NEW YORK — Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson had just scored 40 points — which was a career high at the time — and become the eighth player in WNBA history to have 40 points and 10 rebounds in a game.
But immediately after the August victory, Wilson made a point to tell guard Kelsey Plum how proud she was of her.
“You talk about growth?” Wilson said after Plum had 19 points, 10 assists and shot 70% from the field. “That is growth. Every day she’s coming in and getting better.
“We joke around with her about not passing the basketball. But she shows us every day she’s worked on that aspect of her game. We don’t get to do the things we do if she’s not attacking and dishing the ball.”
Two months later, Plum might need to have some of the most important minutes of her career in a playmaking role. The Aces hold a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five WNBA Finals heading into Wednesday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center.
Aces coach Becky Hammon said Tuesday starting point guard Chelsea Gray will miss Game 4 with a foot injury. She left Sunday’s 87-73 Game 3 loss in the fourth quarter. Hammon Gray is questionable for a possible Game 5 on Friday, and added that center Kiah Stokes will also miss Game 4.
Plum and Jackie Young, who’ve started alongside Gray the last three seasons for Las Vegas, might have to handle point guard duties instead. The Aces canceled their optional shooting session Monday, so they weren’t available to meet with media. But Aces coach Becky Hammon talked Sunday about how they could rely on Plum, Young and reserves Kierstan Bell and Sydney Colson if Gray was out.
For Plum, who led the Aces with 29 points Sunday, it’s a task she has prepared for throughout her six-season WNBA career.
“It’s hard to try to re-identify yourself,” Hammon said of Plum’s progress as a pro player. “But she has.”
The No. 1 pick in 2017 by the San Antonio Stars in their last season before the franchise moved to Las Vegas, Plum always has been an electric scorer. She led the Washington Huskies to their only women’s Final Four appearance in 2016 and then set the NCAA Division I career scoring record in 2017.
Chelsea Gray is a game-changer. A series-changer. Hoping her injury isn’t as serious as it looked. pic.twitter.com/LUrIVlURtr
— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) October 16, 2023
In her WNBA career, she has become an All-Star caliber player by expanding every aspect of her game, including passing. She has particularly excelled under Hammon: In 2022, Plum averaged 20.2 points and 5.1 assists in the regular season, and this year is at 18.7 PPG and 4.5 APG.
They have worked a lot on rim reads, with Plum improving her decision-making and discipline — such as when it’s best for her to try to score at the rim (something she could do virtually at will in college) and when it’s better to pass.
So far in the Aces’ eight playoff games this year, Plum has averaged 19.8 points and 3.6 assists. Young, meanwhile, averaged 17.6 points and 3.8 assists in the regular season and is at 16.8 and 4.8 in the playoffs.
Young is also a former No. 1 pick, coming to the Aces in 2019. Her growth path has been a little different than Plum’s. Young was a superstar scorer as an Indiana high school star, and then won a national championship with Notre Dame. She entered the draft after her junior season, averaging 6.6 points and 4.5 assists her rookie year. Becoming a 3-point shooter — which she has improved spectacularly — is the area on which Young has had to work hardest.
Young made 22 3-pointers combined her first three WNBA seasons. Last year she had 50 in the regular season and 18 in the playoffs. This year, she has 89 and 20. Plum has averaged 36.4 minutes in the playoffs and Young 34.5, so both are already carrying a heavy load. It is likely to be that and more Wednesday.
Hammon said that the Aces in Game 3 “messed up every frickin’ scheme” defensively, and if she’s out, it’s another area in which they will miss Gray. But even when Gray was in Sunday, Plum said the Aces were stagnant on offense for too much of the time.
“When they’re able to load up and swarm the ball, it’s really hard to get good looks,” Plum said. “I felt like we didn’t do a great job of moving the ball and playing off of close-outs, which has given us success the first two games.
“We play with pace, but it’s more about the ball movement and the player movement. There were times we might have been sped up a little bit. That’s something we can control and adjust, like we have all year.”
An adjustment to being without Gray, if it comes to that, is something the Aces haven’t had to do; she has played every game in 2023 to this point. But the Aces have gotten this far because they’ve had such good teamwork from so many talented individual players. They will have to rely on both to win the championship.