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How Aces’ ‘generational’ talent, personalities are growing the game

The Aces' Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum celebrate after winning the Skills Challenge at the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray had Michelob Ultra Arena in the palm of their hands on Saturday.

With the ball wedged behind the backboard, Wilson grabbed a mop used for wiping sweat off the court and went to retrieve it. Then, as she said after the game, the music took over her body.

Wilson started to dance, and Gray joined in. As they moved in unison, the crowd cheered and laughed. It was one of the most genuine and vocal reactions from the crowd at the WNBA All-Star Game, and it had nothing to do with basketball.

The Aces duo took a mundane moment and made it magical.

Over the last two seasons, Las Vegas has captured the attention of the basketball world. And as excitement surrounding the sport increases, the Aces are at the center of it.

“Since I came into the league until now, the increase in media attention, national games, social media has been tremendous,” said Aces guard Kelsey Plum, drafted first overall in 2017. “And I think it’s just going to continue to grow.”

The 2022 playoffs, in which the Aces took home the WNBA title, resulted in the most-watched WNBA postseason in 20 years. This year at the All-Star break, the league is on pace to register the most-watched season in history. Attendance is up 27%, TV viewership is up 67%, and the 2023 All-Star Game hosted in Las Vegas was sold out. It also clocked in as the most-watched All-Star Game in 16 years, with 850,000 average viewers tuning into ABC.

The Aces as a team are also making their mark on the growth of the game.

Halfway through the regular season, Las Vegas is firmly in first place at 19-2. They had four players voted into the All-Star Game — Wilson, Gray, Plum and Jackie Young — and Wilson served as a captain for the second season in a row after garnering the most fan votes. The Aces are also averaging the highest attendance in the league this season, welcoming over 9,000 fans per game, according to Across the Timeline.

“I think that we have some generational talent on this team,” Plum said. “And I also feel like we have some generational personalities. And I think that people connect with people. So growing the game is something that I think is important to us individually and collectively as a team.”

On the court, the Aces have created one of the best teams in history. Their starting five includes four former No. 1 draft picks: Wilson, Plum and Young were selected by the franchise, while the fourth, Candace Parker, joined the squad in the offseason as a free agent. The fifth starter is Gray, who signed with the Aces in 2021 free agency and has since made herself invaluable, earning 2022 Finals MVP after a breakout playoff performance.

Coaching the team is Becky Hammon, a WNBA legend herself who went on to serve as Gregg Popovich’s assistant coach in the NBA before taking over the Aces organization and winning a title in her first season.

“I think with someone like Becky as well at the helm, it brings even more attention,” Plum said. “Las Vegas is like a perfect melting pot, and I think that it’s taken off in a way that’s been super beneficial to the game and to the league. And I think you see other organizations stepping up as well.”

Hammon heads up the Aces on the sidelines, but when it comes to the team’s public image, Wilson leads the way.

The 26-year-old has deals with companies like Ruffles and Starry that help her build her brand. But more than that, it’s Wilson’s personality that draws fans.

Her dance mid All-Star game was just a snapshot of who Wilson is. In press conferences, she professed her love for Bojangles, joked about her team not following curfew leading up to the game, and answered questions while holding assistant coach Tyler Marsh’s baby. When he started crying, Wilson looked into the media room and said: “Where are this baby’s parents?” The remark, as a Wilson joke usually does, elicited laughs from the media.

Wilson holds the attention of every room she’s in, and the same holds true on a basketball court.

She’s been instrumental in the Aces’ success, and there’s been plenty of it.

A'ja Wilson has become the lifeblood of the Aces team on and off the court. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

The two-time MVP has been dominating the WNBA since 2018, when she was named Rookie of the Year after a standout career at South Carolina. For her career, Wilson is averaging 19.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

Las Vegas has finished in the top four of the WNBA standings in each of the last four seasons, and looks primed to finish on top again in 2023. They advanced to the Finals in 2020, appeared in the semifinals in 2021 and won the title in 2022.

“We win,” Wilson said. “It’s easy to cheer on a team when they’re winning. And that’s what it’s gonna take, for people to see us as winning the games, playing the right way and making it entertaining. So, when it comes to growing the league or the game, whatever you want to say, I think we do it in a way that’s like, ‘It’s us.’”

While the Aces are at the forefront of the league’s growth, they aren’t the only team that has a hand in it.

The most-watched game this season so far was between the Dallas Wings and the Los Angeles Sparks, and the most-attended contest was Brittney Griner’s return to Phoenix, when the Mercury took on the Chicago Sky.

The Aces have a personality that’s hard to ignore and is unique to their franchise. The other 11 teams, Wilson says, have their own thing.

“It’s going to look different for different teams, different cities,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean, like, don’t watch it or it’s not as entertaining. It is, it’s there. Give it a chance. And I think that’s what we do. We just go out there and be us.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.