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A’ja Wilson: Sculpting A Legacy

ByShawn Medow|@ShawnMedow| February 12, 2021
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There aren’t many statues of 24 year olds. There aren’t many statues of women. There aren’t many statues of People of Color in the first place. But outside of Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, home of the University of South Carolina, lies an 11-foot-tall bronze statue of Hopkins, South Carolina native and 2017 NCAA champion A’ja Wilson. 

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“My grandmother couldn’t even walk on this campus. She couldn’t even get to where she needed to go on a quicker route, she had to walk around,” A’ja Wilson said when her statue was unveiled. “If she was here today, to see her granddaughter has a statue where she once could not walk, it goes to show how you just plant seeds and that’s what it’s all about.”

A’ja came into the WNBA with high hopes and high expectations as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, and she has lived up to them so far. She has used her voice for good, she’s been voted the best player in the league, but she still has more to achieve.

So today, we take a look at A’ja’s basketball evolution, including how she first came to the game. We discuss how her game developed through her time in the WNBA. And see what her stats reveal. Plus, we cover her strengths and opportunities.

A’ja Wilson’s basketball evolution

Unsurprisingly, A’ja Wilson was an outstanding high school player. She led Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, an independent private prep school in Columbia, to a 2014 state championship her senior year while averaging 24.7 points, 13.9 rebounds and 4.3 blocks over 119 games.

In that championship game, Wilson scored 37 points, knocking down jump shots, driving to the basket and scoring put-backs. With seven seconds left in the game, Heathwood trailed by three. A teammate dribbled the ball up the court to the three-point line on the left side before throwing it across the court to A’ja on the right side of the floor. A’ja collected the ball, set her feet and drilled a game-tying three-pointer to send the championship to overtime where Heathwood went on to win the title. 

In her senior year, A’ja averaged a whopping 34.4 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 5 blocks. That earned her the honors of national high school player of the year by Naismith, Parade Magazine and WBCA as well as the top rating by ESPN heading into college.

A’ja Wilson was an all-around athlete in high school. Competing in track and field, soccer and volleyball, making the all-state team for volleyball and breaking her high school’s 100-meter sprint record. But A’ja was keen to stick with basketball, a sport she started playing at age 11

A’ja chose to stay local, attending South Carolina over the likes of Geno Aurriema’s UConn, North Carolina and Tennessee. “There’s really just no place like home.” 

“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,” A’ja told FiveThirtyEight. “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 has also hung onto the number 22 that she picked during her AAU days, according to SLAM, because she “didn’t think she ‘matched the caliber’ of the stars who have donned No. 23.” If she didn’t match it then, she does now. 

In A’ja Wilson’s first season with the Gamecocks, she only started one game while playing 37 games. However, the 6-foot-4 forward averaged 19.8 minutes per game and shot 53.8 percent for 13.1 points per game. A’ja wasn’t supposed to be a bench player. In fact, A’ja was sent to the bench by head coach Dawn Staley after A’ja’s first game.

“Her first game, she played terribly. I didn’t feel like she was ready,” Dawn Staley told FiveThirtyEight. “Finally I just thought, ‘Hmmm, I think she’d make a bigger impact off the bench.’”

But A’ja Wilson, the top recruit in the nation, reportedly handled it well. 

“I was like, ‘Good, with my freshman behind, I don’t know what I’m getting myself into anyways,” A’ja told FiveThirtyEight. “It allowed me to understand my role as a person, as a player, and how to adjust.”

It proved to be a turning point. Her sophomore season in 2015-16 was different from her freshman year. A’ja started 32 of the 33 games she played in, shooting 53.1 percent, averaging 16.1 points per game and 27.1 minutes per game. Blocking became a bigger part of her game, upping her blocks per game from 1.8 to 3.1 while nearly reeling in 9 rebounds a game. A’ja had truly arrived on the college stage. Her junior year, though, would prove to be the pinnacle. 

Starting 35 of 35 games, A’ja Wilson shot 58.8 percent with 17.9 points per game. She led the Gamecocks deeper than the school had ever been in the NCAA Tournament. All the way to the title game. 

In the national championship game, A’ja was sure to be the star. The junior scored 23 points, snagged 10 rebounds for a double-double and added four blocks for good measure. She shined the brightest.

