On Thursday evening, news broke that Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum had torn her Achilles, sidelining the former No. 1 overall pick for the entirety of the 2020 WNBA season.
Plum was a key piece for Vegas last year, especially after a move to the bench for the final few regular season games helped jumpstart her performance down the stretch. In particular, Plum’s shooting ability provided the Aces with an important variable by opening things for a team that too often seemed hesitant to embrace the league’s continual shift towards the perimeter.
Now, the Aces have to figure out how they can replace Plum’s production. Ben Dull from The Next reported that Plum will stay on the team’s 2020 roster, meaning the Aces still have just one empty roster spot left, though they also have got some players currently on the roster who will need to step up. Let’s look at all the various angles of what Plum’s season-ending injury means.
What Plum Brought To Vegas
Let’s start with what the Aces lose with Kelsey Plum. To put it simply: they lose a lot.
Last season, Plum averaged 25.5 minutes per game for the Aces, the third-highest mark on the team. She finished second on the team in three-point attempts per game at 3.7, second in assists per game, and fifth on the Aces in scoring.
But raw stats don’t tell the entire story. Per Positive Residual, the Aces had an offensive rating of 102.1 when Plum played, which dropped down to 98.0 when she sat. Overall, the team’s net rating with Plum on the court was 5.8, while it sank to 4.2 with her off the floor. Plum’s presence on the floor made the Aces a better team than they were when Plum wasn’t on the floor.
One reason for that was the team’s three-point attempt rate rose from 20% to 21.7% with Plum playing. The Aces finished last in the league in total threes taken in 2019 with 508, which came a year after they finished last in the league with 361 attempts. There was a marked increase in attempts, but they still trail all 11 other teams. Head coach Bill Laimbeer has built a team that thrives on the interior and largely ignores the perimeter offensively. While he’s improved some at that, it’s still not an ideal situation. Teams around the WNBA are finding that they need a well-balanced offensive approach to win titles. Losing Kelsey Plum for 2020 is going to make it significantly harder for the Aces to find that kind of well-balanced offensive approach.
Jackie Young Will Need To Make A Leap
Replacing Plum’s production will require a lot of players to step up, but no one is more important at this point than second-year guard Jackie Young, the No. 1 pick in 2019.
Young started all 34 games for the Aces last year. Her overall numbers don’t jump out at you — 6.6 points, 4.5 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per contest — but she had a relatively solid rookie campaign.
Young proved herself to be an adept passer as a rookie. She led all rookies in assists per game, ranking 10th overall in the league in that category. She also ranked eighth in assist percentage, again leading all rookies. Young showed strong indications that she could be a capable WNBA point guard.
But there were struggles as well. She shot 32.2% from the field and 31.8% from three. It’s hard to really get a read on Young’s upside as a shooter, as she never attempted more than 39 in a season in college, though she did shoot 45.2% as a shooter on a 31-shot sample. The one upside here is that opposing teams aren’t going to respect Young’s game out to the arc early in the year. If she can show an increased ability to connect on her shots, Young will likely have the space to shoot this year. She wasn’t a terrible spot up shooter last year, ranking in the 41st percentile in points per possession on 51 spot up possessions.
There’s no guarantee that Young starts this season — Vegas going with a Danielle Robinson/Kayla McBride backcourt would make a lot of sense. But the Aces will need to get a lot of production from Young in whatever role she occupies. With the addition of Danielle Robinson, Young might be asked to play a similar role to what Plum played when she moved to the bench last season. In that scenario, you need Young to at least be a passable facsimile of Plum, even if she won’t be able to fully replicate Plum’s production.
Expanded Roles For Other Current Players?
This section should really be titled “how many minutes can Sugar Rodgers realistically play” because the Aces are going to need a lot from Sugar Rodgers.
While Vegas brought in Danielle Robinson and Angel McCoughtry this offseason, neither player offers the thing that Vegas needed most from Plum: shooting.
Above, I mentioned that the Aces could turn to Jackie Young to play the role that Kelsey Plum might have played. But the team could also keep Young at point guard and let Rodgers play the two off the bench, asking her to provide an offensive spark for Vegas.
And looking at the numbers, that might be the best option at this point. While Rodgers averaged her fewest minutes per game since her rookie season last year, she still managed to fire up 2.5 threes per game in her 11.6 minutes, converting 35.7% of them. She’s not an elite shooter — she only has one career season in which she shot better than she did last year — but does provide the Aces with someone who can be a quick source of offense.
Rodgers catch-and-shoot numbers last year were confusing but also, in a way, encouraging.
She shot the ball well on guarded looks, and while the unguarded shots went down at one of the league’s worst rates, her ability to get her shot off with defenders nearby is a good sign.
Of course, Rodgers is also entering her age-30 season and has seen a drop in minutes for three consecutive seasons. That drop in minutes has also been accompanied by a major drop in PIPM. After posting a +1.3 PIPM in 2017 — a number that equates to about All-Star level production — she dropped to -1.9 in 2018 and rose to -0.9 in 2019. Jacob Goldstein’s Career Projection Tool projects Rodgers to continue falling off moving forward, with a -1.45 projected PIPM this season. Despite a projected minutes increase of around 180, Rodgers is still projected to have the same amount of wins added as she did in 2019.
Essentially, the numbers and projected aging curve don’t look good for Rodgers. But on the bright side, she’s a solid defensive guard who has the ability to make shots, so she can still make a positive impact for Vegas.
Aside from Rodgers, extra offensive production will come from new additions Robinson and McCoughtry. Robinson scored well in the pick-and-roll last year and finished in the 57th percentile around the basket, but she also shot 22% from deep. McCoughtry missed all of last season and has been a fairly inconsistent shooter throughout her career, with her best year coming in 2015 when she shot 36.3% from deep. Take that year out, and she’s only hit the 30% mark twice in eight years.
Those two players will be important, but neither of them are going to give Vegas what Plum would have. In some ways, their games will just intensify the struggles Vegas has in terms of spacing.
Is There Anyone Vegas Can Sign?
As mentioned in the Ben Dull link above, the Aces intend to bring someone new in soon. Let’s speculate about who that might be.
Players who have some familiarity with this team and Laimbeer’s system would make the most sense. Essence Carson is a free agent and played for Laimbeer in New York. Last year for Phoenix, Carson played 18.5 minutes per game, averaging 5.8 points on 35.2/34.1/78.4 shooting. She’s got a proven track record of success in the WNBA, having been a valuable contributor for over a decade. But drop offs in her shooting stats last year are worrisome, and she scored in just the 38th percentile in the half court offense.
What about Tamera Young, who’s played on this team for the last two years? She’d bring a reliable presence on the wing and started in Plum’s place at the end of last season. But she also was a 17th-percentile spot up player last year. Young doesn’t feel like the right kind of player to take Plum’s place on this roster. Her biggest impact is on the defensive end. That’s not what the Aces need to be looking for.
Tiffany Bias is another veteran option. She filled in for the Liberty for 12 games last year while EuroBasket was depleting the team’s roster. While her shooting numbers were bad, she’s not afraid to hoist up a three and her free throw percentage suggests that she’s capable of being an average shooter over a longer sample.
There are a handful of promising rookie or second-year players who could help this team. Te’a Cooper didn’t make the Mercury roster, but she has great upside as a combo guard who can make plays with the ball in her hands and shoot. Someone like Paris Kea has some WNBA experience and has flashed some good shooting skills. But Vegas isn’t really in a position to add youth to the team, so we’re likely looking at a veteran addition. Carson makes the most sense when you consider what the Aces are going to need from whoever they sign.