An interview with A’ja Wilson begins with her asking if she has chocolate on her teeth. No, her whites are as pearly as the strand around her neck.
“Good,” she beams. “I had a whole bunch of chocolate before I came over here.”
It’s not that she’s silly or flighty or uncommitted. It’s that she’s really enjoying her life – 20 years old and a junior broadcast journalism major at the University of South Carolina.
And an All-American who is taking over as the face of women’s college basketball.
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“It’s a dream come true,” she said, again with the ear-to-ear smile that’s as outsized as her game. “I’ve never really thought a little girl like me – well, not little – a girl like me would turn out to be a person that didn’t even want to play the sport to now being the possible face of the sport. It’s kind of crazy to think about.”
The manic ease with which she changes gears is as impressive as her already overstuffed trophy case. Wilson, carrying a suitcase of prep awards as the consensus best high school player in the country, nonchalantly won SEC Freshman of the Year by averaging 13.1 points in a Final Four season. That was followed by leading the Gamecocks with 16.1 points per game in a 33-2 season, when she was named SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a prize she joked about in the preseason (because defense wasn’t her strong suit and coach Dawn Staley was always in her ear about it).
On the court, Wilson was dominant for two years despite being surrounded by a bevy of talent that spurred the Gamecocks to three straight SEC regular-season championships. Off the court, when Staley relaxes her social-media ban, Wilson’s Twitter and Instagram feature the game’s newest poster woman displaying every expression of her daily life.
“Am I smiling?” she asks as the photographer readies another shot. Requested to look serious, she breaks into giggles every 10 seconds. Informed that the 2017 Final Four is in Dallas, the shooter remarks she has friends in Dallas. “I want to go to Dallas, too … ” Wilson says.
After a brief cool-off and an explanation of the new millennial term (“Five-ever,” replacing “forever”), Wilson takes a seat and talks 2016-17. Weird to think she just graduated from teenager, having turned 20 in August, and weirder still to realize with the departure of all-everything Connecticut star Breanna Stewart, Wilson’s face will be featured all over the country as a promotion for the game.
“That’s the thing about Stewie. She never really talked about it,” Wilson said. “She just carried herself to when you thought about UConn, you think of winning.
“She was always like, ‘I’m here to do one thing, and win,’ but when I roomed with her, I saw, ‘You’re just like me in the room, all jokey and stuff.’ With South Carolina women’s basketball, we’re starting to be like, ‘When you come here, we’re aiming for an SEC championship and we don’t do anything below it.’ At UConn, that’s what they do.”
Wilson will be the leader of that mission, after the departure of Tiffany Mitchell and three other seniors that built Staley’s program into a juggernaut. And while she accepts her individual popularity as the game’s ambassador, her initial mission is to keep the Gamecocks where they are – and overcome their last game.
Syracuse was a veteran team that went on an amazing run last year, finishing national runner-up after never having gone to the Sweet 16. When they beat USC 80-72 in South Dakota, the Gamecocks credited the Orange but never rid themselves of a sickening feeling – they lost to a team they were better than.
“It humbled us,” Wilson said. “For me, I can’t watch that game. I usually watch every game, but I cannot watch that one. It lingers. But at the same time, I’m like, ‘Forget it, we can’t change it. Let’s get on to the next one.’ ”
Wilson left equipment and emotions in Sioux Falls, wanting to rid herself of anything associated with that game. As a freshman, she was part of a Final Four team and took it hard when Notre Dame was one point better in the national semifinals. As a sophomore, leading a depleted team that had only lost once through 34 games, falling in the Sweet 16 was a disgrace.
In the Gamecocks’ locker room, a white board lists every game from last year with a grade beside it. Syracuse is conspicuously absent. The team’s official website only has stats through USC’s round-of-32 win over Kansas State. It’s like it never happened.
If only it hadn’t.
“I think we would have made it to the national championship game,” she said. “It is a tough pill to swallow. We go off that loss.”
Wilson had a strand of pearls around her neck, a single pearl dangling from another chain and pearl studs in each ear. She retrieved another necklace, featuring large costume pearls, from her locker.
