WNBA Rookie Sensation A’ja Wilson Turns Attention to World Cup Hopes
The No. 1 draft pick out of South Carolina and 2018 Rookie of the Year is competing for a spot on the 2018 World Cup team.
A’ja Wilson lit the WNBA on fire this season as a rookie for the Las Vegas Aces, and now she’s hoping to do the same with the USA Basketball Women’s National Team at the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.
While Wilson is attempting to make the USA’s official roster for the World Cup, the U.S. women will be attempting to win a third-straight World Cup gold medal from Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Spain.
“I traveled around the world with the younger USA teams,” said Wilson, who was the USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year in 2015. “To make this USA World Cup team, it’s special just to have the opportunity to represent your country against the best of the best.”
Wilson already knows something about what that’s like, having led the USA U19 World Cup Team to a gold medal at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Cup in Chekhov, Russia, and a gold medal at the 2013 FIBA U19 World Cup in Lithuania.
Now, she has experience against the best of the best professionally, too. Wilson, the overall No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft in 2018, starred in her debut season with the Aces. The 22-year-old forward earned all three of the league’s Rookie of the Month awards and was named the 2018 Associated Press and WNBA Rookie of the Year.
Those who have known her since her childhood days in South Carolina hardly were surprised by her success.
The 6-foot-5 Wilson grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and had a leading role as her Heathwood Hall High School team won the 2014 South Carolina Independet School Association Class 3A championship. She ended the season by earning the Naismith, Parade Magazine and WBCA National High School Player of the Year awards in 2014.
Wilson stayed put for college to play under three-time Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley at the University of South Carolina, helping the Gamecocks win the 2017 NCAA National Championship. South Carolina went 129-16 during Wilson’s four years there, also making appearances in the 2015 Final Four, the 2018 Elite Eight and the 2016 Sweet 16.
She returned to Columbia, where the USA Women’s National Team training camp began on Sept. 3, playing on a team also coached by Staley.
“I’m pretty comfortable just being home and knowing coach Staley’s system and the things she wants from players, the things she wants out of me,” Wilson said during the team’s stop in Columbia. “At the same time, I’m a little more comfortable being at home, just because I have a year of pro basketball under my belt.”
Wilson, a left-hand shooter, also took part in the 2017 USA National Team training camp, one of just five college players on the camp roster.
“That actually helped me prepare more for my senior year in college than it did for this moment,” Wilson said. “I competed against the best there. If anything, the WNBA helped prepare me more for this.”
Wilson’s Las Vegas Aces are coached by Bill Laimbeer, who as a player helped lead the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990.
“Vegas was awesome, a great experience,” she said. “Coach Laimbeer helped me prepare and expand my game. I’m trying to be the best night-in and night-out, take these brains and learn.”
Laimbeer returned the praise.
“Like a referee told me, the league’s never seen anybody like her,” Laimbeer said earlier during the WNBA season. “She is the best driver in the league. I think she is the best driver in professional basketball for someone her size, relatively speaking, for a big player.”
Wilson said the transition from college to pros went smoothly because of Laimbeer’s leadership and the expectations she placed upon herself.
She said bringing every part of her game — not just ability but also her effort and her focus — has been the difference maker for a smooth transition from college to the pros.
“I think my biggest thing is looking at the mental part of the game, for sure,” she said. “The physicality is already there, training hard, in the gym, lifting weights. It’s the mental part: can you push through this quarter? Can you finish the game?
“Coach Laimbeer really helped me out. He said the more you gain now, the more seasoned your mind will be when it’s something really important on the line.”
Also helping the transition to her first real time away from South Carolina was that her parents, Eva Rakes Wilson and Roscoe C. Wilson Jr., who played professional basketball in Europe for 10 years, visited once a month. Other friends and family came to visit as well, which made the situation easier to bear.
But not everything has come easy for Wilson. She worked hard to overcome dyslexia and now has her own charity, the A’ja Wilson Foundation, which advocates for children with dyslexia and searches for solutions to bullying.
“My main thing is I want to use my platform in a positive way to bring awareness,” she said.
That same platform led to some cyberbullying of its own earlier this year when she pointed out the discrepancies between the NBA and WNBA pay scales.
“People need to know that when things go unsaid, that’s when nothing productive is happening,” she said. “I was using my platform to bring awareness to the game I love. I’m using my platform to give back to my community. It’s something I really want to do.”
And right now, after returning for a few days with the USA National Team to her hometown community, Wilson is ready to give back not just to them, but to her country if she makes the 2018 World Cup team.
Gary R. Blockus is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
The USA will be in the hunt to earn a 10th World Cup gold medal at the 2018 FIBA World Cup Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Spain. Follow along on the team’s journey on usab.com/WNT and through USA Basketball’s social media as the team goes for gold.