For the past five or six years of her life, A'ja Wilson has never not been the next big thing.
From being the nation's top women's basketball recruit as a high school senior, to a three-time All-American to the national player of the year this past season, the former South Carolina star has been a star on the rise for quite some time now, and she took the next step in that rise Thursday, getting drafted No. 1 overall in the WNBA by the Las Vegas Aces.
Thursday's draft, televised on ESPN2, capped off a whirlwind day in a whirlwind stretch for Wilson. In New York City, the 6-foot-5 forward visited the Empire State Building, the Southstreet Sea Port and the studios of ESPN, Marvel and NBA TV, in addition to taking her first ride on the subway, followed all the while by cameras from the WNBA, who posted constantly to social media using the hashtag #AjaAllAccess.
She also chronicled her journey to the draft with the Associated Press, sat for countless interviews with dozens of media outlets and drew the majority of the camera flashes as she walked the orange carpet at the Nike New York Headquarters in a pink jumpsuit with her signature pearls wrapped around her wrist.
And while a large part of Wilson's star power extends from her talent on the basketball court — she has pro-level consistency and the ability to drive to the basket, and will contribute right away for the Aces, her new coach Bill Laimbeer said — it also has roots in something beyond the stat sheet.
“Players like A’ja are built to take the league to the next level,” Dawn Staley said this past Monday. “She’s not going to fit the mold of just another WNBA player. A’ja had time here to grow into the face of our program and she has an opportunity to grow into being the face of women’s basketball. It takes more than points and rebounds. It takes charisma and a great personality and the ability to be relatable, and she has all of those things. I do think she’s unlike any other player in the league.”
Evidence of that can be seen in her extensive social media following, which is bigger than any other draft prospect. Her goofy and relatable persona has made her beloved in Columbia, and that, combined with her hometown status, is no small part of why fans are already clamoring for a statue of her likeness outside of Colonial Life Arena, though she did admit to being a little bemused as to why people love her every move.
"There's a lot of people talking about my style, I don't know why, I got brackets in my mouth, I got metal mouth," Wilson smiled. "But I just love to joke around, I love to laugh. Of course I know the switch, when I'm between the lines it's a different story. But I just like to have fun with the game of basketball, because it's helped me out a lot as a person, and I use my platform ... to reach out, to touch young girls."
Still, she will have her work cut out for her in Las Vegas, to which her new team just recently moved from San Antonio. It's a challenge she said she relishes.
"I'm excited, I love the fact that people are really coming together for women's basketball. It's one of the sports that's really overlooked, they're always like, 'Hey, get in the kitchen,' stuff like that," Wilson said. "So for us to build a team and build a fanbase, I'm excited about that, because a lot of people probably don't know who I am in Las Vegas. I'm on the East Coast, so to branch out and go to the West Coast, that's super-duper exciting."
If she was exhausted Thursday by all the media obligations and attention, she didn't show it, watching a video of NBA star Blake Griffin congratulating her over and over, posing for countless photos, talking to ESPN analysts and even taking a spin in the DJ booth.
After all, her father Roscoe said, all this hoopla has become part of the territory for the 6-foot-5 superstar.
"It's the same, just at a different level," Roscoe Wilson said. "Obviously the media presence may be a little bit bigger, but still, the fact that the spotlight is on her, the expectations being the No. 1 high school recruit, the expectations being All-American, expectations with all these accolades, it's a lot for a (young person) to handle."
The big difference between being the No. 1 recruit and the No. 1 draft pick, A'ja said, was not the outside attention but the dynamics between herself and her potential coaches.
"That's the whole recruiting process, relationships, talking to coaches. But WNBA, you're not really sure where you're going so you can't really form relationships with a coach," Wilson said. "But hey, I talked to Bill for a second and he's a great guy and I'm excited to play for him."
As for any differences for her personally?
"Nothing's really changed, honestly," Wilson said, shrugging. "I feel the same way I did in high school and college. I'm taking it all in, I'm being true to myself. I like having fun."