A'ja Wilson Is Ready for Her WNBA Takeover

A South Carolina hoops phenom with a megawatt personality is just what the league needs to take it to the next level.
photo of Natalie WeinerNatalie Weiner@natalieweinerStaff WriterApril 12, 2018

It's like the pickle on a Chick-fil-A sandwich—you never know where it is.

The pickle, according to A'ja Wilson, is Crime Mob's "Knuck If You Buck"; the Chick-fil-A sandwich, her pregame ritual. Wilson listens to the Southern rap classic every time she steps on the hardwood, but only via a pump-up playlist on shuffle—that way, it's a surprise every time. She leans forward confidentially while explaining her affection for the song, tucking her feet (she's wearing Birkenstocks with pink and green Alpha Kappa Alpha socks, a nod to her college sorority) below her.

"When I hear it, I'm like, 'It's time to go! It's game day!'" Wilson says, executing a couple of shoulder rolls in her warm-ups after practice in Albany, New York.

The Atlanta rap group recorded "Knuck If You Buck" about a three-hour drive from Columbia, South Carolina, the town that turned Wilson from basketball agnostic to No. 1 high school recruit to one of the best women's college players in the country—and it's been her soundtrack all the way through. A video of her lip-syncing, snapping and milly rocking to the song went viral just after Wilson led her South Carolina Gamecocks to their third consecutive SEC tournament victory in 2017.

Her only ad-lib to the NSFW lyrics? "I wish a hater would get crunk up on this Gamecock crew."

"Her whole personality came out in that rap. It had a little coolness to it, a little ratchetness to it, but at the end [of the video], you just hear her laugh uncontrollably," says South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. "It's just so her. She made me want to learn the words."

GamecockWBB @GamecockWBB

A'ja Wilson for National Player of the Year for these talents alone... 😂😂😂 #Gamecocks #SECWBB @dawnstaley @_ajawilson22 https://t.co/eL8X1zEH4J

It's this side of Wilson that might be her biggest asset as she enters the WNBA as the consensus No. 1 draft pick. Sure, she averaged a double-double, finishing her season in the top 10 in the country in points with a list of achievements that requires five pages of minuscule type in the South Carolina media guide—and most recently, Wilson swept all seven national player of the year awards.

But the current WNBA is bursting with exceptional players. What it needs more of—what Wilson can and wants to bring—is the kind of star power that can bring the league further into sports' mainstream. As much as she's excited about seeing her name among WNBA greats she admires on the court—Breanna Stewart, Candace Parker, Tina Charles (when you ask her which basketball players she looks up to, Wilson only lists women)—Wilson has serious ambitions off it.

"My biggest thing is just changing [the league], not only with my game, but with the respect aspect," Wilson says, getting uncharacteristically serious as she reflects on the task ahead. "I think media coverage could be a lot better in the WNBA. It's just a matter of figuring out how it could be a lot better."

Forget changing the game—Wilson wasn't even into basketball at first. Growing up in Hopkins, a Columbia suburb, she was interested in just about everything besides basketball, which was played mostly at the behest of her father. The 6'8" Roscoe Wilson Jr. had played professionally in Europe and South America for a decade and coached a girls' AAU team for which Wilson was happy to ride the bench. But whenever the team won a game it wasn't favored to, something shifted.

"I was technically part of it, but I wasn't actually a part of it—my dad was the coach, and I still didn't get any minutes," she says. "That's when it hit me that I really wanted to play the game of basketball, because everyone was just so happy. I was like, 'Man, I want to be a part of this!'"

A'ja's enthusiasm for basketball kicked in right around the time Staley left Temple University to begin coaching at South Carolina in 2008, a fact her father made the most of. "I met her dad at some buffet at church," Staley remembers. "He came up to me and was like, 'You know, I got a daughter that's pretty good!'" She was, naturally, skeptical, but she finally met Wilson when her parents pushed her to do a Gamecocks kids' sports camp while in middle school. Wilson remembers being miserable and getting a participation certificate; Staley remembers that she was tall—"and that's about it," she adds, laughing. "I didn't see it, and I don't think she saw it in herself. But her father saw something, and he just kept bringing it out of her." The elder Wilson bought a hoop for the driveway, and they started shooting—first developing her footwork and then her strength with a weighted vest and ball.

Almost overnight, Wilson turned into one of the country's buzziest prospects (a five-inch growth spurt from 5'11" to 6'4" between eighth and ninth grade didn't hurt). Her college recruitment was heavily covered starting when she was a sophomore, with outlets referring to her as a UConn recruit. Staley was always in the back of her mind, though. "Coach Staley has done everything I would want to do as a player," Wilson says. "When I made my decision, I was like, 'Well, she would be the best person to teach me the rules—the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.'"

Wilson stayed in Columbia and did exactly what she and Staley schemed and dreamed about from the moment she became a Gamecock: won South Carolina its first national title. Twenty-six years prior, Staley was three points from helping Virginia win its first championship—her lone disappointment while breaking a slew of school records en route to three consecutive Final Fours. Wilson's prolific college career mirrored Staley's, but with a vindicating, net-slicing twist. In the process, she became the archetypal local girl making good.

But being a hometown hero also means being accosted in public, which has been a reality for Wilson since her junior year of high school. "I can't go anywhere without being noticed. I can't go out looking like a hobo anymore. I've actually got to look presentable," she says. Her escape is the back corner of any movie theater, where she'll go in a hat and a hoodie and sit alone in the dark, finally in peace. That is, until someone spots her. "Like, seriously?!" she says. "I mean, it's a blessing and a curse. Of course, you'd rather them know you than not. But at the same time, you can never be by yourself."

