By MARK ANDERSON AP Sports Writer
LAS VEGAS — The timing and location of the WNBA All-Star Game couldn’t be much better.
Just in the past week, 19-year-old phenom Victor Wembanyama made his NBA summer league debut to sold-out crowds at the nearby Thomas & Mack Center, NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke openly about Las Vegas as a potential expansion candidate, and the Aces (19-2) continued to roll through opponents as they seek a second straight WNBA title.
That’s a lot of basketball momentum ahead of the All-Star Game at Michelob Ultra Arena. The 3-point shooting contest and skills competitions were held Friday, and the game Saturday has been declared a sellout.
Team Wilson is captained by Aces star and two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, and she will be joined by three of her Las Vegas teammates when they take on Team Stewart, led by 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart of the New York Liberty.
Aces coach Becky Hammon, who will lead Team Wilson, noted that Las Vegas has a history as a basketball city. UNLV won the 1990 national championship and appeared in three other Final Fours, making Runnin’ Rebels games must-see events even in this entertainment-driven city.
“We just have the privilege and honor to be its first professional basketball team,” Hammon said. “But you go back to those early UNLV games, I think this town has always loved basketball. I played in conference tournaments here. But to have a product like this, a women’s team like this, I think people are excited to come visit. I think we’ve played our way into the conversation of being one of the best shows here.”
Hammon spoke after Tuesday night’s 98-72 victory over the Phoenix Mercury, which was played before a franchise-record crowd of 10,281 and was the team’s third sellout this season. Clippers star Paul George, Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell and Miami’s Bam Adebayo were among the NBA players watching, joined by former Duke and USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.
“The birth of Vegas sports outside of boxing has been amazing,” Thomas said. “It truly is becoming a hub of sports and entertainment, and the WNBA and the Vegas Aces are driving that.”
The NBA could be next. Silver has often referred to Las Vegas as the “31st franchise” because of the presence of all 30 teams at the summer league each year.
And that relationship is growing with the NBA playing the final four games of its first in-season tournament in Las Vegas on Dec. 7 and 9.
“I like to believe the tournament games being held here next year has something to do with the NBA flirting with the idea of having a team,” George said. “Hopefully, that goes well. A heck of an NBA fan base here.”
Silver, when addressing the Associated Press Sports Editors convention in Las Vegas on Monday, didn’t tamp down speculation of the city as a potential expansion candidate. Once the NBA secures its multimedia contracts within the next couple of years, Silver said the league would consider adding teams.
“We will look at this market,” Silver said. “There’s no doubt there is (also) enormous interest in Seattle. It’s not a secret.”
For now, at least, the world’s best women’s players will call Las Vegas home for a couple of days, going through All-Star Game festivities and trying to put on a show for the fans.
“It’s great having it in Vegas,” said Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier, who will play in her third All-Star Game. “They’ve always done a really great job in the past, and having summer league, there are extra people there who are interested in basketball. So I think it’s a great opportunity to convert even more women’s basketball fans.”
GRINER SURPRISED HERSELF WITH ALL-STAR SPOT
Brittney Griner didn’t know what to expect when the WNBA season began, how she would respond after the trauma she experienced of being incarcerated in Russia, which forced her off the court for many months.
Griner surprised herself, playing well enough to become a starter in Saturday’s All-Star Game.
“I just wanted to get out there and try my best not to get hurt, give it the best I’ve got,” Griner said. “I was a little shocked, actually, how it was once I got on the court, so I’m happy with it.
“It was definitely a tough road. A lot of long, hard hours in the gym and in the weight room to get back into it.”
Griner spent nearly 300 days in Russian custody after being arrested on Feb. 17, 2022, on drug charges at an airport near Moscow. She was released on Dec. 8 after the U.S. government agreed to a prisoner swap.
The WNBA kept Griner top of mind while she was being held in Russia, putting her initials and jersey No. 42 on each court. She also was made an honorary starter at last year’s All-Star Game.
This year, she’s an actual starter after averaging 19.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots for Phoenix.
“My stats definitely are going to be better this year than last year,” Griner said laughing. “You got to use humor in life.”
Griner will play for Team Stewart.
“It’s really inspiring to see what she’s doing and the way that she carries herself,” team captain Stewart said. “It’s like she was gone for 10 months, but she still acts and carries herself the same way. The strength she has to do that is something that I definitely admire. And the way that she’s able to be a force on the court, she’s one of one, and we’re happy that she’s back with us.”
Griner said she not only didn’t think she would be at this year’s All-Star Game but that she would still be stuck in Russia.
Her return to the U.S. hasn’t been completely joyous, however. Griner was harassed at a Dallas airport last month by someone the WNBA called a “social media figure” that caused the league to re-examine its policies regarding how she travels.
She is interested in playing in the new “Unrivaled” three-on-three and one-on-one league the players are creating so they don’t have to supplement their incomes overseas.
Stewart and Minnesota’s Collier are the co-founders and hope to schedule a January-March season.
For now, though, Griner’s focus is on the All-Star festivities, and she has a great appreciation for being able to take part. She also was blown away by the tributes at last year’s game.
“Still seeing pictures from things that I didn’t see that were done at last All-Star, so I’m still getting caught up on everything,” Griner said. “But definitely it feels great actually being able to be here physically now.”
ALL-STAR SKILLS EVENTS
New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu electrified the crowd Friday by scoring a record 37 of a possible 40 points to easily win the 3-point shooting contest at the WNBA All-Star Game.
She beat the Seattle Storm’s Sami Whitcomb and the Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale in the final. Whitcomb had 24 points and Ogunbowale 11.
“I knew they were going in,” Ionescu said. “I was telling my agents over there, I didn’t even wait for the ball to get through the net. As soon as I shot it, it looked good and I just went down and kept grabbing (basketballs) and was listening to the fans as they were cheering, knowing that they went in. So they were my validation.”
The Aces duo of Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum won the skills competition with a time of 44.3 seconds in the final round, easily beating the 58.0 put up by the Liberty’s Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot.
Allie Quigley, who has won a record four 3-point contests, including the past two, is not playing this season. Her absence cleared the way for someone else to step up.
That player was Ionescu, who made both three-point balls and all five two-point money balls. She made 20 in a row at one point and missed only two shots overall to beat the record that Quigley – who watched in person Friday – set last season with 30 points. It also bested Steph Curry’s NBA record of 31 points set in 2021.
“Shouldn’t have missed two,” Ionescu said. “It was the final round. I had just lost in the skills. I wasn’t going to lose again. So thankful to have only missed two, I guess.”
Whitcomb (28 points), and Ionescu (26) and Ogunbowale (21) advanced to the final. The Connecticut Sun’s DiJonai Carrington (18), the Indiana Fever’s Kelsey Mitchell (15) and the Aces’ Jackie Young (15) failed to advance out of the first round.
The WNBA changed the skills format this year, switching to a two-player team event. Four teams were represented, going through an obstacle course that tests all the skills required in a regular game – agility, passing, dribbling and shooting.
Last year, a WNBA player teamed with one from Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League. Ionescu won last year’s contest with Zoe Brooks, this year’s national high school player of the year and a North Carolina State signee.
The Aces (45.9 seconds) and Liberty (47.8) advanced out of the first round, eliminating the Dallas Wings’ team of Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally (52.6) and the Atlanta Dream’s team of Allisha Gray and Cheyenne Parker (58.7).
Then the Aces won, with Gray finishing strong after Plum first went through the course.
“I didn’t look that skilled out there,” Plum said. “But, no, it’s really cool to be here in Vegas, to do it in front of our fans and family and friends.”
AP freelance writer W.G. Ramirez contributed to this report.