“My grandmother gave me my first pearls. She would always kind of say, ‘Pretty girls wear pearls’ and I would say, ‘I want to be pretty so I’ll wear pearls!,’ ” Wilson said. “And they really kind of stuck with me.”
They’re as much a part of her as her talent. She rarely appears in public without them and usually dons the costume necklace before post-game news conferences.
“I feel naked without them,” she said. “I just got a new necklace, it has my initials in it, and I can’t wait to wear it! I have a case of them.”
Like the pearls she obsessively wears, it took time to make a player this good. Wilson didn’t even want to play basketball, preferring volleyball.
But when she began sprouting on her way to 6-foot-5, she was tutored by dad Roscoe Wilson, a former professional player overseas who still looks every bit of 6-9. The post moves, ball-handling and even a deft touch on a 3-pointer came from him while mom Eva Wilson drew the line between basketball star and daughter.
“She really helps me out a lot about balancing things and having a personality,” Wilson said. “The ball’s going to stop bouncing, so I have to be prepared that when it does, I can still be a good person.”
Wilson is used to celebrity glare. She’s dealt with it ever since she picked up a basketball.
Staley expects her to be a leader this year, although fellow forward and first-team All-SEC selection Alaina Coates is a senior. Wilson learned what to do at USC under the tutelage of Aleighsa Welch and Mitchell, and how to handle the national glare from Stewart.
Of last year’s four Naismith Trophy finalists, only Wilson remains. As the best player on one of the country’s best teams, she knows massive publicity is coming but is handling it the same way she did as America’s top recruit.
“I build off of two summers ago, with Team USA, when I was kind of the oldest on that team,” Wilson said. “I go from listening to people looking at me, asking ‘What do we do?’ That’s when it hit me – you’re not a follower anymore, you’re a leader now.”
More interviews and magazine covers will follow, especially if Wilson leads the Gamecocks through a brutal non-conference schedule before they start trying to defend their tri-SEC titles. Staley is confident her star can handle it, considering she’s been there before and still has help around her.
“She and I have a really good relationship and she can come to me and we can talk together about how to direct this team,” Wilson said. “But it takes a lot of hard work to be a captain of this ship we’re about to step on.”
Is it possible to be a heart-ripping mercenary on the court and a 20-year-old college student off it? Wilson knows her 6-5 frame and hometown celebrity makes her a natural target for pointed fingers, hushed tones and shy picture requests when she’s out in public, and delights in showing how a basketball bulldozer can be plain ol’ A’ja.
“It’s just a part of me. I try my best to feel the good out of everything,” she said. “Even when coach is like, cussin’ me out, I’m like, ‘You still have on some nice shoes, coach.’ You got to have the balance in everything you do.”
She’s handled the hype since high school. “My family and I will sit around and laugh at the fact that I was the No. 1 player,” Wilson giggles. “All these females in the nation and you’re gonna pick me?”
She has handled being a great player on a great team playing for a demanding coach. “I’m just a 20-year-old with my name up there among the greatest women to ever play this sport,” she demurs. “How’d that happen?”
Now to handle it all in a huge package, expected to be the best of the entire sport. Yet when that scenario is mentioned, Wilson has the same reaction as to her other numerous awards.
“I just really go out and play and kind of do me,” she shrugged. “I’m not going to stop being me.”
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A’ja Wilson’s honors in her first two seasons at USC:
-- Finalist – Naismith, Wooden, Wade awards (2016)
-- First-team All-America (2016)
-- SEC Player of the Year (2016)
-- SEC Defensive Player of the Year (2016)
-- First-team All-SEC (2015, 2016)
-- SEC All-defensive team (2016)
-- SEC All-tournament team (2016)
-- Third-team All-America (2015)
-- SEC Freshman of the Year (2015)
-- SEC All-freshman team (2015)
-- Five-time SEC Freshman of the Week (2015)
-- 1,000-point scorer
The best women’s players in the country this season (listed in alphabetical order):
Jordin Canada, UCLA
Nina Davis, Baylor
Diamond DeShields, Tennessee
Makayla Epps, Kentucky
Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State
Kelsey Plum, Washington
Brianna Turner, Notre Dame
Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Maryland
Sydney Wiese, Oregon State
A’ja Wilson, South Carolina