What she's embraced, though, is her status as a role model. "One of the things that I'm most excited about is building a brand for young girls to look up to and build off of," she says. When Wilson's not getting stopped in Walmart for pictures by girls shaking with excitement, she's getting DMs from kids telling her how they used to hate basketball but she made them want to play. "Seeing young girls have my name in their [social media] bio, like I'm the person they look up to...it makes my heart warm, it really does," she says. "Growing up, I never had that one person who I could call my role model, other than my mom and my grandmother."

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 02:  A'ja Wilson #22 of the South Carolina Gamecocks dances after her teams championship win over the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs after the championship game of the 2017 NCAA Women's Final Four at American Airlines Center on April 2
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Wilson lifts the sleeve of her Gamecocks pullover to show her deceased grandmother's name spelled out in cursive across her left forearm: Mrs. Hattie Wade Rakes.

It's thanks to Hattie, who died in the fall of 2016, that Wilson wears pearl necklaces with everything and stud earrings while she plays. They're so well-known as her trademark that fans were asked to wear pearls to her senior night.

"I was this tall, lanky girl and really wasn't feeling it," Wilson says. "She just told me, 'Pretty girls wear pearls.' She helped build my confidence up. Now, I don't want basketball to change my image even while I'm on the court, because I'm still the girly-girl that loves pearls." Wilson's mom still won't let her wear the necklace her grandmother gave her, but she's hopeful she'll be able to show it off on draft night—if it goes with her outfit.

"I don't know if I want to [wear a] dress, because I'm not trying to go to prom, like a long dress. But it could be a cute dress, or I might do like...a jumpsuit," Wilson says of her potential draft night outfits. "But definitely will be wearing pearls either way."

What Wilson can plan for, though, is looking out in the crowd to the support system that helped her become the No. 1 pick: her parents and the woman she calls her adopted mother, Dawn Staley.

Their relationship goes deeper than a shared first NCAA title. Despite the almost-one-foot discrepancy in their heights, the pair have become so close in part because they share experiences almost no one else can understand: what it's like to be the best in a field that's constantly battling for respect. The difference is that Wilson has Staley.

"The WNBA has been in existence 21 years now, so A'ja's had that carrot dangled in front of her for her entire life," says Staley, who had a prolific career in the pros before becoming only the second black woman ever to coach a NCAA women's basketball championship team.

"For me, [playing professionally in the U.S.] wasn't even a possibility. You had to go overseas and play. Now, I can give her a bird's-eye view: what a training camp looks like, what coaches are looking for. I can give her the toughness that it takes to have some longevity as a pro athlete. I just give her my experience and hope that she can follow suit in the sense that I decided when I wanted to hang up my shoes."

Staley says with size, athleticism and ability to contribute no matter where she's standing on the court, Wilson is "very capable of being the best player in the WNBA."

"She helps me out a ton—just telling me what I might see out there," Wilson says, gesturing as though a WNBA arena is on the other side of this Albany hotel conference room. She agrees that her Hall of Fame coach is an icon but wants to put it in her own words: "She's definitely the bomb diggity."

Sean Rayford/Associated Press

Once Wilson crosses the stage on draft night, Staley and the rest of Wilson's hoops family must prepare Wilson for her likely destination as a No. 1 pick, the Las Vegas Aces, where she'll be on a team in its first year in a new city that isn't known for its devoted local sports fans. "I think it's going to be tough," Wilson says. "Gamecock nation is huge. It's the best in the country. Then you kind of go to a place where, honestly, [the team] might not be supported like that. But there's still growth in it, and hopefully once I and this class of draftees are there, that just continues to build."

She'll also be leaving South Carolina, where she's lived her entire life. "That's going to touch my heart in so many places," she says. "This place, South Carolina, has done so much for me. My mom's side's down there, my dad's side's down there." Wilson hugs her arms to her chest and gets quiet. "We're all there, and I'm going to be gone."

Wilson may be venturing to a town without family and an established fanbase, but she's still entering the league with all the tools needed to make an impact on the sport: exceptional athletic ability and the unapologetic swagger of a bona fide local celebrity, combined with a polished yet approachable public persona. "I think that there's a void there that she could easily fill," says ESPN's college sports analyst Maria Taylor of how Wilson could potentially impact not just play in the WNBA but also its place in the sports ecosystem. "At the end of the day, athletes, especially on the women's side, have to be accessible, and I think she's proven that she is. She does a really good job of being open and confident but also making fun of herself, all while engaging with fans on social media and in person."

Although Wilson has cultivated the kind of celebrity and personality that is celebrated in men's sports, her mission to change the culture won't be without challenge. "I think people see me as being cocky? And I'm really not that!" she exclaims, alluding to the yelling and fist-pumping that punctuate her best games. "I just get into the game when my team is playing well and it's all clicking. So I'm going to show that, because it boosts my teammates' confidence if I'm like, 'They can't stop us on this play!'"

At the suggestion that this particular criticism is rooted in sexism, Wilson sighs. "Yeah, I think it probably is," she says. "But hey, it's all good. I'm going to keep playing. I'm not going to switch up who I am. It's just going to be an A'ja at a professional level."

She's incapable of being serious for long, though—there are too many possibilities for her to look forward to, stretching what it means to be a WNBA player on and off the court. Even the minor leveling-up in her future gets Wilson hyped: for example, the potential for a second phone once she goes pro. "That would look so cool," she says, admitting that it might be a non-starter since her mom is still paying her phone bill. "I want to be like, 'Call me on my business phone,'" she jokes.

Two phones or not, Wilson is already a star—in Columbia. But between her baller status and love of the spotlight, she has the potential to change the game, a journey that will start with the first call she gets on draft night.


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