Why you should care
Because this college hoops champ A’ja Wilson is a unicorn.
A’ja Wilson is not the product of some new age basketball laboratory, though some might assume as much. Rather, the 6-foot-5-inch reigning two-time SEC Player of the Year from South Carolina is the prototypical forward in today’s fast-paced basketball revolution — a gifted shot blocker and rebounder who can bring the ball up the floor, drop dimes to open teammates and create her own shot. When Wilson gets her silky midrange jumper going, flashbacks to WNBA legend Lisa Leslie come to mind.
Ask the Atlanta Dream’s Nicki Collen, however, and she draws a parallel to the 2016 WNBA Rookie of the Year: “Breanna Stewart had more of a perimeter game in college,” the newly minted WNBA head coach points out. “But that combination of athleticism, shot blocking and passing — that’s the closest comparison.”
Long before the 2017 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and presumed top pick in this year’s WNBA draft became Columbia’s hometown hero, Wilson wanted little to do with basketball. “I just loved to laugh and sleep and hang out at my grandmother’s house,” she tells OZY. And when it came time to hoop? “I just knew that my parents kept waking me up to go sweat, and I hated it.”
Wilson’s father, Roscoe Wilson Jr., starred at Benedict College — a historically Black university in Columbia — enjoying a decadelong professional career in Europe. But A’ja, who began playing organized basketball at age 11, spent the first two years idling on the bench. “I think I just got tired of sitting,” she says, so she teamed up with her dad. “We started putting in the work, getting shots up at all hours.”
By eighth grade, A’ja was starting for Heathwood Hall Episcopal School’s varsity high school team, the first of five seasons that saw her named all-state. The college scholarship offers came flooding in, and the 2014 McDonald’s All-American could have gone anywhere in the country. But South Carolina’s Dawn Staley — a former Olympian and eight-year WNBA starter turned coach who’s credited with rescuing a once-dismal Gamecocks program — convinced Wilson that greatness was at hand. “Coach Staley has a vision that we could win the national championship,” says Wilson. “To be able to do something like that for my home state, that meant a lot.”
If Wilson can improve her speed and ball-handling while honing a confident outside shot, she’ll give undersized perimeter defenders pregame fever dreams for years.
Together, they turned an occasional NCAA Tournament team into perennial national championship contenders. Wilson laughs when discussing her relationship with Staley, saying that the pair disagrees on “just about everything,” but it’s clear the bond is rooted in mutual admiration. While Staley built a career as a no-nonsense floor general, her affable pupil walks around with her head in the clouds, defusing the pressure of being one of the world’s best young female basketball players with practical jokes in an effort to lighten the mood.
But if Wilson is to fulfill her outsized potential, she’ll need to do more than be Staley’s better half. As a college player, she is either a head taller or more athletic than her opponents. Frequently, she’s both. But in the WNBA, forwards and centers are bigger, faster and stronger than most college athletes. “I would be shocked if she isn’t drafted first, because of her versatility and her huge upside,” says Collen. “But where she will really need to develop is playing outside the paint more.”
Wilson’s size and talent will allow her to excel down low, but, as Collen suggests, the perimeter is where she can truly shine. If she can improve her speed and ballhandling while honing a confident outside shot, she’ll give undersized perimeter defenders pregame fever dreams for years. “Clearly, people see things in me that I don’t see yet,” says Wilson. “And that still gives me a lot of room to work.” Then, as if on cue, her inner-Staley comes out: “If I really channel my mental focus, [the game] will get much easier.”
So far this season, the quest to repeat as national champions is more or less going according to plan. South Carolina lost several key members from last season’s championship team, but a talented cast of young players following Wilson’s lead has the Gamecocks ranked ninth at 17-3. For her part, Wilson is averaging 23.6 points and 11 rebounds per game and recently became the second player in Gamecocks history to score 2,000 career points and grab 1,000 rebounds. “A’ja is so versatile,” says Jerome Dickerson, Wilson’s former AAU coach. Dickerson notes that what most of the country is just now coming to see has been apparent for years. “She can dunk, shoot, handle the ball. She’s really changing the game.”
And Staley, in part due to roster necessity but also to further prepare her star, is putting those many skills to use. “We’ve been getting A’ja more reps at the guard position,” Staley told the press after a December 18 win over Savannah State, noting that Wilson is not yet entirely comfortable with the adjustment but is embracing it nonetheless. “She’s a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams. … A’ja will do as she’s told, and she will excel at it.”
These days, Wilson can’t go anywhere in Columbia without attracting attention — and the encounters that mean the most are with young girls who instantly start screaming and have been brought to tears by her presence. Wilson used to try to hide — which “was tough, being so tall,” she admits — but now she welcomes her fans because, well, she knows what it’s like to be starstruck. “I love Blake Austin Griffin,” Wilson declares, explaining how, on a trip to Los Angeles her sophomore year, she and a few teammates waited to meet the Clippers star after practice. “I don’t want to sound too stalkerish because he follows me on Twitter, but I couldn’t stop crying. … That was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Chances are there are more happiest days to come.