'Her confidence is what we need': WNBA rookie Kierstan Bell impresses Las Vegas Aces

W.G. Ramirez / Special to The Repository

LAS VEGAS — As Las Vegas Aces general manager Nikki Fargas focused on this year's WNBA draft, she remembered how fond she was of Florida Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko's system.

Fargas was the coach at LSU when her Tigers beat the Eagles by 11 during the 2019-20 season.

Thus, scouting for her first WNBA Draft, Fargas kept an eagle eye on one player starring at FGCU this past season, especially when she lit up LSU for 32 points in an 88-74 victory.

Kierstan Bell can flat out score the basketball," Fargas said. "She's a multi-layer player. She can shoot the 3, obviously, but she can also manipulate the game with her size.”

Florida Gulf Coast's Kierstan Bell, left, poses for a photo with commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected by the Las Vegas Aces as the 11th overall pick in the WNBA Draft, Monday, April 11, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

And with the 11th pick in the WNBA draft last month, Fargas and the Aces drafted the former star from McKinley High School.

Aces star A'ja Wilson likes Kierstan Bell's confidence

Fargas wasn't the only one bragging about one of the newest faces of a franchise that will be in the spotlight this season as a favorite to win the WNBA title under first-year coach Becky Hammon.

“It's her confidence," Aces star and former league MVP A'ja Wilson said Monday during Media Day. "She's in a way that she understands exactly what we need from her. And that's the beauty of it. It's great when you don't have to necessarily teach a rookie that, when they already come with that chip on their shoulder.”

Kierstan Bell (left) has some fun with Las Vegas Aces teammates A'ja Wilson (middle) and Khayla Pointer (right) before their preseason game against the Minnesota Lynx, May 1, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.

Bell, who was eligible for the draft as a junior because she turns 22 this calendar year, averaged 23.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in two seasons with the Eagles and brings the type of versatility Fargas was enamored by.

“If she has someone small on her, she can take them and back them down," Fargas said. "If she's got someone bigger, slower, she can be them off the bounce. But she competes, and playing in that system ... I knew that Becky's system was going to be perfect for her.”

Kierstan Bell of the Las Vegas Aces goes up for a shot against the Minnesota Lynx in a WNBA preseason game, May 1, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.

Bell scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds in a starting role during Sunday's exhibition game at Minnesota. Not the type of numbers she's used to, but starting alongside the likes of Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young, it was a respectable contribution.

'(Kierstan) Bell is fearless'

It was also her willingness to play deliberately and with no fear that impressed sharpshooting Plum.

“Bell is fearless," Plum said. "I think as a rookie you come in, that's one of the biggest hurdles to get over, not being afraid at the moment because it can be overwhelming. There's so many things coming at you from your new offense, all this new personnel, to defensively who you're guarding, all these changes on the fly, adjustments on the fly. I just love Bell's mentality.”

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A mentality, Plum added, that is a rare quality. Rather than freezing with a rookie mindset, if she's out of position or doesn't know the play, Bell carries the type of swag that exudes the confidence Wilson spoke of and will entice the Alliance native to pull up with a shooter's mentality.

Kierstan Bell (1) of the Las Vegas Aces is defended by Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx in a WNBA preseason game, May 1, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.

“Her confidence is what we need," former WNBA champion and four-time All-Star Chelsea Gray said. "And that's why we drafted (her), that's why we're looking forward to playing with her this season. And I just hope she always keeps that edge about her, and I love that.”

Kierstan Bell not focused on being steal of the WNBA Draft

As the first 10 picks of the WNBA draft were being called, it was major conference after major conference after major conference. The SEC, Pac 12, Big 10, Big 12 and ACC all saw players fill the Top 10.

But for some, Bell — the first player to be named the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons — was the steal of the draft at No. 11.

Former FGCU star Kierstan Bell in training camp with the Las Vegas Aces. Bell was a first-round pick in the WNBA Draft on April 11, 2022.

“It made me feel good, seeing people talking about that, being the steal of the draft, but I just want to continue to prove myself and why I'm meant to be here," said Bell, last season's Atlantic Sun Player of the Year. "I don't really look at things like that, I let my game speak for itself. I just continue to be myself, be positive, and continue to just put that work in.”

FGCU coach Karl Smesko said what sets Bell apart is,"her ability to recognize situations on the court faster than anyone else and then reacts faster than anyone else."

It's Bell's versatility of being able to transition from one place to the next, make the right reads in those situations, and most importantly doing those things in an efficient manner, Smesko said is difficult to coach.

For Bell, he added, it comes naturally.

Former FGCU star Kierstan Bell in training camp with the Las Vegas Aces. Bell was a first-round pick in the WNBA Draft on April 11, 2022.

“She just has another sense for those types of things," Smesko said. "I just think like she's the best cutter that I've ever seen and knowing the right time to cut and seeing the play develop ahead of time. You can always work and become a better shooter and better passer in different situations, but the players who can process information the fastest and make the right decisions are the ones who can make this transition to the highest level of basketball the best and I think she'll do really well.”

Bell said the transition from Smesko's system at FGCU to Hammon's system with the Aces has been seamless.

Playing with space, finding her open teammate, making reads on defense, crashing the boards, pushing the ball up and down the floor, all while playing with veteran-like confidence.

Former FGCU star Kierstan Bell in training camp with the Las Vegas Aces. Bell was a first-round pick in the WNBA Draft on April 11, 2022.

"That's the mindset you have to have coming in," Bell said. "You can't be scared. You're going to come in with nerves. And I definitely was nervous starting my first preseason game in the W. But you have to go out there and prove why you're meant to be out there. And I think that's what I do every day, is have that mindset of tomorrow is not promised and you have to work on it today.

“My confidence is the reason I got here, it's one of the main reasons I got here, because I've always believed in myself, and I knew that I worked so hard to get to this moment and never be fearless.”

When do the Las Vegas Aces play this weekend?

The Aces open their regular season Friday night in Phoenix — a rematch of last year's best-of-five WNBA semifinals won by the Mercury in five games — before hosting Seattle for their home opener on Sunday. Both games tip at 10 p.m., and will be televised. Friday's game is on NBA TV and Sunday's game is on ESPN2.

W.G. Ramirez is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez