LAS VEGAS -- Becky Hammon grinned as if she couldn't believe what Kelsey Plum said.
The all-time scoring leader in NCAA women's hoops history had just recorded 10 assists in a Las Vegas Aces victory on Aug. 11, prompting her coach to praise Plum's passing in the postgame news conference: "It's hard to 're-identify' yourself. But she has."
Plum nodded in agreement: "It's really hard, being a ball hog for that long."
That got laughs, but Plum was sincere. She can pile up points -- including 40 in a game this season -- but is also adept at setting up her teammates. The same goes for teammates Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young.
In their third year of playing together in Las Vegas, each was an All-Star earlier this season. Now, they're trying to win a second consecutive WNBA title and claim a place as one of the greatest guard trios in WNBA history.
They got here by recognizing that as individuals, they could be stars. As a unit, they could be champions.
Post player A'ja Wilson leads the Aces in points, rebounds and blocked shots, and is a strong contender for what could be her third WNBA MVP award. But as much as the spotlight focuses on Wilson, she credits Gray, Plum and Young as fellow architects of what Las Vegas has built.
"To see those three sacrifice for one another, it's been a joy to watch," Wilson said. "They can each go out and give you big scoring, easily. For them to sacrifice some shots for each other, and for me, it takes a lot of trust. I love my guards so much."
Las Vegas has the WNBA's top-scoring offense for the fourth season in a row, climbing from 88.7 to 89.3 to 90.4 to 92.8 points per game. Last year, Gray, Plum and Young accounted for 53.7% of the Aces' points and 70.6% of their assists. This season, it's 55% and 71.3%, respectively. They are the top three on the team in minutes played, with only one game (Plum) missed among them all season.
Even as basketball has become more positionless, they are modern versions of guards in the traditional sense. Gray (15.3 PPG, 7.3 APG) is the primary point guard, but Plum (18.7 PPG, 4.5 APG) and Young (17.6 PPG, 3.8 APG) also can initiate the Aces' offense. They have that sixth sense that teammates develop over time -- and lots of playing time. On offense or defense, they all know where the others are and what they will do next.
"That takes years," Plum said. "We started to have bits and pieces in the 2021 season. Last year, toward the end of the season, the three of us really connected. This season has been pretty consistent. We've kind of taken it to another level."
Chelsea Gray tallies a triple-double with 22 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds in the Aces' big win over the Liberty.
Gray will be 31 in October, Plum turned 29 in August and Young celebrates her 26th birthday Saturday. Gray (Bay Area) and Plum (San Diego) are from California. Young is from Princeton, Indiana, 4½ hours south of Notre Dame, where she played three seasons before becoming the No. 1 draft pick in 2019.
Plum, who scored 3,527 points for the Washington Huskies, was also a No. 1 pick, in 2017, the last year the franchise was still in San Antonio. Gray had a tough time with injuries at Duke, including a broken kneecap that cut short her senior season. She was drafted No. 11 by the Connecticut Sun in 2014 but made her WNBA debut in 2015.
She was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016, won a title that season as a reserve and has been a starter ever since. She left the Sparks for the Aces as a free agent in 2021. That's when the trio formed, and the chemistry began.
"They just really bought into each other, as teammates and as people," said Hammon, in her second season of coaching them. "Their efficiency as a group is off the charts. Those three are so special to what we do, and they all impact the game differently. They're such complementary pieces to each other."
Gray is like the cool older sister everybody follows and listens to. Plum is more the firecracker. Young's personality somehow melds being an intense competitor with the most outwardly serene disposition you could find in sports.
Hammon, a former point guard herself, has also helped bring out their best. She appreciates Young's affability, Plum's preference for blunt communication and Gray's exceptional decision-making.
"Jackie can get along with anybody, literally any personality," Hammon said. "With KP, she doesn't like the BS; you hit her right between the eyes. She respects that and responds to that. Chelsea's brain is her greatest asset. She's got a doctorate in pick-and-roll and reading defenses."
Jackie Young puts up 28 points and five assists as the Aces beat the Wings to improve to 16-1.
Young played that same role at Notre Dame, winning the 2018 NCAA championship in a backcourt with Arike Ogunbowale (Dallas Wings) and Marina Mabrey (Chicago Sky), more vocal and demonstrative guards. As with the Aces, that Irish trio also could interchangeably run the offense.
