LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MAY 18: Kate Martin #20 and Kelsey Plum #10 of the Las Vegas Aces react after Martin blocked a shot in the fourth quarter of their game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Michelob ULTRA Arena on May 18, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Aces defeated the Sparks 89-82. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)


Kate Martin wants to make one thing clear: She is a punctual person.

That bus in Dallas that left her in the parking lot after a Las Vegas Aces team meal? “They set me up,” Martin says of her teammates’ recent viral prank on the rookie. “Come on, now. I would never be late.

“Coach (Becky Hammon) said she had to talk to me, and then I was talking to her — of no substance. I was really confused. I thought it was something important, and then they had been planning it the whole time.”

 

In fairness, everyone on the Aces acknowledges Martin’s discipline. As Hammon says, “She just doesn’t make mistakes.” It’s one of the many reasons Las Vegas — the players, the coaches, the fans — has come to love Martin, as she keeps living the best feel-good story in the WNBA.

One month into the season, Martin is averaging more than 20 minutes per game for the two-time defending champs and is often Hammon’s first sub off the bench, which makes it easy to forget how noteworthy it is that Martin is in this position. She averaged double-digit scoring once in her five years at Iowa, while playing in the national spotlight cast on Caitlin Clark, and she earned all-Big Ten honors in only that final season. Martin was a complementary player in a draft class filled with star power.

Near the end of her college career, she spoke about relishing the final days at Iowa before becoming a “regular old Joe Schmo.” She didn’t even have an agent during the WNBA Draft. She simply asked her Iowa coaches to speak to some pro coaches and, from that intel, inferred that she would be selected in the third round at best. Martin attended the draft to support Clark and didn’t plan on walking if or when she was picked because she hadn’t been invited by the league and her name would presumably be called late in the night.

But Hammon and the Aces were more interested in Martin than she knew. Whenever Hammon and her staff watched Iowa games, she said they came away thinking, “Damn, we love that Kate Martin kid! Oh, she’s so good, she’s so solid.”

Those crossing signals ended up producing one of the highlights of the draft, as the producers asked Martin — who was seated in the audience — to move to the aisle of her row at the end of the first round. She noticed the cameras start to close in when the Aces selected Syracuse’s Dyaisha Fair with the 16th pick. Two picks later, it was Martin’s turn to shake hands with league commissioner Cathy Engelbert and make her way across the Brooklyn Academy of Music stage.

 

Even being drafted didn’t guarantee that Martin’s WNBA career would still be alive and well. Between 2021 and 2023, only 13 of the 36 second-round picks made their team’s opening-night roster, and a few of those players were cut before the end of the regular season. Martin was joining a Las Vegas squad with a crowded training camp roster competing for only a few spots.

The week of the draft, Martin got an assist in the process of making the roster from her future teammate Kelsey Plum, who extended Martin a last-minute invite to her Dawg Class to help her prepare for training camp. “We had an open spot, and I was like, ‘Kate Martin, for sure. Let’s go,’” Plum said.

Kelsey Plum wants to develop the next generation of ‘dawgs’

Once Martin got to Las Vegas, she steadily edged out the competition with her work ethic — what the Aces call the “try hard factor” — and mind. She hopes to coach after her playing career and demonstrated that aptitude with her ability to pick up terminology and schemes. Hammon recalled one instance when she was installing a new, somewhat complex sideline out-of-bounds play. As her teammates set up the play on the court, Martin noticed from the sideline that they were lined up incorrectly and pointed it out.

 

“To be able to make those adjustments and speak up, this is an ATO she’s just seen, but she understood conceptually what we were trying to do and then she could put the pieces together,” Hammon said. “So that’s a great sign.”

It was also fortuitous for Martin to land in Las Vegas, a place where she will never need to be a star. The Aces need role players to surround their superstar quartet, and Martin was elite at that assignment in college playing next to Clark. She sets good screens, she moves the ball, she cuts hard to the basket, and she makes open jumpers. Las Vegas will never call a play for Martin, but she knows how to impact games regardless.

Martin credits Iowa coach Lisa Bluder for helping her read the game. Bluder always said she didn’t want to coach robots, and that forced Martin to develop her IQ and learn how to make decisions without set plays. Hammon grants the Aces freedom on the court, which is a natural extension of the Hawkeyes offense.

Martin cried when she learned she made the final roster, but it’s the Aces who would have been in a world of hurt without her through the first quarter of the season. In her first WNBA game, Martin blocked 6-foot-7 Li Yueru from behind and hasn’t looked back since. She’s shooting 37 percent on 3-pointers, a mark that’s better than every team in the league except the Minnesota Lynx. Las Vegas is 0.7 points per 100 possessions better with her on the court than off it.

Hammon has deployed Martin in small-ball lineups as a three or four, then started her at shooting guard against the Los Angeles Sparks, against whom she scored a career-high 13 points and made all three of her 3-pointers.

Her first 3 almost brought the lid off the roof of Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, despite the Aces being the road team. Just as she was with the Hawkeyes, Martin is a fan favorite wherever she goes.

 

“Honestly, I didn’t expect that,” Martin said. “I never expect anything, really. I had no expectations coming to the league, and I think that’s what’s been so fun is that I got an opportunity, and I made the best team in the world, and then it’s just been a lot of fun since.”

Martin also has a ton of fans within her locker room. In Hammon’s first two seasons as Las Vegas’ coach, she played her four rookies a total of 524 minutes. Martin was already at 183 heading into Thursday’s game, the second most ever afforded among Hammon’s six total rookies. A’ja Wilson loves Martin’s energy and that she is always ready when her name is called; the two-time MVP is continually breathing confidence into Martin, encouraging her to shoot and trying to uplift her whenever possible. Plum calls her “an amazing sponge.” Martin has already drawn comparisons to Alysha Clark as a glue player, and Clark has taken the 2024 draftee under her wing.

The veterans might mess with her — peep the Hello Kitty backpack Martin is required to carry on trips — but she takes it as a sign of love. After all, the day after her teammates tried to ditch her in a restaurant parking lot, it was Martin’s birthday, and arguably the best player in the world got her a cake, ribbon and tiara.

Going into the season, it might not have been evident that Martin would be relied upon to this extent as Las Vegas chases a three-peat. But one thing to know about that Aces rookie — she’s ahead of schedule.