A'ja Wilson Wasn't Supposed to Be Team USA's MVP This Soon, but Here We Are

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IAugust 5, 2021

United States's A'Ja Wilson (9) reacts after scoring against Australia during a women's basketball quarterfinal game at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

After the first minute of Olympic women's basketball tournament play, A'ja Wilson missed her first free throw. She rolled her shoulders back before taking the next one and made it.

Moments later, trying to secure an offensive board versus Nigeria, the ball slipped out of her hands.

With 1:18 left in the first quarter, she missed another front-end free throw, followed by a missed mid-range jumper, usually her bread and butter.

Teammate Tina Charles battled for the rebound, but the ball rolled off her fingertips. Wilson clapped her hands once the ball went out of bounds. The possession arrow went to Nigeria, and Wilson lifted her head up to the ceiling in frustration.

This was Team USA's first and perhaps biggest test in these Olympics. It was also the first time this iteration of Team USA—an international powerhouse that hasn't lost an Olympic game since 1992—realized it would need Wilson more than anyone thought.

Wilson has been exceptionally consistent, averaging 17.8 points, 8.5 boards and 2.0 assists per game in Tokyo. With two games separating Team USA from its seventh straight gold medal, Wilson and Co. now set their sights on 2021 EuroBasket champions Serbia, who the U.S. plays Friday at 12:40 a.m. ET.

Wilson, just 24 years old and a key starter, is a good bet to be the future face of Team USA. Most pundits, including me, figured this team would be led by Breanna Stewart. Stewart's been nothing short of exceptional, but through four games in Olympic play, Wilson leads Team USA in points per game at 17.8 and has dominated between the box score columns.

Still, as the youngest impact player on the team, she's staying humble, taking notes for the future and trying to stay present. When she can't sleep still battling the time difference from the West Coast to Japan, she takes a deep breath and thinks to herself.

Wow, I'm really in Tokyo.

"It's like, 'Girl, you're in the Olympics; like you're in the Olympics,'" she told Bleacher Report via Zoom after USA's 93-82 win over France earlier this week. "You used to watch this; like take it all in…"

After one quarter versus Nigeria, Team USA trailed 20-17. The U.S. couldn't match Nigeria's energy or get into offensive sets.

Before the second quarter began, Sue Bird turned to Wilson in the huddle and said, "Every rebound is yours."

That confirmed Wilson's own ideas about who she needed to be for this team.

Her focus shifted to adding possessions for her team. Forget the superstar's burden of playmaking and scoring. She got out and ran. She stormed the offensive glass. In the second half, she was a putback machine and finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks and two steals for the game.

"If you look at our roster, everyone can score from each position, so it wasn't putting points on the board," she said. "It was getting those possessions doing the little things, the 50-50 balls."

As a rookie Olympian, she may be Team USA's most valuable player. How is that possible on a team that includes Breanna Stewart, Bird, Brittney Griner, Tina Charles and Diana Taurasi? USA head coach Dawn Staley put it simply: Wilson has stayed true to herself.

"I just told A'ja to be A'ja," Staley said in a July 26 post-practice press conference "Obviously, she's on this team for a reason. She can score a basketball. She can defend."

But Wilson is thinking about the future, listening to the people around her, adjusting to a new environment.

When mentors like Bird, Taurasi and Sylvia Fowles have moved on from Team USA, Wilson will carry the responsibility and burden of excellence. She understands she's the future of the team.

"When it comes to just those moments where you got to dig yourself out of a hole or you need a bucket and you're just thinking, we're all leaning on another and hyping each other up," she told B/R. "So that right there helps me out a lot, especially being one of the youngest, because it's gonna be a time when their time is gone and it's going to be me, and I'm going to have to step up and be the same exact [way] that they are to me to someone else."

In the future, she'll have to show younger players how to gel in two weeks. She'll have to make sure what must be done is done. Whatever it takes to win the gold.

As the WNBA's reigning MVP, she already has that level of experience.

In Las Vegas, she is relied upon to be a star, or rather a co-star with Liz Cambage. There, she's had to become a more proficient passer, and it shows on Team USA. The Americans currently lead all teams in Tokyo with 27.3 assists per game.

"[The Aces] prepped me for a moment like this, where I'm playing with Brittney Griner down low or Diana Taurasi in the corner, or Stewie in the corner," Wilson told B/R. "Seeing that has really helped me, so that's been a key factor into who I am this year, and that's how my role has changed this year."

Her time with Team USA has given her the skills she needs to hold those around her accountable, be it when she returns to Vegas or on future USA basketball squads.

"Once I'm consistent in myself and I hold myself accountable, I can then hold my teammates accountable for what I need out of them."

Staley had a feeling her star power forward would question everything in a new setting. This is her first Olympics, and Wilson admits she overthinks everything. She's five steps ahead of the present, whether she likes it or not.

"There's no second-guessing," Staley said. "She has to be the A'ja Wilson that she was for South Carolina, for the Aces, for the U-19, for the U-18. ... She's been a pretty special player for all of those organizations that she must continue to do that for us in this Olympic Games."