It took a benching to turn A’ja Wilson into the basketball player she is today.
The WNBA’s newly named Most Valuable Player was in her freshman year at South Carolina, in 2014, and her Hall of Fame coach didn’t like what she was seeing.
“Her first game, she played terribly. I didn’t feel like she was ready,” said Dawn Staley, the 2020 Naismith National Coach of the Year and, like her protege would become, a former Naismith National Player of the Year. Wilson started that first game and shot just 2-for-7, committing three turnovers in 16 minutes. “Finally I just thought, ‘Hmmm, I think she’d make a bigger impact off the bench.’”
Staley had the tough conversation with her talented forward, the former No. 1 recruit in the country.
“I just told her, ‘You’re probably going to have to trust me on this one, but I think having you come off the bench will allow you to see the game and probably take some pressure off of you,’” Staley recalled. She told Wilson she would benefit overall from being the “spark” off the bench.
To Staley’s surprise, Wilson was OK with it. “That’s how you know when you have something special. She put her trust in me. She didn’t care what anybody thought.”
In actuality, Wilson was relieved.
“If it was any other person, they’d probably be upset,” Wilson said. “‘I’m the No. 1 recruit, how you go make me come off the bench? That doesn’t make any sense.’ Well, I obviously never had that thought.
“I was like, ‘Good, with my freshman behind, I don’t know what I’m getting myself into anyways,” she recalled with a laugh. “It allowed me to understand my role as a person, as a player, and how to adjust.”
Wilson is grateful: She said the benching helped mold her into the player she is today.
“Who knows [what would have happened] if I never understood how roles mean so much to a team? I learned if you do your role well, you’ll be just fine.”
Wilson did more than “just fine.” Months after being benched, she was named SEC Freshman of the Year and made the All-SEC first team. A year later, she was SEC Player of the Year — the first of three such honors — and SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Another year later, in 2017, she led the Gamecocks to their first national championship. She finished her college career as South Carolina’s all-time leading scorer.
It all started with a benching, and the rest — as they say — is history.
Now, the 24-year-old Las Vegas Aces star stands at the cusp of advancing to the finals and winning her first professional title in only her third year in the league. She has leaned on her faith and the inspirations in her life as she’s settled into her role, and she’s using her voice in new ways — both to fight injustice and to pull back the curtain on life in the league.
In 22 regular-season games inside the league’s bubble in Bradenton, Florida, Wilson averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.0 blocked shots and 1.23 steals in 31.7 minutes per contest. The 6-foot-4 forward led the WNBA in blocks, ranked second in scoring and finished seventh in rebounding. She also shot a career-high 48.0 percent from the field and 78.1 percent from the free throw line. She led the WNBA in free throws made (118) and attempted (151).
Behind Wilson, the Aces tied for the best record in the WNBA (18-4) during the regular season and earned the top seed. That feat earned them a double bye into the semifinals of the playoffs, which began Sunday against the Connecticut Sun. The Sun came out on fire and, behind Jasmine Thomas’s career-high 31 points, defeated the Aces 87-62. Despite Wilson’s 19 points, the Aces struggled against a team they beat twice in the regular season, shooting just 33.8 percent from the field.
“I think we needed to get beat. They worked 10 times harder than we did, and we needed that slap in the face,” Wilson said in her postgame comments. “We have to go back to the drawing board and see what we did wrong, what we can improve on, and go from there. The best thing about this loss is there’s a lot of things we can control, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Aces weren’t expected to finish where they did after losing starters Kelsey Plum and Liz Cambage. That disregard fuels Wilson.
“Just that feeling of being the underdog, of being counted out,” Wilson said. “I know a lot of people counted us out. We lost two starters. Every team has lost something — but that doesn’t mean you count them out.”
Wilson said she didn’t know how the season would turn out but figured if she was here, she might as well play “at a very high level for my team and let them know I’m here for them no matter what.” “That’s kind of what pushed me through; that and my parents praying every single night. I didn’t come into this bubble thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to do x, y and z.’ I just came in with an open mind with the situation.”
Wilson has already done plenty in her short career. She was the No.1 pick in the 2018 draft, the 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year and a WNBA All-Star in 2018 and 2019.
Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray, the 2017 Rookie of the Year and Wilson’s close friend and college roommate, called Wilson “just a talent.”
“The stuff she does on the court, you can’t teach,” Gray said. “She’s a team player, she wants you to do well. I remember sometimes (in college) I wouldn’t shoot the ball, and she would fuss at me. She’s an unselfish player, wants you to do well, and that’s what makes her special.”
Wilson excels at both ends of the court: This season, her individual offensive rating of 111 ranked 25th in the league,1 while her defensive rating of 94 ranked third. That elite level of play helped the Aces rank second in the WNBA in both offensive rating (107.3) and defensive rating (97.2) this season.
