Before she was the top recruit in the country, a gold-medal winner at 16 and the focus of college basketball heavyweights, she was just A’ja Wilson. Those who have known her throughout her growth into a superstar describe a loving child, very giving of herself, spunky, smiling and full of every minute of every day.
Which 17 years later, remains unchanged.
“I’ve always said A’ja’s a better person than a basketball player,” says John O’Cain, her coach at Heathwood Hall. “She’ll be successful without basketball. No matter what happens with her career, she’ll be just fine if she never plays another game.”
She will play more games. She’ll play plenty more games, beginning in November at whichever college she chooses. After that will presumably come a long pro career.
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The skills that Wilson showcases on the court are almost unrivaled. She spent the summer playing with the Team USA U19 squad, where she ranked first in rebounding and third in scoring. College recruiters have been a mainstay at Heathwood since she was a freshman. Every move she makes is scrutinized.
Yet Wilson remains impervious – she’s the same happy-go-lucky child she always has been as she carves out time to be a high-school senior, a teenager and the No. 1 recruit in America.
“I think I’m handling it well,” Wilson recently said. “I’m still like a 17-year-old, wanting to go to somebody’s house and just chill with friends. It’s not really a huge change in my life.”
• • •
Roscoe Wilson had plans for his daughter if he was ever lucky enough to have one. A nine-year professional player in Europe, Wilson had a pregame routine.
“You know how important music is to the whole psyche,” Wilson said. “One of the groups I listened to in Europe a lot was Steely Dan. They had an album named ‘Aja’ and a title song.
“I just liked the song. Not a lot of message in it, but it got me settled down, got me thinking, got me focused the night before the game and on the day of the game. It’s easily spelled, so I said, ‘If I ever have a daughter, I’m going to name her A’ja.’ ”
With Wilson a former center, he knew his daughter would have some of his traits. At 4, she was taller and leaner than her classmates. The summer of her eighth-grade year, she grew from a guard to a forward in one AAU season.
Wilson sometimes pulls out the tapes to watch his daughter then, this gangly girl clumping around with monstrous feet on twig-like legs. But she loved the game, and Wilson had a talk with her at that time.
“I told her, ‘If you’re going to play this game, you’re going to play it,’ ” Wilson said, stressing the commitment it was going to take to become elite. “She was like, ‘OK, let’s do it!’ ”
The seeds were already in place. O’Cain remembered Wilson placing third in the state 100-meter dash as an eighth-grader, and she also played soccer and volleyball. Roscoe Wilson began using the conditioning drills he had used as a pro, also teaching his daughter finer points.
“She became a student of the game,” he said. “For a young girl to make sacrifices, you come up with what I call a woman-child. She matured a lot quicker in emotion than a lot of kids did.”
There were hard times. Playing in a weighted vest, feeling the lead shift as she moved and throwing off her balance, was a strain. Shedding her natural left-handedness in order to dribble with her right hand. Adopting the philosophy of East-West-North.
“Never dribble more than one time east, one time west. The next move got to be north,” A’ja said. “Got to go toward the basket. If you dribble up top too long, you’re either going to get called for five seconds or you’re going to slow the play up and knock the team out of rhythm.”
The competition was getting better.
• • •
The AAU circuit is a circus, but it’s necessary. High-school competition doesn’t offer the opposition AAU does, especially for a SCISA player. Roscoe Wilson knew that but was hesitant to plunge his daughter into it.
“When I was looking for an AAU team, A’ja was real, real sketchy on just going to a team,” Wilson said. “Jerome (Dickerson) decided he was going to start a 12-under AAU team.”
Dickerson’s Palmetto 76ers were a who’s who of future talent, at one time boasting South Carolina’s Alaina Coates and India Farmer, 2014 USC signee Kaydra Duckett, 2014 Clemson signee Makayla Johnson, Wilson and two of her Heathwood teammates.
“AAU and all that, she learned how to handle the ball and play guard,” O’Cain said. “If she was two feet taller back then, she may not have learned how to dribble.”