“This team has played with so much heart,” a teary-eyed A’ja Wilson told ESPN’s Holly Rowe on the court after winning South Carolina’s first national championship. “…To finally achieve this huge goal of all of ours is amazing.”

Part of the reason, she told SLAM, that she was in tears was that during the season, A’ja suffered the loss of her grandmother who died at age 95. 

“My grandmother is someone who fueled me every single day in life. Yeah, I play for her,” A’ja said to FiveThirtyEight. “She will always live within me. I speak to her a lot during the games. I pray. She keeps me going.”

A’ja had reached the top. The girl from Columbia, playing for her local university, had lifted it to its first ever national title. And she still had one year to go. 

Her senior year, South Carolina earned a No. 2 seed and cruised through to the Elite Eight, where it met the powerhouse of Connecticut. Against UConn, Wilson scored 27 points and collected eight rebounds, both game-highs. But Gabby Williams scored 23 points for the Huskies. Katie Lou Samuelson had seven assists. And UConn won 94-65, ending South Carolina’s season and Wilson’s collegiate career. 

Bigger things were ahead for A’ja. 

A’ja Wilson’s WNBA rookie season

A’ja must have been used to being ranked No. 1 after her high school recruiting rank. With the first pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, the newly relocated Las Vegas Aces selected her No. 1. Those high expectations were back. This time, she didn’t need a benching to get going. 

In her debut, A’ja Wilson scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for a double-double against the Connecticut Sun. She became just the 15th player in league history to record a double-double in her debut. 

A’ja started all 33 games and was tied for third in scoring at the end of the season. In spite of being the key player for the Aces, the team struggled, finishing last in the Western Conference with 14 wins and 20 losses for the ninth-best record in the league. Thus, they missed out on the playoffs to a 15-19 Dallas Wings. 

But A’ja’s performances earned her a spot in the All-Star game as a rookie. And at the end of the season, she was named the 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year. 

She scored double-digit points 33 times and had double-digit rebounds in 10 games while leading the team in scoring and rebounds on 17 and 16 occasions respectively. 

After her individually successful rookie season, A’ja Wilson traveled to China to play for Shaanxi Red Wolves in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association. 

A’ja Wilson’s 2019 WNBA season 

The 2019 season was a total improvement for the Aces. But an up-and-down one for A’ja. 

She was putting up massive numbers. With seven games of 20+ points and 23 double-digit scoring performances, A’ja was on fire. She scored a career-high and franchise record-tying 39 points in an overtime win over the Indiana Fever. But soon missed four weeks, including the All-Star Game — which A’ja was named a captain of — due to an ankle injury (her team defeated Team Delle Donne 129-126). 

Las Vegas finished second in the West with a 21-13, one game back from the LA Sparks, and earned the 4-seed and a bye to the second round of the playoffs. In that second-round single-elimination game, the Aces beat the Chicago Sky 93-92. A’ja scored 11 points and had 11 rebounds in the win, which advanced the Aces to the semifinals against the top-seed Washington Mystics. 

Against the Mystics, A’ja had a big first game, leading the way with 23 points, but the Aces fell 95-93. A 3-of-12 performance in game two dug the Aces into a hole that they were unable to climb out of, losing the series in four games. The Mystics went on to win the WNBA championship. 

A’ja Wilson got her first taste of the playoffs. And performed well in several games. But she fell short of making the championship. 

A’ja Wilson’s 2020 WNBA season

The COVID-19 pandemic sent the WNBA season into a bubble in Florida. It was set to be a season like no other. And for the Aces, it certainly was. 

As for A’ja Wilson, it would prove to be her best year as a pro yet. A’ja started every game of the shortened 22-game season, playing 31.7 minutes per game, taking on the extra workload left to her after teammate Liz Cambage sat out the season. She scored in double figures in each of the 22 games while managing 15 20-point-plus games and seven double-doubles. 

A’ja Wilson was named the WNBA MVP, the fifth youngest in history. And made the All-WNBA First Team as a unanimous selection. She was the first choice on 43 of the 47 ballots cast and second choice on the other four

“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,” Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer told FiveThirtyEight. “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.”

She carried the Aces to the No. 1 seed with an 18-4 record. This was the best chance the young franchise had at winning the WNBA championship. 

In the playoffs, which the Aces earned a bye to the semifinals of, A’ja and Co. watched the seven-seed Sun upset the three-seed Sparks to set up a best-of-five semifinal with the former. What on paper should have been a favorable matchup for the Aces turned out not to be. 

