Borrowing from Gregg Popovich’s training manual, Becky Hammon thrives with Aces

LAS VEGAS — Kelsey Plum couldn’t buy a 3-point field goal in a recent game, so the Las Vegas Aces guard decided to focus on distributing the ball instead.

Freshman head coach Becky Hammon had another plan for Plum.

“Shoot the (expletive) ball,” she yelled at the five-year WNBA veteran.

Motivated by the faith Hammon showed in her, Plum shot successfully in the second half.

“I hit two or three in a row, and I looked at her and said, ‘You like that (expletive)?'” Plum said. “That’s the kind of relationship we have. We are both fiery.

Borrowing at times from Gregg Popovich’s coaching manual, including his salty language, after eight seasons as a trailblazing assistant with Spurs and benefiting from his ability to connect with his players on a personal level, Hammon’s success is one of the best stories in the WNBA.

With the Aces at 15-7 in the Western Conference, she is one of the head coaches for Sunday’s league all-star game in Chicago.

“It’s going to be a fun weekend,” Hammon said last week. “I’m excited to hang out with the girls. I’m going to see a lot of people in a much more relaxed setting than I haven’t seen in a long time, so I’m looking forward to it.

If anyone in the WNBA could spend time in a “relaxed setting,” it’s Hammon.

In a matter of months, she’s gone from helping Popovich guide the Spurs into the NBA Western Conference play-in tournament to building a program in Las Vegas that she hopes will be as respected as the one she has. left in San Antonio.

“When you come from Spurs, you come from a well-oiled machine,” Hammon said. “Here, we are literally building the machine.”

Hammon said she started “behind the ball eight” with the build because she and a few of her assistants had to finish their NBA duties before they could meet face-to-face. Once they finally got together in Las Vegas, she had to spend precious hours describing to her staff the patterns, training drills, and terminology she wanted to use.

“It was a bit exhausting in the sense of having to teach the professor,” Hammon said. “Fortunately, they’re all smart and bright and go-getters, so it worked out well.”

Hammon, 45, is helped by the fact that she has the full backing of Aces owner Mark Davis, who lured her away from Spurs by making her the club’s first million-dollar manager. WNBA history after she reportedly earned $750,000 a year in San Antonio.

Davis, who also owns the Las Vegas Raiders, purchased the Aces from MGM Resorts International in 2021. The Aces moved to Las Vegas from San Antonio in 2017 after Spurs Sports & Entertainment sold them to MGM.

Under Bill Laimbeer last season, the Aces finished their pandemic-shortened season with a West-best 24-8 scoreline before the Phoenix Mercury bounced them from the playoffs into the semifinals.

“Brick by brick, we’re building something special with a super invested owner who not only talks, but walks,” said Hammon, who signed a five-year contract.

Led by All-Stars A’ja Wilson, Dearica Hamby, Jackie Young and Plum, the Aces are off to a 13-2 start this season while using “a lot of Pop play calls and lingo,” especially defensively, Hammon said.

“We handle different stuff, but I always felt like our defensive philosophies in San Antonio were just solid,” she said.

Something else that worked for Hammon: empowering his players.

Regarding the freedom she gives playmaker Chelsea Gray, Hammon said: “I joke that I’m her assistant coach and she’s the head coach.”

Asked if Wilson consulted her on selecting players for his All-Star team, the one Hammon will coach on Sunday, Hammon said, “I consult her on all decisions. She does not consult me.

On the Aces list, “I love this group of women.”

It was those early attentions from players that helped make Hammon, a six-time All-Star during a 16-season WNBA career that included spending the past eight years with the popular San Antonio Stars.

“He’s really the player coach,” said guard Sydney Colson, a Houston native who played at Texas A&M. “She understands what a WNBA season is, what it entails, where your focus level needs to be, what people’s bodies need, what their minds need. She has been there. She did it.

Hammon also makes the game fun, Colson said.

“She lets us all be ourselves,” Colson said. “We know when to strap in and get serious, but we’re very loose. We don’t practice like crazy madmen. She says, “When you get to the game, give me everything you got there.”

Players also admire how Hammon works to get to know them better through frequent one-on-one conversations. That includes Plum, who played for the Stars as a rookie in 2017.

“They come naturally,” Plum said of those intimate chats. “They come to airports, to practices. Nothing is ever forced with her. She has a good sense of people and is super positive. As a player, when you feel empowered, you’re going to give the best version of yourself, and Becky has been great about letting me be myself.

Plum described Hammon the way Spurs players talk about Popovich.

“She cares about you as a person, and when we talk it’s not always just about the game,” Plum said. “It can be about life, spirituality, family. Of all the coaches I’ve played professionally for, she has made it a point to care about me as a person.

Aces fans interviewed during the Aces’ 116-107 loss to the New York Liberty last week said they had seen more passion from the players since Hammon took over.

“It seems like they’re having more fun and having a good time and it shows and it generates for the fans,” season ticket holder Dawn Branham said. “We loved Bill Laimbeer. But I feel like the girls identify more with Becky.

Branham attended the game with his wife, Sharon Beatty. They tied the knot wearing their Aces gear on June 25 at a Las Vegas chapel after being together for 24 years.

Immediately after the ceremony, the couple rushed to the Michelob ULTRA Arena to watch a match.

“There’s just more energy,” Beatty said. “(Hammon) seems to understand the players and what they can bring to the team, and she lets them. It’s just totally different.

Jeremiah Norman, an elementary school teacher from Las Vegas, attended the game with his 11-year-old daughter Kennedy. He said he liked that Hammon was someone young women like Kennedy could emulate.

“She was an incredible player, she’s an incredible leader, she seems like an amazing mother,” he said.

Kennedy said it was “really cool” to have Hammon leading the aces.

“She sends the message to all of us that we can be whoever we want to be,” Kennedy said of young girls like her.

Hammon’s return to the WNBA has also been a boon for the league, which has won sponsors since his return was announced in January.

“I always thought she would make a great coach,” said New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who coached Hammon when she played for the Stars. “She was a very talented player with a very high IQ who knew the game. She was like a coach on the pitch.

Brondello said it was obvious that Hammon imprinted his personality on the Aces.

“You always come to Vegas and expect a very smooth game, a lot of isolations, really NBA look, to be honest,” Brondello said. “We got the better of them tonight, but they’re a very dangerous team. It’s great that they give them a bit more freedom than the last manager did.

With the Spurs in town for the NBA Summer League, several coaches and players from the team attended the game against the Liberty.

Hammon became the first full-time assistant in NBA history under Popovich. She coached the Spurs to a 2015 NBA Summer League championship in Las Vegas and became the first female interim head coach in NBA history on December 30, 2020, following Popovich’s ejection from a match.

“Becky has a great basketball spirit and a great personality,” Spurs assistant coach Mitch Johnson said. “I think that’s what helped her be such a good coach early on in Vegas. She’s just very cerebral and she has a good sense of the game.”

In recent weeks, the Aces have cooled down a bit. Their loss to the Liberty was the fifth of their last seven games.

But much like Popovich, Hammon is focused on improving his team day-to-day rather than his record.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet, and I really don’t want us to be playing our best basketball in July or June either,” she said. “I want us to play our best basketball from mid-August through September.”

The good news for Hammon: his players have bought into his way of doing things.

“It’s been a lot of fun and it’s really good for the game to have her back in the league, with all the attention she’s brought,” Plum said. “As a woman and a leader in this community, she is someone I greatly admire.”

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Twitter: Tom_Orsborn

About Irene J. O'Donnell

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