineup. 

Rodgers, Dearica Hamby, Danielle Robinson and Carolyn Swords would round out this nine-player rotation. I think a wing shooter or a big, more of a 4 than a 5, would be the two types of players worth pursuing with that open spot. In closing, here’s a quick look at a few players and the strengths they possess that could make them good fits with the Aces. 

Essence Carson

(These three names will look familiar. Look, I didn’t include these names in my list of nine interesting free agents for nothing. I didn’t solely include them with the Aces in mind, but the lone team with a vacant roster spot was obviously a factor.)

Carson is well-equipped to live up to both pillars of the 3-and-D title on the wing. Her overall volume as a 3-point shooter hasn’t always been there, but it’s really tough to overlook her 2018 campaign in L.A. An elbow issue that previously had held her back as a shooter was in the rearview, and she was letting it rip with confidence. 

If Young ends up as the starting point guard once again, Carson and Rodgers could join forces to fill the minutes behind McBride and McCoughtry. Carson was limited to 23 games this past season due to a calf injury. The Rutgers alum would be entering her age-33 season. 

Jaylyn Agnew

Agnew is much more of a gunner. Let’s start here: should Aces want somebody that doesn’t overlap with Rodgers, especially if they have a specific role that they’re willing to offer this 12th player right away?

I still think this 12th spot is more about depth. The Aces need some shooting, and McBride, Young and McCoughtry can guard the bigger wing scorers. Agnew and the other guards won’t have to worry about those matchups.

Saying Agnew is redundant with Rodgers would be too reductive. Every team wants multiple good shooters on their roster! A player like Agnew could address a current need while bringing some future upside, especially if the team loses Rodgers via free agency down the line. 

Related reading2020 rookie vision: Jaylyn Agnew raises one big question for the Mystics

Megan Huff

Finding some shooting at the 4 spot would be another meaningful way for the Aces to open up more space for Wilson and Cambage. Of course, Hamby will be a massive part of the rotation playing starter’s minutes up front. But if Huff impresses, could she earn some run as the fourth big? 

This frontcourt rotation is more complicated than most because of Hamby’s ability to slide to the 3. Frankly, she’s earned those chances to continue playing next to Wilson and Cambage in the biggest moments even though the addition of McCoughtry signals less of a need to play Hamby there. 

So Hamby’s versatility may or may not end up opening up more of an opportunity there, but Huff is also different than backup center Carolyn Swords. Huff wouldn’t run into the same potential argument of Agnew being slightly redundant with Rodgers. The Wilson-Cambage-Hamby trio sure is scary. But the second one gets injured, this team, already missing Plum, would be in serious trouble. 

That need for a versatile fifth big still appears to still shine brightest in this moment. Adding one that can credibly spot up around a Wilson or Cambage post up would be ideal. Huff feels like a solid fit. But until (or if) some dates are set in stone for the start of the 2020 WNBA season, the Aces have time to sift through their options as they construct the best team possible in this Plum-less 2020 timeline. 

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