The skills combined to form Wilson into a lethal matchup, able to play in the post but also able to take the ball coast-to-coast and attack from either side. O’Cain’s biggest focus was to get Wilson to use her right hand as extensively as her left.
“She’s not afraid, if we need a bucket, to go to the right,” O’Cain said. “Two years ago, if we needed a bucket, she’d go left every time, which made it easy for teams to defend her.”
One of Wilson’s last remaining goals was to win that elusive state championship, something that O’Cain wants as badly for the rest of his team as he does for his star.
“We need to get it done this year,” O’Cain said. “Seven of our 11 are seniors, and of those seven, five of them have been here for quite a long time.”
Wilson, as her senior year drew to a close, put it simply.
“I’ve got to win that title,” she said. “Got to.”
Wilson's last goal was achieved on Saturday, as Heathwood Hall topped Northwood Academy in overtime to win the state championship. Wilson scored 37 points, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to send the game to OT.
• • •
Everybody knows about the basketball.
It’s only a piece of the girl.
“She’s great with the young kids,” O’Cain said. “She takes timeout for any girl who wants a picture, any girl who wants to give her a hug.”
Roscoe Wilson ticks off his daughter’s other activities: Heathwood chorus, helping make banners and floats for Homecoming, very involved with her church, Hopkins’ St. John Baptist.
“Christmas, we work to feed the homeless, and she’s right in the thick of it,” Wilson said. “We want to get her involved because basketball is going to get her in places, but the type of person she is going to keep her places.”
The mania of recruiting has taken a toll on the family. It’s not easy to coordinate calls, interviews, meetings with coaches and media. Yet, Wilson never sees his daughter crack.
“I can tell when she’s a bit stressed,” he said. “Her mother and I see those times, and we sit down, just watch cartoons, go get something to eat, let her be a girl. It sort of phases out the stress, and she regroups.”
O’Cain hardly sees the smile leave Wilson’s face. Her abilities have never affected her teammates’ feelings about her, and she’s never been in a hint of trouble. The only time he’s had to raise his voice was to get her to play “mean.”
“I think she finally realized that in this league and the high schools we play in South Carolina, there’s no reason why she can’t just take over a game,” O’Cain said. “I know the pressure’s there – it’s got to be there. But she doesn’t get uptight.”
Wilson has never been one to sit idly on the bench. An e-mail from former classmate James Godbold mentioned what a positive influence Wilson is.
“Instead of grabbing water and horsing around with the other players, she grabbed the shot chart/stat sheet from a freshman who was on the end of the bench and began taking her teammates’ stats,” Godbold wrote. “After scoring plays, she would stand and wave her towel.”
O’Cain said it’s a common occurrence.
“When the college coaches first started coming to see her, she would get a little tense, but now she’s really laid-back. She’s just being A’ja.”
• • •
Wilson has a decision to make. She’ll take some time, look over the list of pros and cons she has of each school that she visited and choose. The first day of the spring signing period is April 16; Wilson could make her choice before then.
Until then she’ll enjoy being a teenager.
“Me and A’ja talk every day,” Duckett said. “We have a great relationship. She’s like my sister. We’re always talking, but we never talk about colleges.”
Duckett has signed with USC and was instrumental in helping recruit some of the Gamecocks’ other signees. Duckett doesn’t push Wilson – much.
“(Duckett and I are) really, really close,” Wilson recently said. “She’s my younger sister that I never had.”
Wilson will take time to work in her church, visit with her family, finish school and live those last moments of being a teen. She knows the pressure-cooker she’ll be in next season, but a lifetime of preparing for it has aided her.
“We’ve tried to create an atmosphere here at home where she can be herself, have her privacy when need be,” Roscoe Wilson said. “She’s a typical teenager that just has extraordinary skills and tends to put that together pretty good.”
Whatever she does, wherever she goes, the ones who have seen her grow up know she’ll be doing it cheerfully. It’s her nature – with the world of recruiting circling around her, Wilson has risen above. At 6-foot-5, she has always done that.
Although basketball doesn’t come close to defining her height.