The Las Vegas Aces trace their history back to the first year of the WNBA’s existence in 1997. Known then as the Utah Starzz, the Starzz were one of the league’s original eight franchises.
With no professional women’s basketball leagues in the United States in the decade leading up to the WNBA coming into existence, college players who wished to pursue a pro career had to ply their wares overseas.
That means that in 1997, not only were there scores of college players looking to join the league, but a generation of veterans who were anxious to finally play in front of their families and friends in the United States.
Rather than put all of these players into a single draft, the WNBA employed a number of different methods to stock the teams with talent.
The first came with the league’s initial allocation of two veteran players to each squad. The WNBA took geographic considerations into account when assigning those players. The Charlotte Sting received former ACC stalwarts Andrea Stinson (NC State) and Vicky Bullett (Maryland). USC grad Lisa Leslie was assigned to the Los Angeles Sparks. Sheryl Swoopes, who played collegiately at Texas Tech, became a member of the Houston Comets. UConn’s Rebecca Lobo became a member of the New York Liberty.
The Starzz had no natural connections to the initial group of players signed by the league (players signed contracts with the WNBA, not individual teams back then), and they received Elena Baranova and Lady Hardmon as their first two players.
Baranova was a 6-5, 25-year-old center from Russia, who played in the league for seven seasons over nine years—three with the Starzz, one with the Miami Sol, and three with the New York Liberty. Baranova sat out the 2000 and 2002 WNBA seasons to train with the Russian National Team.
She posted career averages of 10.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots over her 209-game career. Her best statistical season came in her second season with the Starzz, when she averaged 12.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
Hardmon was a 26-year-old forward in 1997, who played collegiately at Georgia. She played one season in Utah before being traded to the Sacramento Monarchs, for whom she played the remaining seven years of her WNBA career.
She averaged 4.6 points and 2.1 rebounds per game over a 245-game career. Her best statistical season came in 1998 when she averaged 7.1 points and 2.7 rebounds while connecting on a career-high 48.7 percent of her shots from the field.
1997 WNBA Elite Draft
On February 27, 1997, the league held a two-round “Elite Draft” composed entirely of veteran players. Utah had the first pick in each round, selecting Dena Head with the first pick, and Wendy Palmer with the ninth.
Head was an All-American and two-time NCAA champion for the Tennessee Lady Vols who graduated in 1992. Prior to joining the WNBA, she played internationally in Brazil, France, Spain, Italy and Hungary.
She played for the Starzz for two seasons (1997-98), and the Phoenix Mercury for one (2000) before retiring. Her best year was her rookie season, where she averaged 5.7 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
Palmer was a 1996 graduate of the University of Virginia who enjoyed an 11-year WNBA career. She played two-and-a-half seasons for Utah (1997-99), before being traded to the Detroit Shock (1999-2002). She would go on to play for the Orlando Miracle (2002), the Connecticut Sun (2003-04), the San Antonio Silver Stars (2005) and the Seattle Storm (2006-07).
Like Head, Palmer’s best year was her rookie season where she averaged 15.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. She finished her career with averages of 10.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
1997 WNBA Draft
The 1997 WNBA Draft had four rounds. The Starzz found themselves with the fifth pick in the first and third rounds, and the fourth pick in the second and fourth rounds.
With the fifth overall pick, they selected guard Tammi Reiss from Virginia. A 1992 Cavs grad, Reiss spent two years in the league, both with Utah. She averaged 7.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists during her rookie campaign, and 6.5 points, 1.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists during her second year in the league.
In the second round, and with the 12th overall pick, the Starzz selected forward Jessica Hicks from Maryland. Hicks averaged 3.2 points and 1.4 rebounds in 26 games with Utah in 1997, but played overseas from 1998-2000.
She returned to the WNBA in 2000, playing three seasons with the Orlando Miracle (2000-02), and one each with the Connecticut Sun (2003) and San Antonio Silver Stars (2004). Hicks’ best statistical season was the 2002 campaign, when she averaged 6.1 points, and 3.3 rebounds, while making 47.7 percent of her shots from the field.
Hicks played 169 games in her WNBA career, finishing with averages of 4.2 points and 2.1 rebounds.
With the team’s third round pick, Las Vegas selected Colorado forward Raegan Scott. The 6-4, All-Big 12 honoree played in eight games for the Starzz in 1997, averaging 1.5 points and 0.9 rebounds. The following season saw Scott make her way to Cleveland, where she averaged 1.7 points and 1.3 rebounds in 22 games for the Rockers.
In the fourth round, the Starzz selected DePaul guard Kim Williams. The former Illinois Ms. Basketball, and Conference USA Player of the Year, played two seasons in Utah, averaging 7.8 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
The Minnesota Lynx acquired Williams in the 1999 WNBA Expansion Draft, but she never played for the Lynx.
Next up, the tallest player in WNBA history makes her way to Salt Lake City.