USC Women's Basketball

A'ja Wilson's WNBA education: Some moments of doubt, but 'it's a process'

A’ja Wilson talks adjustments to WNBA, living on her own for first time

Former USC women's basketball star A'ja Wilson and her new coach with the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces, Bill Laimbeer, talk about what the No. 1 draft pick still has to learn about playing in the pro ranks.
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Former USC women's basketball star A'ja Wilson and her new coach with the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces, Bill Laimbeer, talk about what the No. 1 draft pick still has to learn about playing in the pro ranks.

A'ja Wilson doesn't lose at basketball all that much. And on the few occasions she does, it typically isn't by a lot, and almost never back-to-back.

In eight seasons across Heathwood Hall and South Carolina, Wilson's lone losing streak came against No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Mississippi State. There were a few lopsided defeats as well, but never by a margin of 30 points or more.

Just three games into her WNBA career, she's already exceeded those career lows.

In her first ever professional game, Wilson and the Las Vegas Aces were blown out by the Connecticut Sun, 101-65. They then lost to the Washington Mystics and Seattle Storm to move to 0-3. So far, the No. 1 overall draft pick is shooting 39.1 percent from the field.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Wilson ranks among the league's best rookies in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes per game, as well as usage rate.

But three games in, Wilson is already learning some harsh lessons from the WNBA.

"The (first few) games have been tough, I've been down on myself a lot," Wilson said after the loss to the Mystics. "But my teammates really help pick me up, so I give it all to them honestly. It's tough, the past few games have been tough, but we're slowly coming together and I'm excited to just let the season keep going."

In many ways, Wilson seems to be her own harshest critic in regards to her performance. One of her teammates, fellow rookie and former SEC rival Jaime Nared, said she has already learned from the 6-foot-5 forward's hard work and talented play.

"She's such a dynamic player. She can shoot the ball from 15 to 17 feet, she can drive, she can post up, she's so versatile. So definitely seeing how her practice work ethic is, how she is in the game has just been fun," Nared said.

Wilson's new coach, Bill Laimbeer, said he will continue to teach and educate Wilson on the intricacies of the pro game, but he said his advice to her is always based in his firm belief in her ability: "Never, ever second guess yourself, (you're) that good, and don't ever put your head down. Just keep on learning."

All the same, Wilson continually uses the word "tough" to describe her first weeks in the WNBA, even as she also acknowledges her development will be a process. It's just a process she hasn't experienced before — after all, as a freshman at USC, she could come off the bench for Dawn Staley. With Las Vegas, she has immediately become the center of attention, especially because star players like Kelsey Plum and Kayla McBride are just returning to the Aces after an offseason playing overseas.

"It's a process. It really is, and I know especially for me, I know I get down on myself a lot of times, and my teammates pick me up," Wilson said. " ... A'ja's been throwing this ball all over the place and that's not her. It's a process, I'm still trying to learn and get into the league."

Luckily, Laimbeer can offer the long-term perspective of a former NBA star and successful WNBA coach who has seen a lot and can be patient, yet demanding, with his new star.

"I'm going to ask a lot of her. She's the No. 1 pick in the draft and I can demand of her. If she folds, that's a problem — I don't think she will. I'm going to push her and push her and push her, I'm going to teach her, educate her, because she has a lot to learn about our league," Laimbeer said. "Compare her to (former MVP and All-Star) Tina Charles. Tina Charles in her first three years, four years, in the league, struggled, you know, 4-for-15, 5-for-21 (shooting), until she understood that she had to do certain things and different things than she did in college in order to be successful."

For Wilson, having a mentor who can offer that perspective has been invaluable, she said. While many friends told her before she entered the league about the setbacks and frustrations that come with being a rookie, it can be hard to remember that in the moment, she said after the Mystics loss. That's when Laimbeer's words have been especially meaningful.

"I don't think he understands how much of an impact he's already made on me ... for him to always come up and pick me up and tell me simple stuff like 'don't doubt yourself, keep going,' it really does lift my spirits up," Wilson said.

Not that Laimbeer's role has solely been that of cheerleader. For him, her stats so far demonstrate that she is far from a finished player who still has a lot to learn.

"She hasn't yet realized how big and fast and strong the players are in this league and also that the teams will set the defense for her, especially when we don't have the shooters around. She's going to have to learn these things," Laimbeer noted. "She'll struggle from game to game in different aspects, but we keep talking to her about the little things you have to learn."

Those "little things" extend off the court as well — Wilson admitted she doesn't know how to cook for herself yet, so she has been eating out every night in Las Vegas, and while she can do laundry, she did bring some dirty clothes back to Columbia when she graduated so her mother could wash them for her.

"That's a process as well. A'ja's just in this whole process, getting to know herself," Wilson said with a laugh.