The celebration of A'ja Wilson at that WNBA draft in New York City on Thursday seemed in some ways to be one last bash commemorating the South Carolina star's incredible collegiate career and hard work.
With Wilson already essentially guaranteed the No. 1 pick, a farewell tour in Columbia already planned and former coach Dawn Staley and staff on hand, the 6-foot-5 forward spent most of the evening laughing and enjoying quality time with friends and family.
"It's surreal. A'ja has worked very hard, and as her dad, I've always wanted the best for her ... everything she's got has got to be top, top, top. So it's been surreal to be able to experience this with her. I'm having the time of my life watching my daughter have the time of her life," said her father, Roscoe Wilson.
But now that she has been taken first overall by the Las Vegas Aces, the WNBA's hottest new team, business is calling her as she enters the world of professional basketball. It's a world with a lot of differences from, but one key similarity to, South Carolina, she said.
The biggest change, Wilson acknowledged, will be playing for a coach other than Staley, whom she has known for years and developed a close relationship with. Now, she'll have to get to know Bill Laimbeer, a former NBA star and famously blunt communicator, in a hurry, as her rookie season starts in just over a month.
"She's going to have to learn the ways of the WNBA: Bigger, faster, stronger," Laimbeer said of Wilson's potential for her first season. "But she's pretty talented, so she'll do very well. How well remains to be seen depending on how well she continues to improve her game and what kind of positions we put her in to be successful."
Wilson departs for Las Vegas on Monday, where she'll have an introductory press conference and get her first real taste of living out west, away from her hometown. Roscoe Wilson said he expects Laimbeer to help with that transition.
"He'll take care of A'ja. He's a pro, he likes to win," Wilson said. 'I think it'll be a good experience for both of them."
But it's not just a change of scenery or coaching staff. Wilson will also now earn a salary — $52,564 in her first season — and can sign endorsements. She has yet to sign a shoe deal, but will likely do so in the coming weeks.
In many ways, the WNBA will be less glamorous than the college game. As Wilson has noted, former teammates have pointed out the difference in travel between games: In college, teams have chartered private flights, while in the pros they fly commercial. In Las Vegas with a new team, Wilson is also likely to play in front of far fewer fans than the average of 12,000 or more USC drew during her four seasons.
If Wilson decides she wants to make a higher salary, she will almost certainly have to travel overseas. Most women's professional players do so for much of the year, earning bigger paychecks than the WNBA can offer and playing nonstop and away from home. Staley has said Wilson will play abroad.
And of course, like every rookie, Wilson will have to restart at the bottom after rising to become the emotional center and veteran South Carolina relied upon this past season. That challenge, however, is one she is looking forward to.
"My biggest thing with the next level is really just becoming a sponge," Wilson said. "We're in a league with incredible young women who know the game, whose basketball IQ is out of this world, so I'm just going to soak it all in."
Still, the Aces are a young team, and Laimbeer hinted that he might ask Wilson to be a leader even as a first-year player.
"You always want quality teammates, and she is one. Her personality will be infectious with the rest of the players, and as a natural leader like that, that's what you want," he said.
The Las Vegas team's youth and its unproven nature, both on and off the court, are what Wilson said remind her most of the South Carolina she decided to attend as a high school senior. During her four seasons, the Gamecocks became a national powerhouse and had the country's most-attended games. That gives her confidence she can help do the same thing with the new-look Aces.
"I know they're an energetic young team, kind of like the team that I had last year, and I know Coach Bill is a tough coach, but he means well, he's going to help me be the best player I can be. And I know Coach Staley has prepped me for situations I'm going into, so I'm just excited to join them," Wilson said. "I think surrounding myself with a new, fresh program ... Coach Staley, she really helped build (South Carolina), and that's the situation that we're going in with the Aces, building a foundation, and I'm super excited to build that foundation and go from there."