“All of that is just par for the course. This is what she does,” Staley said of her former player who has become a friend. “That’s A’ja Wilson. She’s worked on her game. She’s wanted this. She’s a franchise player. She’s a program changer, and when you put the ball in her hands, she is going to be efficient with it.”
After a stellar rookie season, Wilson endured a sophomore slump in 2019. Her scoring and rebounding numbers dipped with the acquisition of Cambage in a preseason trade with the Dallas Wings.
The Aces finished the 2019 season with a 21-13 record, second in the Western Conference and fourth overall. They made it to the playoffs but lost in the semifinals 3-1 to the eventual champions, the Washington Mystics. Wilson finished the season ranked seventh in the league in scoring, 18th in rebounding and fourth in blocked shots.
What Wilson has meant for the Aces this season can’t be underestimated, said head coach Bill Laimbeer. “I’ve not had a player with individual performance who’s carried a team like A’ja has this year. It’s great for her, great for our players, great for our franchise.
“Her MVP is well-deserved. She’s grown up. Every year you’ll see more and more of her ability and who she is as a person and as a basketball player — and there’s still more there. She knows it, and we all know it.”
That growth is apparent off the court, as well. She penned a stirring letter in The Players’ Tribune, encouraging young Black girls and building their self-esteem. “I just want especially young Black girls to understand that they are needed and cared about in this world by other Black women,” she said.
Wilson is also an inaugural member of the league’s Social Justice Council, spearheading efforts on behalf of the WNBA to raise awareness for social justice issues. She’s passionate about those causes after her own experience growing up in the South.
“Going to a private school for 12 years where there were only maybe 10 percent Black kids and 2 percent Black women, it was tough because you’re trying to find yourself, trying to find your way,” Wilson recalled. “And then I was grateful to go to South Carolina where I was coached by Dawn Staley — and that is one powerful Black woman.
“She really kind of paved the way for me and helped me find my voice and realize who I am. She showed me, ‘Hey, you can shatter through those (glass) ceilings, you can crack them for the next generation,’ and that’s how I’ve been living my adult life.”
The WNBA’s collective stance on social justice this season has been empowering for Wilson and something she is proud to be a part of.
“I know there is strength in numbers, so for us to stand together and be down for the cause, it’s something that is so powerful behind that. I love being a part of something like this,” she said. “You can act like you don’t hear me. You can act like you’re not listening to me, but I’m going to get my point across to someone.
“I’m all for it. I love it.”
Staley said Wilson’s off-court leadership isn’t surprising. “She’s believable — she has conviction behind what she says. It’s really a beautiful thing to see.
“She’s young but just so aware. She’s conscious. She’s woke. She’s in a position where people are listening. They believe in her — fans, the WNBA, everybody. She’s a new-age ambassador for the league.”
Gray also sees Wilson as an off-court leader. “That’s been A’ja. It’s just great she is speaking up for what needs to be changed in this world and bringing a lot of attention to things, but that’s nothing new. That spotlight she has is not easy, and the way she manages it is just great. It just shows what type of person she is.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Wilson to balance being an athlete and activist, but she has found her own way. “I learned how to focus on one thing at a time and not try to take on everything. Just go with the flow,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy. I’ve been emotionally and mentally fatigued (at times), but at the same time, I knew I had to perform for my teammates. I just pray about it and go on with my life.”
While she’s been serious about her basketball and the league’s social justice work, Wilson has also found time for some lighthearted moments in the bubble. She started a podcast with Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx titled “Tea With A & Phee.” The two dish out news and their opinions, along with interview guest stars including Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard.
“We probably have more fun than people even have listening to us,” Collier said. “It’s like tea time for us when we get together and interview people and talk about what’s going on in our lives in the bubble.”
“Everyone loves some good tea,” Wilson said.
“Tea With A & Phee” has become popular enough that the podcast has its own apparel. The women plan to continue the show after they leave the bubble.
In the meantime, Wilson has her sights set on advancing in the playoffs and bringing home a championship, and she’ll be leaning every step of the way on her faith and her late maternal grandmother — Hattie Rakes — who died in 2016.
“She was 95 years old, and she lived a blessed life,” Wilson said. “She was someone that taught me how to be a woman, taught me how to care for other people, and just let A’ja be A’ja.”
Her grandmother attended only one game of Wilson’s entire collegiate career, but she was “constantly there” for Wilson. “Always letting me be a girl, not just an athlete. She taught me to do puzzles to get things off my mind, little things like that.”
“My grandmother is someone who fueled me every single day in life. Yeah, I play for her,” Wilson said as her voice trailed off. “She will always live within me. I speak to her a lot during the games. I pray. She keeps me going.”
As for her faith, it’s what propels Wilson and her positive outlook.
“I don’t fear a lot of things but God. If I’ve done what He put me on this earth to do, then I am satisfied.”