USC Women's Basketball

'Your idols become your rivals': A'ja Wilson battles WNBA great

A’ja Wilson talks about facing ‘idol’ Elena Delle Donne

Former South Carolina women's basketball great A'ja Wilson and WNBA star Elena Delle Donne talk about what it was like to face each other after Wilson grew up idolizing Delle Donne, and what Delle Donne thinks Wilson does best.
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Former South Carolina women's basketball great A'ja Wilson and WNBA star Elena Delle Donne talk about what it was like to face each other after Wilson grew up idolizing Delle Donne, and what Delle Donne thinks Wilson does best.

Less than two minutes into Tuesday's WNBA matchup between the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics, former league MVP and perennial All-Star Elena Delle Donne drove on former South Carolina star A'ja Wilson and went for the layup.

Wilson, in just the second game of her young professional career, swatted the shot right back.

It was, as Wilson acknowledged after the game, a surreal moment, one that many top draft picks across sports feel when they go up against the players they loved when they were younger.

Wilson's appreciation for Delle Donne, a 6-foot-5 forward/guard with a silky smooth jumper and powerful post moves, dates back at least half a decade — in April 2013, Wilson, then a high school junior, wrote on Twitter that Delle Donne was her favorite player. Two years later, she referred to Delle Donne as "bae."

On Tuesday, however, Wilson hardly seemed intimidated by the veteran Delle Donne, matching up with her on both ends of the floor and collecting several impressive baskets to go with that block.

"Your idols become your rivals," Wilson said of the experience. "It's crazy, I remember going to see her play in Atlanta when she was with Chicago, and now I'm defending her. It's something special. It's every girl's dream to be in the WNBA playing against your idol. It's always good to compete against the best, because that's what it takes for you to be the best."

For her part, Delle Donne said she was impressed with Wilson's play, noting that she had previously admired the former Gamecock's collegiate career and was looking forward to battling her in the pro ranks.

"She's a great player — awesome skill set and super athletic frame. If you let her get you deep down in the post, you're in trouble. It's going to be a fun matchup for years to come. I loved watching her in college, and she's just going to continue to improve," Delle Donne said.

In the end, Delle Donne clearly got the better of the duel between the two bigs Tuesday — while Wilson scored 16 points and pulled down eight rebounds, she shot 6-of-16 from the field, while Delle Donne collected a game-high 23 points on 44 percent shooting and added 11 rebounds. The Mystics also came away with the 75-70 win against the Aces.

But Wilson stressed that, at least in the moment, she is not focused on comparing herself to Delle Donne or any other elite veteran post players — it's simply too early in her development for that.

"I'm a rookie. I'm the new kid on the block. I haven't really played this game at all. I'm still trying to get adjusted to it, and I'm going out here playing against people who have been in the league four-plus years, so it's kinda tough to even compare myself, because I'm a rookie," Wilson said. "But slowly but surely I'm starting to get a feel for more things, starting to read the defense and how the defense is playing me a lot better."

That ability to read the defense will be key, as Delle Donne had the scouting report on Wilson down cold and executed it fairly well, keeping her from her favored left hand and out of the low post.

Wilson will have the opportunity to further polish her game and face more WNBA stars soon, as the Aces host their first home game against the Seattle Storm and All-Stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart.

And as far Delle Donne, Wilson won't have to wait long for their next matchup either, as the Aces and Mystics square off in Las Vegas on June 1.

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