A’ja Wilson Looks to Add to Her Résumé
Photo Courtesy: University of South Carolina Athletics
The former South Carolina star is back in Columbia for U.S. women’s minicamp.
Things move quickly around A’ja Wilson.
The 6-foot-4 forward stayed home to play college basketball at South Carolina, leading the Gamecocks to their lone NCAA title in 2017. Then she was drafted No. 1 overall by the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces in 2018 and won the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. She added a WNBA MVP Award to her trophy case in 2020.
Oh, yeah, and South Carolina Athletics erected a bronze statue of Wilson outside of its arena. Not a bad list of accomplishments for someone who’s still just 24 years old.
This week, Wilson is focused on adding another achievement to that impressive résumé. She is one of 19 players at a USA Basketball Women’s National Team minicamp as it resumes preparations for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. It is the first time the team has been together in a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the Olympics to be postponed to 2021.
“This camp, I’m just gonna be the best player that I can be, just have a little fun with it,” said Wilson, who is a gaudy 47–0 with four gold medals at various levels while playing for the USA. “It’s a different group pretty much every single time — it seems like we're adding someone new (to the player pool). So, that's the beauty of it. You get chemistry with a lot of different players and just have fun with it and play together.”
She is back in Columbia for the four-day minicamp, just a couple weeks after the ceremony to unveil Wilson’s statue on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. So instead of hanging out with her parents for a few days or hitting Big T’s (her favorite barbecue joint), Wilson is focused on basketball business and earning one of the 12 roster spots for Tokyo as the United States goes for its seventh straight gold medal.
It is that ability to home in on the moment that has driven her success. At South Carolina, she led the Gamecocks to a 129–16 record, two NCAA Final Fours, was a three-time All-America first team selection, consensus National Player of the Year in 2018, three-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, SEC Freshman of the Year and two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Those accomplishments, plus her impact off the court, made it an easy decision to erect a statue outside Colonial Life Arena. She joins Heisman Trophy-winning football player George Rogers as the only athletes with statues on campus.
Wilson only wishes her maternal grandmother, Hattie Rakes, could have seen it. Wilson got emotional during the unveiling when she talked about how her grandmother, who grew up four blocks from the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion, wasn’t allowed to walk on campus grounds due to segregation and racism.
“I think the biggest thing my grandmother would say is, ‘You're not done. This is only the beginning,’” Wilson said. “I think she was someone that was always so strong and so independent and helped me out through anything growing up, and I think she doesn't want me to ever settle. So, she would probably just be like, ‘Don't settle. This is only the beginning. You're not done, so keep pushing forward.’ And that's what I'm gonna do.”
Wilson is hoping for a few moments alone to visit the statue, which sculptor Julie Rotblatt-Amrany worked on for nearly a year. Rotblatt-Amrany’s studio also has created statues of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Scottie Pippen.
“I think it’s gonna be a lot of tears, I think it's gonna be very emotional,” Wilson said of what she expects when she does see the statue by herself. “Because just what it stands for—and I wish my grandmother and my grandfather could be here to see it. Those two people mean the most to me. But it's definitely going to be a moment that I'm going to love, because I don't know if I’ll ever get another chance to be by myself with the statue.”
While there will be a statue of her outside, Wilson knows she has to put in the work inside the arena to make sure U.S. head coach Dawn Staley — her coach at South Carolina — and the USA Basketball Women’s National Team selection committee deem Wilson ready to contribute in Tokyo. Staley knows probably better than anyone that the moment won’t be too big for Wilson.
All of the feats Wilson has accomplished could certainly be a recipe for overconfidence. That’s not the case, though a bit of bravado sometimes sneaks through Wilson’s humility.
“I don't know if (I’m) surprised,” Wilson said of all of her success early in her career, “because when you work at it, you know you're destined for greatness—and I mean it in the most humble way possible. When you're doing it when the lights are on and you're just showcasing it when the lights are on, nothing's really like a shock or surprise, but my MVP definitely was a surprise because I just didn't think I would get one this early. I guess you could say I looked at that as more of a long-term goal. But then, that's when I realized I shouldn’t sell myself short and that way I should just be me and play and have fun with it. And that's what I did.”