Kayla McBride and the Las Vegas Aces have already come a long way in a short amount of time.
After the franchise finished with the worst record in the league for three consecutive seasons, they finished one game out of the No. 8 spot as McBride earned her second All-Star nod last season. The Notre Dame alum was shooting 47 percent from deep on four attempts per game at the break and earned her third All-Star nod.
As the regular season winds down, McBride and the Aces will continue to jockey for a top-four playoff seed. She sat down recently with BBall Index to break down her game—from making reads coming off screens to the defensive improvement that has made her a part of one of the league’s top defenses—on both ends of the floor.
Offense, clip one—July 13: Las Vegas Aces 85, Washington Mystics 81
“They obviously switched. I know Emma [Meesseman]. I played with her overseas, and I know that she doesn’t really wanna switch. [Natasha] Cloud is a pretty aggressive defender, so she almost stole the ball.
“And normally in this play, I would throw it to the post player and she would hand it off. But this time I saw that Emma was up, so I drove off of her and saw the switch. And this is something I work on every day. It’s just something to get into my shot—kind of a set-up move, something that I’m comfortable doing.
“So when I saw her put her hands down, she was kind of playing me for the drive. I just did something I’m comfortable with. It was a big shot, too. We needed a big shot. They were making a run at this time, so I kind of wanted to be able to settle in and it went in.”
BBall Index: That’s a hand down, man down situation, right?
“Yeah, hand down, man down. When you see a post player switch onto you, especially as a guard, you know they’re gonna play you for a drive, right? They’re not gonna be all up in your space unless you have a more athletic defender like a [LaToya] Sanders or a [Natasha] Howard. For me, I was just trying to take advantage of the defense and take a shot I’ve made plenty of times.”
Offense, clip two—July 10: Las Vegas Aces 74, Indiana Fever 71
“I was on a roll in this play because I had made a couple threes in the beginning. So [Betnijah] Laney was playing me to come off the pin down that A’ja [Wilson] was coming to set. I just took her up and backdoored her. [Sydney Colson] made a great pass, but obviously their big girls are pretty big, so I had to get a little creative and use the space that I was given.
“Then again, it’s just something that you learn to do, but this is something that I’ve done since I was little—just having to figure out how to get my shots off against bigger players, bigger defenders. This was a fun play for me. I was just feelin’ it at this point. It was good to be able to be close to the basket and I got the finish.”
BBI: Do you notice yourself having to be more calculated around the basket as more true-center size enters the league (ex: Teaira McCowan and Kalani Brown in the same draft class this year)?
“Yeah, these girls are getting bigger and stronger. Even A’ja and Liz [Cambage], McCowan and Brown. These girls are getting bigger. So you definitely gotta adjust, be in the weight room because you’re gonna end up down there at some point. It has to be something you can practice. Thank goodness I get to go up against two big girls in practice. It is what it is. You’ve just gotta find a way to adjust and score, right?”
Offense, clip three—July 10: Las Vegas Aces 74, Indiana Fever 71
“So this is something I do a lot. Becky Hammon always told me that if I can be the best screener, I’ll get a lot more open shots. That’s something she taught me as a rookie. I take a lot of pride in how I screen for my big girls—back picks, down picks, whatever. The better screen I set, the more open I’m gonna be.
“It’s something I practiced a million times, just making sure I get my feet set. I feel like I have one of the quickest releases in the league when I get my feet set. She has to help on the back screen with A’ja—that’s one of the best players in the league—no matter what. If I set a good screen, I’m gonna get myself open no matter what, which I did.”
Offense, clip four—July 7: Las Vegas Aces 90, New York Liberty 58
“I came into the league as a midrange shooter. People didn’t know I rarely shot the three in college. This is something that I’ve done millions of times. Liz is a great screener, so I just took advantage. [Kia] Nurse has to go over the top because I can shoot the three, and I saw that Liz’s player was attached to her, so I just took the shot.
“It’s something I’ve done so many times; it’s like clockwork. Sometimes you don’t even realize what you’re doing because you’ve done it so many times. This is just one of those plays.”