The Sun took Las Vegas five games, with the Aces losing the first game and finding themselves down 2-1 after three games with elimination on the line in game four. The Aces stood strong, winning games four and five to advance to the finals, with A’ja going 7-of-13 in game four and leading the team with 23 points in game five. 

This set up the finals against the No. 2 seed Seattle Storm, which had swept the Minnesota Lynx in the semifinals. It would be the second time in the franchise’s history, and first since its move to Las Vegas, that it would make the championship.

It was a daunting task for the Aces and the Storm overpowered them in a 3-0 sweep in the finals, delaying the first ever title for Las Vegas. But it was a special year for the team and Wilson. 

During the 2020 season, basketball wasn’t the most important thing. 

A’ja Wilson, the activist 

A’ja has long been outwardly spoken about issues that are important to her. From racial injustices to pay inequality, A’ja is not afraid of letting her voice be heard. 

“I know people say, ‘Shut up and dribble, stay out of politics,’ but it’s really not about that,” A’ja Wilson told USA Today prior to the statue unveiling. “It’s about doing the right thing. (Police brutality) can happen to my dad, my brother, my mom, myself. When it hits close to home, you want to make it matter.”

When LeBron James signed a $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018, Wilson went to Twitter to express her discomfort with the fact a WNBA player doesn’t get even $1 million on a contract. 

“The pay gap is there – not necessarily just in sports, but across all workplaces,” A’ja Wilson said, according to the Greenville News. “The NBA players back us up. They know that it’s real. I’m glad to have tweeted something that sparked conversation and brought awareness. I’m a female athlete and should be respected as much as anyone else.”

For A’ja, it was important to speak up not just for WNBA players but women across all walks of life in workplaces where they have been underpaid and are still underpaid. 

“It is a large gap, and a tough pill to swallow,” she said. “I realize things aren’t going to happen overnight, but it’s more of a respect thing – people on social media downgrading me because I’m a woman. That’s where we have to start. The biggest thing I learned about being a pro athlete is people are going to say a lot of things.” 

During the 2020 season, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which the WNBA was at the forefront of, Wilson was not shy to speak up. She’s a key member of the league’s Social Justice Council.  

“This is what it’s all about: us coming together to make a change because this is unacceptable,” Wilson told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on The Jump ahead of the season. “It shouldn’t take a Black man dying for the world to come together because this has been going on for years.” 

The league had a full-blown effort with the “Say Her Name” campaign, Black Lives Matter on courts, shirts, jerseys and more. Players openly campaigned against Kelly Loeffler, the Atlanta Dream owner and now former Georgia U.S. Senator. 

“It was actually a lot easier when the league, the WNBA, is behind you 100%, and allows you to speak your mind and speak your truth,” she said to USA Today. “That was the cherry on top.”

In July 2020, she wrote in the Players Tribune a story called “Dear Black Girls,” in which she opened up about her experiences and realizations that she was treated differently for the color of her skin, especially true in her home state of South Carolina where she wrote “a place where the Confederate flag could be seen around every corner.” 

In the article, A’ja Wilson discussed the time she was invited to a party as a child but was told she would not be allowed in the house because the girl’s father “doesn’t really like Black people.” She wrote about Staley and the South Carolina national championship-winning team that consisted of 12 Black players and the lack of respect the team got from national media. 

“I don’t want to have to be UNAPOLOGETIC for you to hear me,” she wrote

So now the fact that she has a statue outside of the University of South Carolina’s arena speaks volumes on volumes. 

“Change doesn’t happen overnight, but you want to be a part of something that plant seeds, so later on down the road, little Black girls can come back and look at that statue and say, ‘Wow, like, she was her, but at the same time she was in her community as well,’ and I think that’s the beauty of it all,” A’ja Wilson said, according to The State. 

A’ja Wilson’s career stats

A’ja’s WNBA career has been consistently at a high standard. Statistically, she puts up some of the best numbers in the league.

Her totals, seen below, show this. While shooting 46.2 percent her rookie season, A’ja Wilson collected 264 rebounds. And had 55 blocks, leading to her being named the rookie of the season

Her 2019 season was different, with A’ja shooting better than her rookie year. But with lower overall stats due to her four-week absence with her ankle injury. In that season, A’ja still recorded a career-high and franchise record-tying 39 points against Indiana. 

