UNCASVILLE, Conn. — A’ja Wilson demonstrated how she felt on the inside once the final buzzer sounded Sunday afternoon. She and her team were officially the new WNBA champions. Following a 78-71 win over the Connecticut Sun, Wilson stomped on the Mohegan Sun floor foot by foot with her new gray championship hat in her hand.
She then turned and walked away from the cameras capturing her emotions and faced the Aces fans that traveled all the way to Connecticut from Las Vegas. She flailed her arms out, screaming out to get them hyped up and to celebrate with them from afar. “Yeah! Yeah!” she yelled.
Besides her two-way prowess on the court that propelled the Aces to a 3-1 series victory, Wilson was injecting emotion and energy into the Vegas fans. She was showing them love and reminding them how much they mattered.
“I think she just gets the crowd going,” Kelsey Plum told B/R a few days earlier about Wilson and her leadership style. “I mean, you’ve seen her, you know, celebrate after and ones she makes, you know, plays, blocks defensively. I think she just kind of like brings a ton of energy for us. And so like that’s someone that we rely on to like kind of, you know, get it riled up in here.”
Following Wilson’s interaction with the Aces fans, backup guard Sydney Colson approached her teammate, tapped her to get her attention and made a sleeping gesture with her hands to her head. Wilson mirrored Colson. What followed was Colson lying on the ground and Wilson placing the official championship T-shirt on top of her like a sheet. The Aces had put the Sun to sleep.
Wilson did a little jig around Colson while she lay on the ground and then helped her up. The 2022 MVP gave her a chest bump. Colson has known Wilson for a while. She was on the Aces back in 2019 when the franchise made its first playoff appearance but fell in the semifinal round to the eventual champion Washington Mystics. Colson has watched Wilson grow before her eyes.
Three years ago at age 23, Wilson was a hesitant superstar, someone who didn’t really know yet how to use her voice and take hold of the team that she was drafted to lead and be the face of. Two MVPs (2020 and 2022) and a Defensive Player of the Year later, Colson has witnessed the blossoming and blooming of someone who she knew was destined for a moment like this.
“She’s a really different player from 2019, honestly,” Colson said. “Just the way she worked on her game, and her willingness to finally start talking to people, talking on the bench. When she comes to a timeout, and she’s talking, you’re gonna listen. Because you know she’s doing what she’s supposed to do and she has the respect of the team. So it’s good to see that she’s reached that point.”
How has Wilson reached that point? Especially after season after season of falling short of winning a WNBA championship? Following the semifinals loss in 2019, her team was swept in the 2020 Finals and then lost a nail-bitter of a Game 5 to the Phoenix Mercury in the 2021 semifinals. Wilson was shaken by that loss and that singular moment when she was blocked by Brittney Griner to end her team’s 2021 postseason run. “I gave it my all, but it still wasn’t enough, and that did not sit right with me at all,” Wilson told ESPN’s Alexa Philippou. She had to make a change.
She got into the best shape of her life to become a consistent two-way presence. She only took off four minutes in the 2022 semifinals, and in Game 4 of this year’s Finals, she didn’t leave the floor for a single moment.
In addition to adding a pivotal three-point shot that would allow her to thrive and function with ease in rookie head coach Becky Hammon’s new spaced-out system, Wilson embraced who she needed to be defensively. She needed to be the anchor and the go-to for a team that had more consistent talent on the offensive end.
That is what has stood out the most to Hammon about Wilson. Once Hammon accepted the Aces job, she watched all the film she could on Wilson and the team she was set to coach. When she reflected back on what she saw in those early film sessions with the player she now coaches, there was a clear difference. Hammon “didn’t know” that Wilson’s defensive prowess had the potential to reach another level. Hammon explained that Wilson’s approach to the game and her “lock-in factor” begins defensively.
“I ask her, ‘Whose paint is that?’” Hammon said. “‘Offensively and defensively, who owns that paint? Whose paint is it?’ And we’ll use nicer words here, but I’m basically [saying] it’s your freakin’ paint. And then go to work and you protect it. We live and die with how she goes about her business in there. And we’re living right now.”
But aside from new and improved on-court capabilities, Wilson wasn’t going to get a ring unless she became the leader her teammates always knew she could be. Following the Aces’ Game 1 win on Sept. 11, while describing her leadership style, Wilson admitted that she didn’t fully grasp how important her role was on this team until the 2022 season.
Huh? How? How could the franchise player who had already won an MVP not understand how vital she was on this team? And how much this team needed her voice?
For Wilson, her hesitation came from being courteous as a teammate. She doesn’t often start possessions with the ball. Plum and 2022 Finals MVP Chelsea Gray do. But then Wilson realized that she didn’t have to get the ball to be the most important player on the Aces on and off the court. She had to do exactly what Hammon had told her. She needed to own the paint. She needed to also take ownership of the Aces locker room.
Sharpshooting guard Riquna Williams explained to B/R that Wilson couldn’t live up to her potential without more forceful and intentional leadership. That’s what she’s seen in 2022. But Wilson’s leadership isn’t the same as how Gray leads the Aces.
“A isn’t so much of a, like a Chelsea, like a vocal leader,” Williams said. “A is going to come to the side and talk to you, but when she’s had enough, she will vocally step up and speak up like Chelsea. But you can’t be that great and try to hide—it’s impossible—like you are meant for greatness.”
According to Plum, Wilson has mastered what she calls “teammate languages.” The two-time MVP has figured out how to motivate and make her teammates feel their best in order to play their best. For a player like Jackie Young, she needs more encouragement, but for a player like Plum, she needs tough love and someone like Wilson to be a bit harder on her. That’s exactly what happened going into Game 2 when Plum admitted on live television that Wilson cussed her out.
“You talk about love languages,” Plum said. “Everyone has our teammate languages, like what people need to feel their best and play their best, and she’s done a tremendous job of that.”
When B/R spoke to Wilson just over a year ago while she was competing in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, she was still trying to find her footing—not only on the U.S. women’s national team but also as a leader on the Aces. She was still quite deferential, allowing the old guard in Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles to dictate what needed to be done while in Tokyo. But following winning her first WNBA championship, Wilson will be expected to carry that newfound leadership with her to Sydney, where the national team is currently getting ready for the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.
“I’ll never forget when Sue Bird, after we won gold, she’s like, ‘All right, it’s your turn now,’” Wilson said when asked about the World Cup last week. “I'm like, ‘Huh’? When you really think about it, it’s me and Stewie [Breanna Stewart]. I don’t know who’s gonna be talking in the timeouts now.”
But Wilson should know who will be talking in timeouts. It’s going to be her. And by winning her first WNBA championship, she’s proved that her newfound voice can lead to greatness and achievements at the highest level.
But how does Wilson do it? How has she gracefully been able to carry the weight that comes with such a rich legacy at 26 years old? For her, it’s all about the people around her. It’s the people in that Aces locker room who allow her to be herself at all times and who give her the strength to take on the challenges of being the face of every space she enters. It will also be her peers on Team USA.
“My teammates put me in a situation where I can be the best that I can be and I can lean on them through thick and thin,” she said while drenched in Champagne and with goggles placed on top of her head. “I’m not who I am without them. I would not be who I am without them.”