Baller Awards

The evolution of Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson

LAS VEGAS — Over the course of her highly decorated career, Alysha Clark has been surrounded by greatness: former teammates Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne have, between them, three WNBA titles and three WNBA MVP Awards. Yet the Las Vegas Aces guard can’t help but be in awe of what she’s witnessed this season playing alongside A’Ja Wilson.

“Her mental toughness, her skill set, she’s as dominant as any player in this league,” said Clark, herself a two-time WNBA champion who was recently named the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year. “She’s scratching the surface of her potential. She has the desire to be the best player in the league.”

Clark’s accurate in her view that Wilson has the desire. There are many who believe that Wilson, a WNBA champion with the Aces (2022) and a two-time league MVP (2020, 2022) already is the league’s best player.

Wilson’s MVP credentials:

  • She’s the top scorer (22.8 points per game) for the league’s best offensive team.
  • She’s the top shot-blocker (2.2 bpg) and the anchor of the league’s best defense, earning her the AP Defensive Player of the Year award and for the second year in a row the Kia WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award.
  • She tied the highest scoring game in WNBA history (53), established a new WNBA record for 20-point games in a season (27) while becoming the fastest player in WNBA history to reach 3,500 points,1,500 rebounds and 300 blocks.

Since 2017, the WNBA MVP has come from the league’s top regular-season team. If that holds true, Wilson will become just the second player in league history to win the award back-to-back (Cynthia Cooper won it in 1997 and 1998 with the Houston Comets).

Yet, Wilson is not a shoo-in, since Stewart is also having a career year (23 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per game) in helping the New York Liberty to the WNBA’s second-best record. On Sept. 12, Stewart was named the AP WNBA Player of the Year, edging Wilson by a single vote.

The MVP ballots are in, and the voters will have their say on the league’s best player on Tuesday.

The Aces and Liberty are on collision course to meet in the WNBA finals, and Wilson and Stewart might have their say when the championship series begins on Oct. 8. On Sunday, Wilson had 34 points in the Aces’ 97-83 win against the Dallas Wings in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals. Her 15 field goals made tied a league record for a playoff game.

“We’re defending a championship that was really, really hard to get, and now it’s harder to sustain and defend,” Wilson said. “We go out every day with the mindset that we got something to protect.

“The goal is to bring another championship to Las Vegas, and I’m going to keep bringing my best to help us do that.”

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The Las Vegas Aces celebrate after Game 4 of the 2022 WNBA Finals on Sept. 18, 2022, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

About that first championship, the night a year ago when the Aces defeated the Connecticut Sun to bring Las Vegas its first pro sports team title.

There was a moment during the news conference when Chelsea Gray, a two-time WNBA champion who was named the MVP of last year’s finals, was asked about Wilson’s impact.

“People in this league … at the end of their career we start having the conversation ‘they’re the best, they’re one of the best,’ ” Gray said. “[Wilson’s] at a young age, and we can have that conversation now.”

That conversation would start with a dominant high school career at a small private school in South Carolina, followed by a dominant college career when she was the national player of the year before being drafted professionally with the No. 1 pick.

A career journey identical to Zion Williamson.

But the paths couldn’t be more different.

Williamson — when he went to Duke and was selected first overall by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 NBA draft — knew he was that dude.

Wilson — when she went to South Carolina before being selected first overall by the Aces in the 2018 WNBA draft — is just now realizing just how gifted she is.

“Last year, when we won a championship that’s when I honestly felt like I was trying to make a name for myself,” Wilson said. “Winning gave me a glimpse of ‘OK, I’m good, I’ve got my name up in this place.’ ”

Why did the process take so long?

“Growing up, I always thought of myself as the sponge and never the rock,” Wilson said. “I always wanted to learn, I always want to get better. So, I never really knew I had it in me to feel like, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ ”

And that’s the reason Dawn Staley, her Hall of Fame coach at South Carolina, stopped quite a few of her early practices at South Carolina because she didn’t think Wilson understood just how good she could be.

“ ‘I should know exactly who you are because you’re a dominant presence,’ ” Wilson recalls Staley telling her. “Don’t be average and don’t blend in. And if you want to blend in, take your a– off the court and go sit on the sideline.”

Wilson’s reaction?

“I’d get mad, I would be pissed,” she said. “But I began to understand exactly what she was doing, and I knew she was just trying to get the best out of me.”

“Growing up, I always thought of myself as the sponge and never the rock. I always wanted to learn, I always want to get better. So, I never really knew had it in me to feel like, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ ”

— A’ja Wilson

While Aces coach Becky Hammon knew she was getting a gem when she accepted the job to coach the team before the 2022 season, she wasn’t completely aware of Wilson’s skill set until she watched her get shots up in the gym.

“When I worked her out in San Antonio when I was still with the Spurs I was like, ‘you can really shoot it, why don’t you shoot the 3?’ ” Hammon said. “Her shooting ability is off the charts, and we’ll work on it this offseason because that makes her more difficult to guard.”

As it is, Wilson is nearly impossible to guard with an improved midrange game, her ability to run the court and her skill in the post where she’s maybe the best in the league at sealing defenders.