As for the 2020 season, the bubble meant a shorter season and with fewer games came smaller numbers in the totals category. But A’ja once again narrowly improved her shooting percentage. And was on pace to surpass her rookie season’s numbers. 

In 2020, A’ja scored a season-high 31 points against New York and a career-high four blocks against Washington. 

A'ja Wilson WNBA totals per game stats
A’ja Wilson’s totals per game via Basketball Reference

Her per-game breakdown shows this in a better light. A’ja Wilson’s MVP season in 2020 was reflective of her statline. Per game, A’ja scored 20.5 points — comparable to her rookie season — had 8.5 rebounds and 2 blocks while averaging over a steal. 

A'ja Wilson WNBA per game stats
A’ja Wilson’s per game stats via Basketball Reference

Back in college, A’ja had astronomical numbers. A climb from 13.1 points per game to 22.6 by her senior year elevated her to the top pick in the draft. Her senior year she averaged a double-double with 11.8 rebounds. Interestingly, A’ja, who has attempted one three-pointer in her pro career in 2019, attempted 12, making five in her senior season.

A'ja Wilson basketball career stats
A’ja Wilson’s career stats via Basketball Reference

A’ja Wilson’s career highlights 

  • 2014 National High School Player of the Year
  • No. 1 ranked high school player in the country
  • 2017 NCAA Most Outstanding Player
  • 2017 NCAA tournament national title winner
  • 2018 No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft
  • 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year
  • 2018 WNBA All-Star 
  • The 2018 FIBA World Cup gold medalist
  • 2019 WNBA All-Star
  • 2020 WNBA MVP 
  • 2020 Statue at Colonial Life Arena 

A’ja Wilson’s strengths 

A’ja Wilson’s skills vary. Her strengths are numerous. 

As a forward, A’ja obviously finds herself in and around the paint. She’s a versatile player in that area, making big plays in small spaces. When defenders might think they have her locked up, she proves them wrong. 

1. Shaking defenders in the paint

A’ja does an excellent job of getting loose from a defender, finding an inch and knocking down a mid-range jump shot. Her 6-foot-4 frame helps her back down players before turning and hitting shots. 

2. The pick-and-roll

She also likes to collect the ball further away from the hoop and step into her shot. And she’s a strong player in the pick-and-roll. 

3. Bully ball

And of course as a forward, she does well at lowering her shoulder and driving to the rim. 

4. Blocking & rebounding

Defensively, A’ja is an incredible blocker. She is a great rebounder, reeling in 7 defensive rebounds for every 1 offensive rebound in the 2020 season. 

The best of A’ja Wilson’s WNBA rookie season video highlights

A’ja Wilson’s WNBA bubble season highlight video:

A’ja Wilson’s opportunities

It is pretty tough to find places that the 2020 league MVP could improve. In high school, A’ja shot three-pointers but that has since left her game. A’ja has attempted three-pointers but is not the type of forward to step beyond the arc and shoot a three. In fact, her South Carolina national champion team did not attempt a single three-pointer in the national championship game. 

What’s next for A’ja Wilson

The next big step for A’ja is a WNBA title. After making the 2020 championship, she and the Aces have had a taste of what the finals is like to play for the title. With some big offseason moves already, teams may struggle to find cohesion and the Aces may pounce on the opportunity. 

A’ja Wilson will be in her final year of her four-year rookie contract. And the reigning MVP will have a lot of room to negotiate a new contract. Whether that is with the Aces or elsewhere. She is bound to get quite the payday. With the new collective bargaining agreement approved, increased pay, mental health resources, fully paid maternity leave and upgrades to travel and accommodations will be big boosts for players across the league, including A’ja. 

Heading into the 2021 WNBA season, A’ja already ranks fifth in the league’s history in scoring average for player who have played at least 80 games, second in free throws made and attempted per game, and seventh and 12th in league history in defensive rebounds per game and rebounds per game, respectively. 

A’ja Wilson has recently been training with team USA, which hopes for an Olympic Games in the summer of 2021 in Tokyo. 

“For me to finally get that red, white and blue, I look at it and say, ‘This is something special,’ ” A’ja told The Undefeated. “And the fact that I can kind of pick brains of future Hall of Famers of our game just in a practice is just huge. So, I’m so grateful and honored to wear those three letters across my chest.”

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