Offense, clip five—July 2: Chicago Sky 82, Las Vegas Aces 90
BBI: You got fouled; I won’t make you say that.
“This is just: I’ve gotta get a bucket. I think I scored 16 points this half? I was feelin’ it. I had a lot of energy. I made a couple outside shots early, and I got to the paint a lot, too. [Cheyenne] Parker stayed with Liz on the drive. I knew I had a lane open.
“Sometimes you can’t go up with your left with athletic guards like [Diamond] DeShields. She’ll block it. So if you can get underneath ‘em, something I’ve learned from being in this league, it becomes a little easier. This is just something that I’ve learned to do since I’ve been in the league—something that I enjoy doing as well.”
Offense, clip six—May 26: Los Angeles Sparks 70, Las Vegas Aces 83
“Hand down, man down. Alana Beard, one of the best defenders in the league. She usually doesn’t put her hands down. She did this time, so I took advantage. Obviously the play broke down a little bit. Sometimes you’ve gotta make something happen.
“Some people forget that I can shoot further out past the 3-point line. And I think I had hit a midrange shot a little bit before that, too. So Beard was probably expecting me to get a pick and roll. But instead, it was a double away. There was nothing going on, so I pulled the trigger.”
BBI: Do you enjoy pulling one from well beyond the arc on occasion to remind people that you can knock those down?
“It’s something I take pride in. As I said, I didn’t come in the league as a 3-point shooter. I made myself into a 3-point shooter. In the offseason, I do a lot of 3-point shooting even from further out. But I do have a lot of fun with it. I can’t imagine what Steph [Curry] and Klay [Thompson] feel like, but it feels good for me for sure.”
BBI: What do you key in on to know you’re getting the job done defensively?
“I live by KYP. Know your personnel. Know who you’re guarding.
“I think as you get older in the league, you start to learn people’s tendencies. When you do that, you can kind of take advantage. I might not be the fastest or the most athletic, but I feel like my physicality and knowing what players like to do is something that I’ve had to learn.
“That’s all individual stuff. That’s my job. You know what I’m saying? Some people just come into the game, like, ‘Oh, I know this player. She can do this; she can do that.’ But I want to be able to take those things away because I know what it feels like as a scorer and a shooter to have things taken away from me.
“I try to do the same thing against my opponents. I try to watch game film of them before, or even their most recent game. Because if you have players coming off good games, you know they’re more confident than if maybe they didn’t shoot the ball well. For me, it’s just being able to capitalize on things like that. Like I said, KYP.”
Defense, clip one—July 7: Las Vegas Aces 90, New York Liberty 58
“I knew the play was a back screen and that she was gonna come out. Nurse is a great shooter, so I wanted to stay in her space, put pressure on her and make her dribble more than she wants to. She’s more of a catch-and-shoot player or a straight-line driver, so if I can be physical with her and keep her out of her comfort zone, it makes it harder for her.”
BBI: Because this isn’t an iso-heavy league, the value of everything else a player can do defensively goes way up, right?
“For sure. A lot of teams run the same plays, too. So you know where players like to get the ball or what kind of screens they’re setting. And you can kind of go off of that. It’s not much of an iso league.
“It can be, especially in transition. That’s why I say if you know your personnel. It becomes easier. Do you have to go under the screen? Over? Be more physical? Give them space? Things like that.
“Sometimes you have the quicker players. Like if I was guarding Syd, I’d have to give her a step because she’s quicker than me. But somebody that’s a little bigger or more physical, you have to be a little more physical, too.”
Defense, clip two—July 7: Las Vegas Aces 90, New York Liberty 58
“That was actually a good screen. This is a common play. It’s a misdirect play. She has to set a cross screen. So I have to bump because Tina Charles is a great low-post scorer. So it’s my job to bump until Liz gets back.
“I know there’s a pin down coming. Dearica [Hamby] did a great job of calling it and giving me space to get through. Gray still set a great screen but I just tried to get my hand up.”
BBI: How much does your background as a prolific scorer coming off screens help you defend players doing similar things?