“Her mobility as a big is impressive and she’s springy, her second jump might be as quick as her first jump,” Hammon said. “She’s got an old-school game and we’re now letting her dribble more, handle more and putting her in more open spaces. She’s evolving.”

The evolution of Wilson and who she might become is even more scary with her recent realization of her ability and place in the game.

“Last year was probably like my first wake-up call to where I’m like, now it’s time for me to start establishing myself,” Wilson said. “Now I feel like I need to etch myself in these history books.”

Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson arrives at the White House to celebrate the 2022 WNBA championship on Aug. 25 in Washington.

KeShawn Ennis / NBAE via Getty Images

An instrumental rendition of rapper Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar” filled the East Room of the White House as the Aces team strode to the podium.

For Wilson, her appearance in the White House was long overdue.

Due to WNBA training camp, Wilson missed the White House trip last year when the 2020 Tokyo and 2022 Beijing Olympians were invited. Neither Wilson nor the rest of the South Carolina women’s basketball team made the trip to Washington to celebrate the team’s 2017 NCAA national title (they weren’t invited — politics).

So, when Wilson did show up with the Aces in August, she made the absolute most of the trip, wearing a stunning blue dress and turning the tour of the White House into a fashion shoot.

“It was crazy because you see the White House in the movies and on TV, and then you’re there and realize how much history has gone on in that place,” Wilson said. “It was incredible to see.”

Equally incredible for Wilson was the reaction of her parents as they walked through the White House before the main ceremony.

“My mom was like, ‘Where’s Michelle? I need to see her portrait,’ ” Wilson said. “And my dad’s like, ‘No, where’s Barack?’ For them to have that experience with me, to see us celebrated in the house of history, was incredible.”

As incredible a trip it was to the White House it appeared, on the surface, that Wilson had to provide a nudge in response to a post from President Joe Biden congratulating the Las Vegas Golden Knights following their Stanley Cup title.

The Aces, after Wilson’s post, stated the team was extended an invitation to the White House, which happened during the team’s late August trip to Washington to play the Mystics. Still, Biden congratulating the Golden Knights following the team’s title this year and failing to acknowledge the Aces last year when they became the first major pro sports team from Las Vegas to win a title is a demonstration that the acknowledgement of women’s sports has a long way to go.

“This is just who I am, and I just want to wake people up,” Wilson said. “My college didn’t get an invitation, and I wasn’t about to let that happen again. I had to speak up. It’s important for our game.”

Mayala Lett-Jackson, 14, poses with her signed A’ja Wilson jersey.

Jerry Bembry for Andscape

“… knowing that I’m playing for that next young Black girl that wants to play … It keeps me going every single day.” — A’ja Wilson

Wilson’s stand for women in sports is equally important for the women and young girls who follow the game like Mayala Lett-Jackson, 14, of Las Vegas who could barely control her emotions after last year’s MVP signed her jersey following a late regular-season game at Michelob ULTRA Arena.

“I love all the players, especially A’ja and Chelsea Gray,” Mayala said. “I’ve had this jersey for a year, and I was shocked she stopped by to sign it. Her game is amazing.”

When Wilson, seated in the Aces’ spectacular new $40 million practice facility, was told about Mayala’s reaction, she smiled and thought back to an encounter she had with teammate Candace Parker.

“My heart stopped when I met Candice in Tennessee during an official [recruiting] visit, so I know what those encounters mean,” Wilson said. “I love that girls are excited when I sign something, love that they get excited to get an A’ja Wilson jersey for their birthday or Christmas, love when they dress up as A’ja Wilson for Halloween. For the fans, I want to have a positive impact.”

Wilson wants to particularly have a positive impact on young Black girls, which she pointed out during a Sept. 17 postgame news conference after the Aces swept their first-round series against Chicago.

“I’m blessed. This is something that I dreamed of doing … playing alongside just an incredible locker room,” Wilson said. “That’s how I take those moments in, knowing that I’m playing for that next young Black girl that wants to play … It keeps me going every single day.”

When the Aces eliminated the Chicago Sky on Sept. 17, Clark was asked again about the greatness of her teammate after watching Wilson drop a franchise playoff record 38 points along with 16 rebounds.

“I’m sitting back sometimes, I’m standing out in the corner like, oh, that’s nasty,” Clark said. “I’m a fan, too. I’m happy she’s my teammate because I know what a load she is from an opponent’s standpoint.”

With Wilson, Clark said, the greatness goes well beyond her physical talent.

“The way that she approaches the game, her humility, her competitiveness, her fire, and just the way she’s selfless,” Clark said. “That’s something that I think is overlooked a lot of times with superstars, and she’s not going to say she’s one, but she is.

“She’s extremely selfless, and she’s a phenomenal leader, and when you have somebody that’s leading your team in that way, it makes everybody else just want to play that much more alongside her.”

That Wilson can be better — that the Aces can be better — is scary for the rest of the league.

“We’re just scratching the surface of what we need to do to continue to make a name for ourselves in this league,” Wilson said. “We want people to be talking about the Aces for a while, just like they talked about the Comets. We want to talk about legacy. We want a dynasty. We want to be in those history books.”


By: Jerry Bembry
Title: The evolution of Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson
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Published Date: Mon, 25 Sep 2023 12:25:49 +0000

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