Kayla McBride works her way into the spotlight for the Aces

Kayla McBride drives to the basket. Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images.
Kayla McBride drives to the basket. Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images.

When Bill Laimbeer was asked to talk about Kayla McBride, the Las Aces head coach quipped, “Who?”

The former Notre Dame standout, who led her team to four consecutive Final Fours before being drafted No. 3 in 2014 by the San Antonio Stars, has been a steady presence throughout her WNBA career. But steady doesn’t generate headlines.

A franchise moving to the entertainment capital of the United States generates headlines.

Grabbing the number one pick in a loaded WNBA draft generates headlines.

Yet, it is all the same to McBride, who is continuing to go about her business, one play at a time.

In her fifth year as a pro, McBride is showing off that talent with another best statistical season of her WNBA career, setting highs in points (17.9 per game), field-goal percentage (46.3 percent), and three-point percentage (42.6).

Although her usage rate is the second-lowest of her career, McBride’s improved efficiency has resulted in the best plus-minus since her rookie year, which is the only time McBride’s team has made the WNBA playoffs.

“This is her best year in that department – it shows into number of points scored because she’s shooting a better percentage,” Laimbeer said.

“I challenged her that she has to play every play, every game, at total concentration and maximum energy, and she’s done that for me. She is putting everything out on the floor for us every play.”

McBride has always been a productive starter in the league. She led San Antonio in scoring each of her four seasons and was an All-Star in 2015, but the Stars consistently finished at the bottom of the Western Conference.

Nevertheless, the guard has continued to improve her game, even in a losing situation, and posted her highest rebounds (4.1), assists (2.6), and free-throw percentage (92.5) in the Stars’ final season last year.

“Nobody wants to lose, especially when you get drafted high. You want to make an impact,” McBride said. “It becomes internal motivation to be the player you want to be.”

That work ethic and intensity drew the praise of her new head coach, who compared her to one of his former perimeter stars.

“She’s got a bit of Katie Smith in her,” Laimbeer said of the former WNBA great, who now coaches the New York Liberty. “Very competitive person, understands the game, works very hard at utilizing all the talent she has.”

McBride also credits the team’s fresh start in Las Vegas for giving her renewed energy this year.

Another factor that makes her game much easier is playing with No. 1 pick A’ja Wilson, whose on-court skill and high-scoring ways make her the early favorite for rookie of the year. Being the number one option for four years on a losing team led to McBride racking up high box score totals, but playing with a dominant interior presence who draws the defense has empowered her to play with more freedom.

“I think some people would be a little bit threatened by it. I just embrace it,” McBride said of sharing the floor with Wilson. “In this league, to solidify your legacy, you’ve got to win championships. I just see A’ja as another piece of that.”

Because of her openness, she and Wilson are fast becoming a formidable tandem. In last night’s win over the Chicago Sky, McBride posted 28 points and Wilson, 24.

With her role on the court changing, McBride has challenged herself to take a larger leadership role in the locker room. She hesitates to call herself a veteran, having just turned 26, but McBride is one of the longest-tenured Aces. She understands that she can use her WNBA and international experience to have a valuable impact on a young roster.

Recently she took a stand, with Wilson, for higher pay for WNBA players after some blow back on social media against it.

“If you’re going to speak on something you know nothing about, this is an issue,” McBride said. “This is what I do everyday: I play against the best players in the world all year round to support myself and my family.”

“For someone to attack, that’s when I get upset, because it does take a crazy amount of work and a crazy amount of sacrifice to do what I do every day.”

Kayla McBride takes flight. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images.
Kayla McBride takes flight. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images.

For the Stars and now the Aces, McBride has been a quiet leader.

“I don’t necessarily talk a lot. When I do, I want to lead by example so my team will listen,” McBride said. “Being a leader is difficult, everyone needs to be spoken to differently … being able to do that and bring the best out of my teammates is something that I’m trying to do.”

Creating a positive culture in Las Vegas will require breaking some bad habits that developed over years of struggling in San Antonio. Laimbeer noted that McBride’s concentration level has been higher this season, but the little things, like boxing out on defense, are the difference between winning and losing.

The veteran guard has her own list of skills to improve upon as well, including ball handling and operating out of the pick-and-roll so she can expand on her reputation in the league as a shooter.

McBride set a career high with 38 points in a loss to Dallas on June 27, but says her team’s back-to-back victories against Seattle and New York a week before are the highlight of Las Vegas’ season thus far.

“It’s just so hard to win in this league, period,” McBride said. “To win two wins back-to-back just shows what we’re capable of.”

As the franchise settles into a new city, there is a chance for the Aces to make an immediate impression, something both McBride and Laimbeer emphasized. McBride is all too familiar with playing well, but not leaving a mark. If Las Vegas wins, that begins to change.

“I think she realizes that this opportunity here for herself and for her franchise is significant,” Laimbeer said. “She realizes that, and she’s embraced it.”

So far, the city has fully embraced the Aces.

“I’m proud of how all my teammates have adapted. All our fans have been amazing, MGM has been amazing. It’s been cool to be a part of something so special,” McBride said. “We’re in a really good position. We’re able to do some really great things if we come together and take on the challenge.”

McBride’s voice buzzes when she talks about the promise of her new team. It has the quick pace of someone in a city, not the drawl of a Texan.

The lights burn bright in Las Vegas. Kayla McBride is starting to shine, too.