There’s roughly 6:10 left in the third quarter of a must-see game between the Seattle Storm and the Las Vegas Aces.
Speedy Storm guard Jordin Canada retreats to half-court after the initial set doesn’t create an advantage. She jets to her left around a Natasha Howard screen and penetrates the lane. Her patented lefty scoop flies off the backboard thanks to a fantastic contest by Aces forward A’ja Wilson.
Sadly, that’s the last we’ll see of Wilson in the game.
Sh lands awkwardly on her ankle after the shot-saving leap and needs help returning to her feet. We’d later find out that she suffered a high ankle sprain that’ll take her out of action for quite some time.
.@LVAces coach Bill Laimbeer says A’ja Wilson will likely be our for “weeks.” Also said he’ll consider adding another player in free agency. Free agents can sign for the rest of the season starting Aug. 5.
— Sam Gordon (@BySamGordon) July 22, 2019
Losing Wilson for an extended period should be a season-altering blow. Just in her second campaign, she’s already proven to be an MVP-caliber talent as a talented face-up scorer (15.6 points, 9th in the WNBA), tough rebounder (6.6 rebounds) and a budding rim protector (1.5 blocks). Her unique combination of size, quickness and touch make her a matchup nightmare.
Luckily for the Aces, they have a rare-level of front-court depth to cover for Wilson’s absence. They’ll essentially be splitting her contributions between Liz Cambage and Dearica Hamby.
If Sunday’s match-up with the Minnesota Lynx is any indication, Las Vegas should be just fine. The aforementioned duo combined for 36 points and 20 rebounds in the Aces’ 79-74 victory. Both players stuffed the stat sheet on their own and posted positive results when they played together.
Liz Cambage: Walking Mismatch
We can start right here:
The Lynx actually defend this possession pretty well. The initial high pick-and-roll is cut off by crowding the paint. Hamby is forced to give up the rock to Cambage (though she misses Kayla McBride in the corner). Cambage is immediately picked up by Damiris Dantas, a fine defender in her own right.
But that’s where the fun begins.
Cambage sizes her up before putting the ball on the floor. Two hard dribbles to her left keeps Dantas on her hip and away from the ball. Before you know it, Cambage is six feet from the hoop and twirling to her right. Dantas does her best to stay attached and tries to contest the shot, but Cambage is too big, too strong and too long for her to offer much resistance.
That, my friends, is what it’s like to guard Cambage one-on-one.
The Lynx got a heavy dosage of that on Sunday as she led all scorers with 22 points but also grabbed 13 boards and swatted a couple of shots in the process. It’s safe to say she won the battle against fellow cheat code Sylvia Fowles (14 points, 5 rebounds)
Don’t let Cambage’s statistical down-year fool you. Sure, she’s “only” averaging 15.9 points this season, but context is needed. On top of splitting touches with Wilson and McBride, Cambage came off the bench in the early goings of the season.
She is still one of the most efficient scorers in the league, ranking third in field goal percentage (50.5) among the 29 players averaging at least 10 shot attempts per game. This is mostly due to her being the Aces’ most imposing post threat. Via Synergy, she’s generating 1.09 points per post possession and shooting an absurd 57 percent in those opportunities.
From a size perspective, there really isn’t much you can do about Cambage.
At 6’8″ with endless limbs, it’s nearly impossible to alter her shot. It’s even harder to wrestle rebounds away from her. Take this play for example, with three (3) Lynx defenders in the vicinity:
With Wilson out of the fold, expect the offense to run more through Cambage. Remember, she led the league in scoring (23.0) just last season as a member of the Dallas Wings. Her post presence puts a massive strain on opposing defenses, which will open up opportunities for others.
Dearica Hamby: Filling In The Blanks
Hamby is your classic gap-filler: She can do whatever is asked of her. Her 14-7-4 showing against the Lynx is proof of that.
She’s a tremendous screener, which helps her teammates get downhill, though her ability to create windows for herself and others is probably her greatest skill.
Here, you can see an example of Hamby reading the defense. She recognizes her defender overplaying her right shoulder, so she quickly flips her position to give Cambage a cleaner window for the entry pass. Cambage threads the needle, and Hamby gives the Aces a two-point lead.
What separates Hamby from the typical “dirty work” payer is that she has legitimate ball skills, including the fluidity and touch to attack open lanes or sloppy closeouts.
The Lynx attempt to “ICE” the empty-side ball screen in the clip above. As the trap comes, Kelsey Plum quickly releases the ball to Hamby at the left elbow. Lynx rookie Napheesa Collier rotates over, but Hamby uses her momentum against her and drives hard to the right.
Hamby is able to put Collier on her hip before flipping in the tough lay-in off the glass.
There’s an argument to be made that Hamby might not be the fifth biggest “name” on her own team. Wilson and Cambage are MVP-caliber talents. McBride is an All-Star assassin from the perimeter. Jackie Young and Plum are two of the previous three number one overall picks.
Yet, Hamby’s importance can’t really be overstated. Not only is she one of the Aces’ most impactful players, she’s one of the biggest “swing” players in the entire league.
Via PBPStats, the Aces outscore opponents by nearly 14 points per 100 possessions with her on the floor but are outscored by 2.1 points when she is on the bench.
The Aces are going to use the Hamby-Cambage pairing a lot more moving forward, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive so far. In 163 minutes, the Aces have outscored opponents by 19.8 points per 100 possessions with the Hamby-Cambage duo on the floor.
That number might not be sustainable, but the Aces will be able to survive Wilson’s absence if that trend comes close to continuing.
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.