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A'ja Wilson Talks WNBA MVP Race, Historic Ruffles Partnership, More in B/R Interview

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist IVAugust 17, 2022

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

A'ja Wilson has a number of goals she wants to achieve during her career, and she may soon be able to mark being mentioned among the WNBA's all-time greats off the list at just 26 years old.

The 2022 WNBA MVP race has essentially boiled down to the Las Vegas Aces star and Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm. The victor will join Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Lauren Jackson, Candace Parker and Elena Delle Donne as the only players in league history to win the award multiple times.

"Just being on a list with them is an honor in itself," Wilson told Bleacher Report. "It would mean the world, obviously, to win it, but at the same time I want a championship as well. There's a lot of things that I still want to check off that list. But to win another MVP would be a blessing for sure, and it's definitely an honor just to be among the names of the greats of our game."

Wilson already has the 2020 MVP and four All-Star selections on her resume as she continues to exceed the already sky-high expectations that were in place when the Aces took her with the No. 1 pick of the 2018 WNBA draft.

The 2022 campaign was another excellent one for her, as she averaged 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 50.1 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from deep while expanding her offensive attack beyond the three-point line for the first time in her career.

While Stewart also impressed with averages of 21.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, Wilson's Aces finished with the No. 1 seed in the league at 26-10.

Seattle is the No. 4 seed at 22-14.

"It was very important to us because of the season that we had, where midway through adversity hit us a little bit," Wilson said of finishing atop the standings. "Everyone was saying 'they peaked early' and all this. It's pretty cool to end as the No. 1 seed even though it really doesn't mean much because it can be anyone's game on any day. But it's truly special just to know that this is a pretty historic season for us, and we had a lot of fun doing it."

Las Vegas started 9-1 and then put the finishing touches on the regular season with a four-game winning streak that included Sunday's victory over the Storm that clinched the top seed.

Kelsey Plum went into takeover mode with seven points in the final minute, and Wilson stuffed the stat sheet with 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block. It was a fitting performance seeing how they became the first teammates in WNBA history to each score more than 700 points in the same season.

Sam Gordon @BySamGordon

Let me be very clear: A'ja Wilson didn't need to post 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block on the most important defensive possession of the game today to win the WNBA MVP. She did all that anyway while helping her team clinch the No. 1 seed. No debate.

With the dominant duo leading the way and a supporting cast featuring Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray, who scored 33 points in the win over Seattle, the Aces are in championship-or-bust mode even though All-Star Dearica Hamby is out with a knee injury.

Wilson said "people have been putting that on me since my rookie year" when discussing those championship expectations, but the Aces have come close with an appearance in the 2020 WNBA Finals and semifinal showings in 2019 and 2021.

Perhaps the sideline presence of Becky Hammon will change their playoff fortunes this time around considering she led them to the best record in the league in just her first season as head coach.

"It's been so much fun playing under Becky," Wilson said. "You can tell that if her knee was a little better she would want to be out there with us, too. She just loves the game so much, and her basketball IQ is out of this world."

While Las Vegas hired Hammon ahead of the 2022 campaign, she was already a franchise legend with her jersey retired after the six-time All-Star played eight of her 16 seasons in the WNBA for the San Antonio Silver Stars, who later became the Aces.

Hammon came to Las Vegas with plenty of coaching experience after eight seasons as an assistant for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. It was a groundbreaking tenure that saw her become the first woman to be a full-time assistant in the NBA, first woman to be a head coach in the summer league, first woman to be part of an All-Star Game coaching staff and first woman to become acting head coach in a game after Gregg Popovich was ejected.

Yet it may have been Hammon's ability to relate to her players that stood out the most to Wilson during their first season together.

"I think the biggest surprise to me is honestly how cool she is," the MVP candidate said. "I saw her with the Spurs and she's like really cool, but now playing under her, she's so funny. She just wants to have fun and is always joking around. That's what we love the most about her. She can relate to us because she sat in that locker room before, and she knows how it feels in a timeout during a clutch game."

Hammon is known for breaking barriers, which is something Wilson is doing off the court as the first female athlete to sign a deal with Ruffles.

The new official chip of the WNBA added her to its roster of athletes that includes LeBron James, Jayson Tatum and Anthony Davis.

"It means a lot to be the first female athlete to sign because I know I'm the first but I'm not going to be the last," she said. "Just to be a stepping stone there is incredible. And to know now that they're the official chip of the W, it's like worlds colliding. I treat it like it's a snackaholic's dream, but honestly it is. I grew up on the chip, everyone knew the Ruffles and everyone had to have it."

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Ruffles has signed their first-ever female athlete: <a href="https://twitter.com/_ajawilson22?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@_ajawilson22</a> ⭐️ <a href="https://twitter.com/HighlightHER?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@HighlightHER</a> <a href="https://t.co/YrNdRIypbR">pic.twitter.com/YrNdRIypbR</a>

Photo Credit: Ruffles

Wilson's partnership includes her own signature flavor of Ruffles Ridge Twists Smoky BBQ, which was inspired by where she is from.

"It's been super fun to finally see smoky barbecue and my face on a bag," she said. "And, of course, the South Carolina roots that I have. Barbecue is always good in the south, especially in South Carolina. So just knowing that and how it's a twist and not your average potato chip, it's something that's special because it's different."

Different is also one way to describe the new WNBA playoffs format, which has all eight teams playing in the first round after six seasons of the top two seeds receiving a bye out of single-elimination openers.

This year's first round will be a best-of-three series with the better seed hosting the first two games, meaning Wilson and the top-seeded Aces may have to play a decisive Game 3 against the eighth-seeded Phoenix Mercury on the road.

WNBA @WNBA

The <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/WNBAPlayoffs?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#WNBAPlayoffs</a> bracket presented by <a href="https://twitter.com/Google?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Google</a> is set ✅<br><br>First round starts this Wednesday, August 17 on ESPN 2 🤩 <a href="https://t.co/iwULG82YTP">pic.twitter.com/iwULG82YTP</a>

While Las Vegas will likely be without Hamby for at least the first round, the Mercury have dealt with adversity all season and are far from the roster that eliminated the Aces in the semifinals last season.

As ESPN detailed, Brittney Griner has been imprisoned in Russia since February, Tina Charles left the team in June, Diana Taurasi has been sidelined with a quad injury and Skylar Diggins-Smith left the team for personal reasons.

Given that reality, the Aces are expected to advance against the team they went 3-0 against during the regular season.

Yet Wilson said they have to focus within when the series starts Wednesday.

"The biggest thing is we can be us and be true to us," she said. "Now is the time that you really need to lock into who you are as a team and your true identity. That's the beauty of it. We can look back and say 'we wish we had this,' and they can say 'we wish we had that,' but at the end of the day we just have to come together and, when the ball goes up, play our game."

If the Aces do that, Wilson might be able to check WNBA champion off her list as well.

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