"That is so key, and it makes it so much harder to guard a team," said former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "It allows you to just play faster. And with the size that the Aces have with Jackie, Chelsea and Kelsey, you can always have that mismatch on the block with one of them.
"They're all strong, they can all use the pick-and-roll, they can all create on their own. So it makes for impossible matchups for opponents."
Even as a reserve with the Sparks, Gray was fearless in making clutch shots, now one of her trademarks. Her nickname, "Point Gawd," highlights the passing wizardry evident in every game.
"The people I play with and the targets I'm able to hit -- what a luxury for me," said Gray, MVP of the WNBA Finals last year. "They know I'm going to try to find them any way possible."
Plum said of Gray, "She has the greatest feel for what a team needs. And down the stretch, you could poll any GM, any coach, any player in this league and it would be, 'Yeah, I'd give Chelsea Gray the ball and get the hell out of the way.'"
Jackie Young makes a nice touch pass to Kelsey Plum, who steps into her shot and knocks down the trey.
Plum led Washington to the Final Four in 2016 and set the NCAA scoring record in 2017. She felt pressure to live up to what she thought a No. 1 draft pick should be and worried she was falling short. When the then-Stars moved from San Antonio to Las Vegas in 2018, a new No. 1 pick arrived to lead the way in Wilson, and Plum had to rebuild her confidence.
She became "Plum Dawg," the electrifying scorer who can cut the heart out of the opposition. She's also now a passer, a screener and a defender with the same gusto but a stronger sense of self. Hence the "ball hog" remark. In fairness, she had to dominate the basketball for Washington to win. She doesn't have to for the Aces.
Young's typical on-court demeanor is as unchanging as granite, but during her first three WNBA seasons she was bothered by mistakes, missed shots and the tendency of foes to play off her, unconcerned about her 3-point shot. So she decided to change her mechanics and her mindset.
"Becky and her staff have been phenomenal with Jackie," McGraw said. "Building her confidence, giving her the green light. She's just as happy to pass the ball, but I think Becky has built that sense with Jackie of, 'I am also one of the first options.'"
Young and Plum have been on parallel journeys: embracing what they had always done well, working hard on improvements and shedding any negative weight of being the top draft pick. Meshing with Gray has been the easiest part of it all.
"We spend a lot of time together," Young said. "Before practice, after practice. I think it shows by the way we play. It just clicks with us."
They are also linked by success at the 2021 Olympics: Gray was on the U.S. five-on-five team that won a seventh consecutive gold medal. Plum and Young were on the 3x3 team that won gold in the sport's Olympic debut.
There have been other outstanding perimeter-based trios in the league's history who played together at least three years, including guard/forward Sheryl Swoopes and guards Cynthia Cooper and Janeth Arcain of the four-time champion Houston Comets in 1997-2000.
Guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus and wing Maya Moore led the Minnesota Lynx, who went to the WNBA Finals six times between 2011 and 2017 and won four titles. Minnesota's dynasty years are a standard every WNBA team has since tried to emulate. Swoopes, Cooper and Whalen are in the Naismith Hall of Fame, with Augustus and Moore near certain to follow.
A title this year would get Las Vegas halfway to matching the Comets and Lynx, but the Aces' starting guards statistically already measure up. Gray, Plum and Young averaged 51.05 points and 15.5 assists this year -- higher combined averages than the Comets or Lynx trios did in any of their championship seasons.
The New York Liberty have their own strong perimeter trio too, in guards Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu and guard/forward Betnijah Laney, and appear to be the team most likely to challenge the Aces' title run. Liberty coach Sandy Brondello -- a former WNBA guard like Hammon -- knows how hard it is to match up with Gray, Plum and Young.
"They all can handle the ball, they're all playmakers, not just scorers," Brondello said. "They're the same in some ways, but also very different. They're dynamic."
Now they're trying to help the Aces become the first team since the Sparks in 2001-2002 to win back-to-back WNBA championships. And all currently are signed with the Aces, as is Wilson, through the 2024 season.
"We joke that I'm fire, Chelsea's ice and Jackie's ... I don't know ... water? Air? Earth?" Plum said. "I don't think it would work if we were all the same. We've been able to grow together, so it's been wonderful."