“I know that when you have space as a shooter, it becomes easy. If you make one, it’s easy to come off a screen if you don’t have anybody in your face. You’ve done it so many times, right? But when you have somebody in your space, it’s tiring, too. Because you do it all game long. I’m coming off of pin downs and setting screens, misdirect and side-to-side all the time.
“So anytime I can get just a clean, normal screen and get open, it kind of gets me back in my rhythm. As a defender, you want to limit those types of possessions where she can just get the ball and get a wide-open look. Because that helps you get your rhythm back.”
Defense, clip three—May 26: Los Angeles Sparks 70, Las Vegas Aces 83
“Chelsea Gray is one of the toughest people to guard because she’s big, physical and can handle the ball. I know she loves midrange, so I try to be a little more physical. The Ogwumikes are great, great screeners, so I try to be physical at first and then shoot under the screen because Chelsea has more of a set shot. Like I say, you have to know your personnel.
“Chelsea has more of a set shot, so she’s not gonna come off and just flick it up like I would or, say, Kia Nurse. But she can shoot it from deep as well. She has a good handle and she’s a great passer. You wanna be able to stay in her face and stay up. She was obviously trying to make a play; they were down. I have long arms for somebody my size, so I try to use that to my advantage as well.”
Defense, clip four—May 26: Los Angeles Sparks 70, Las Vegas Aces 83
“That’s tough. I told her that was tough. Great players make great plays. Chelsea is one of those people that can get a bucket at any time. I told her as soon as she made it, ‘That’s tough.’
“I was in her space. I thought Dearica did a great job of making it hard and letting me get back in the play—just for that one second keeping her there. And that happens in our league because there are great players that can make tough plays. Sometimes you have your scouting report and you know your personnel, but the best players just make plays.”
Defense, clip five—July 2: Chicago Sky 82, Las Vegas Aces 90
“Allie Quigley is one of the best—somebody that I learned from—off-the-ball players in the league. People don’t realize how much she worked to get where she is and her ability to play off the ball and get her shot off at any point—3-balls, curls. She’s probably one of the toughest covers. Just constant movement. She doesn’t get tired.
“For this play, I was actually late closing out. But I know she doesn’t really wanna get to the basket, go all the way and take contact to the rim. So I just try to stay down and see what she does. She’s great going either way, one dribble for a shot. So I just try to stay in her space.”
Defense, clip six—May 31: Las Vegas Aces 84, Phoenix Mercury 86
“[DeWanna Bonner] is a different story. She’s like a point forward if you think about it. She can dribble, she can shoot from deep, but she also has a great up-and-under move. She’s 6’4”.
“With DB, you wanna make her work for everything because if she gets comfortable and in a rhythm, she’s really hard to stop. You just wanna limit her. Obviously they don’t have Diana [Taurasi] right now, so I know she’s gonna try to get a bucket. Just wanna stay in her space. Carolyn [Swords] did a great job helping.”
Defense, clip seven—June 6: Las Vegas Aces 92, Atlanta Dream 69
“Tiffany Hayes is one of the best straight-line players in the league. She loves going baseline, which I knew. I got beat enough by her baseline to know that she likes going baseline. And I just wanna wall up. She’s really good at drawing fouls or finishing at the rim. So just stay straight up.
“Like I say, if you know your personnel and know who you’re playing against, you’re able to take advantage of things that maybe you don’t have like speed or quickness or athleticism.”
McBride’s only playoff experience dates back to that rookie season in 2014 when she was mentored by Hammon. Then the San Antonio Stars, they were swept in a best-of-three first-round series by the Minnesota Lynx.
She’ll look to add to that total later this month, likely beginning with a single-elimination game at home to earn a spot in a best-of-five semifinal.
As many have noted, McBride, Wilson and Cambage have the makings of a star trio that could dominate the next decade. Expect McBride, the current longest-tenured member of the franchise who’s been through the losing, a foot fracture and relocation to a brand new WNBA market, to cherish these moments and do all she can to help build a perennial winner in Vegas.