Las Vegas Aces put on show in opener even without Liz Cambage

LAS VEGAS -- Coach Bill Laimbeer refers to this desert oasis as a "big small town." As in, Las Vegas is a large enough metro area to support the WNBA's Aces well, but not so huge that they're lost in the landscape. This is a place, Laimbeer said, where someone such as Liz Cambage can stand out -- and not just because she's 6-foot-8. But because she has star quality that extends beyond how good her game is.

Yet as excited as Las Vegas Aces fans are about getting the center -- who came via trade with Dallas earlier this month -- their team showed them plenty in Sunday's season opener even without her. The Aces won 83-70 versus the Los Angeles Sparks, getting 21 points and 11 rebounds from A'ja Wilson, last season's Rookie of the Year. Cambage, who is dealing with Achilles tendinitis, did not play, sporting a black suit and a look of concentration during the game as she studied her new teammates and provided encouragement.

"I'm still trying to get the plays down and learn how all the girls move off each other, what their personalities are on-court," Cambage said later in the Aces' locker room. "I'm really studying and trying to remember everything and take it all in.

"I'm so surrounded by love and happy to be here. There's so much good energy, and it's everything I need to be at my best. The fans are so supportive, and the organization is amazing. It's going to be a really exciting summer."

She's happy to be here, even if the offseason saga of where -- or even if -- she would play this season was draining. She's joining a team that doesn't need her to come in and do everything but will give her an opportunity to be a difference-maker.

"We were all saying, 'Wow, we're still missing a piece to our puzzle,'" said Wilson of how well the Aces played minus Cambage. "It was a good measure for us. When you're going against someone like the Sparks who've won [a championship] ... it was a good test for us. It shows growth last year to this year."

In 2018, the Aces' first year in Las Vegas after moving from San Antonio, they went 14-20 and missed the playoffs but showed a lot of potential.

Wilson, one of three No. 1 overall draft picks on the roster along with Kelsey Plum (2017) and Jackie Young (2019), started Sunday where she left off as a rookie, as one of the most talented players on the floor. But guard Kayla McBride (20 points, seven rebounds) and forward Dearica Hamby (12 points, 14 rebounds) also shined for the Aces. Hamby, in her fifth season, came off the bench to give Las Vegas a lift, which is her specialty.

When Hamby recently signed an extension with the team, she asked Laimbeer for a frank assessment of her place with the Aces.

"I told her I thought she was a great bench player with a championship team," Laimbeer said. "That shocked her a little bit; she thought that was the greatest compliment I've ever given her. When she plays with energy, she makes things happen. And that's what great bench players do. It just makes the second unit that much better. I have five really great starters when I add Liz in there, but we also need the bench."

Las Vegas led throughout the game and firmly took control by holding the Sparks to eight points in the second quarter. Los Angeles was without veteran forward Candace Parker, who has a hamstring injury. The Sparks have been known for their defense in recent years, but there were glitches in a different system under new coach Derek Fisher.

"It's going to take some time, but we have to be patient," Sparks guard Alana Beard said.

Sunday marked the first time the Ogwumike sisters, Nneka and Chiney, have played together in the WNBA, with Chiney coming to Los Angeles in a trade from Connecticut. Nneka had 17 points and 11 rebounds. Chiney had a Sparks debut she'd probably like to forget, going 1-of-10 from the field and finishing with two points.

Fisher, whose former teammate Kobe Bryant was in the stands, said this game gives the Sparks plenty of information on what they need to work on.

"It reminds us and reinforces right away how far we have to go to reach our maximum potential," Fisher said. "In a month, we're going to laugh at how bad we were tonight."

Maria Vadeeva, a Russian post player in her second season in the league, led Los Angeles with 24 points. It's uncertain how long the Sparks will be without Parker, but they missed her despite the amount of talent they do have.

Young had a solid debut for the Aces, starting and going 4-for-4 from the field for eight points. Plum had 11 points and a team-high six assists. It was the kind of game that has to whet the appetite of Aces fans; if they played this well without Cambage, just wait until she's on the floor.

Laimbeer is frank -- and he's correct -- in saying Tulsa was the worst place Cambage could have ended up when she was drafted into the WNBA at No. 2 in 2011. The franchise had just moved from Detroit, had a coach -- Nolan Richardson -- who'd never coached the women's game before, and too much was expected from the 19-year-old Cambage with a franchise that didn't have enough talent or strong direction.

Even though it has been a long road for Cambage to get to Las Vegas, Laimbeer said he thinks this is the right fit. The anticipation will build for when she gets to take the court for the Aces, which she said should be Friday at Phoenix (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET). But Sunday's victory was a good indication that Vegas is good -- and will soon get even better.

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