A’ja Wilson is One of the Younger Players to Benefit from New Women’s National Team Training Initiative
The 23-year-old lit up the WNBA in her second season and hopes to do so at the Olympic Games.
A’ja Wilson had a tremendous calendar year in 2018, claiming consensus National Player of the Year honors, being the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft before winning WNBA Rookie of the Year honors, and helping the USA Basketball Women’s National Team capture the FIBA World Cup gold medal.
She didn’t stop garnering honors this year when the Las Vegas Aces star was named a captain of one of the two 2019 WNBA All-Star teams. And while she was unable to compete in the contest due to injury, she very much is looking forward to the expanded training program that USA Basketball has launched in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Wilson is among eight players who will train with the USA National Team under head coach Dawn Staley at five training segments that will take place between November 2019 and April 2020, two of which are part of FIBA’s new Olympic qualification process.
Available members of the team will gather in November and February to train and play in Olympic qualifying tournaments, despite already earning a spot in the Tokyo Games by winning the FIBA World Cup last fall. Exhibition games against college teams are also on the slate after the NCAA granted waivers to allow member schools to compete in exhibition games against the national team.
The 2015 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year and her teammates will have several chances to have competitive games in which the coaching staff can try out lineups and get players more international experience.
“I think it’s very important to find rotations to get chemistry and to make it all come together,” Wilson said. “That’s what makes (international play) so special. That’s what makes us special.
“Back in the day we would come together for a couple weeks and just play, and it would still look like we always knew each other. But now having actual time as a group, it will help showcase all of our talents, and I think that is what’s going to help us win gold.”
Wilson is accustomed to having success across the globe. She has a wide array of international experience traveling with some of the junior USA teams, as she helped lead USA U19 teams to gold medals at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Cup in Russia and at the 2013 FIBA U19 World Cup in Lithuania.
After enjoying international success as a youngster, the 6-foot-5 native of Columbia, South Carolina, whose father played professional basketball in Europe for 10 years, stayed in-state to play college ball at the University of South Carolina after claiming the Naismith and Parade Magazine High School Player of the Year awards in 2014. Under Staley, she helped the Gamecocks win the 2017 national championship, and she is excited to work once again with her former college coach.
“It was a great thing to play for her for four years (with South Carolina),” Wilson said. “She’s really taught me so much.
“She’s my mom away from my mom. I can call her for anything, and I think that really helped form the player-coach relationship that we have.”
Even as the WNBA’s second-leading All-Star fan vote-getter this season, Wilson knows she always has room to improve her game despite already having a reputation as being a prolific scorer and tough defender.
The expanded national team program training will further enhance Wilson’s repertoire, which is a scary thought for international foes as the team eyes the 2020 Olympics.
“I think I’m a little bit more prepared now, just because I’m used to the physicality and pace of the game,” she said. “But I’m still young. I’m still getting some international experience underneath my belt. So, I have a lot more things to learn and time to grow.
“But at the end of the day, understanding the pace of the game and what needs to be done and your role on the team — that’s something that will carry us all down the line (in the Olympics).”
The national team has won the past six and eight of the past nine Olympic gold medals and has compiled a 66-3 record in Olympic play since women’s basketball was first introduced in 1976. With an expanded training program and talented players like the 23-year-old Wilson leading the way, the Americans are set up for sustained success well into the future.
And based on the results at every stop of her basketball career, Wilson is primed to collect many more accolades in her USA Basketball jersey.