A’ja Wilson found herself racing down the court midway through the third quarter, the last defense against Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and her full-court run to the rim.
The Las Vegas Aces were up by 18 points, but Wilson didn’t give up on the play.
“In my mind, it was like, I have to get a stop, because I was the cause of it,” said Wilson, who had turned the ball over, leading to the fast break.
She blocked Stewart’s shot.
Las Vegas landed the top seed in the playoffs on the strength of its two wins over the Seattle Storm, including that Aug. 22 game, and a surprising 16 more. They will begin a best-of-five semifinals against the Connecticut Sun starting on Sunday. Reaching this point was unexpected: After losing the All-Star center Liz Cambage (medical exemption) and the former No. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum (Achilles’ tendon) for the season, it wasn’t clear how the far the Aces could go.
But Wilson, who was named the league’s most valuable player on Thursday, is on a journey from “good to great to greatest,” said Dawn Staley, her coach at the University of South Carolina. Teammates have noticed that she doesn’t put her head down after a missed shot or blown defensive assignment, and she doesn’t stop competing.
“She’s that leader for us now,” Aces forward Dearica Hamby said. “We play hard for her now.”
The results have allowed Wilson, in her third season, to build on the stellar standard she’d set in her first two campaigns. Wilson, 24, won the 2018 Rookie of the Year Award after the Aces selected her No. 1 over all, then adjusted to the addition of Cambage in 2019. Las Vegas finished 21-13 last season, before losing to the eventual champion Washington Mystics in the semifinals.
But with more room to operate this season without Cambage, Wilson has improved her numbers from her first two seasons: Blocks, rebounds, steals and field-goal percentage are up, but turnovers are down. That the absences of Cambage and Plum turned Las Vegas from a preseason favorite, alongside the Storm, to an afterthought fueled Wilson’s season as well.
“I took it to heart,” Wilson said. “Because I felt like I was being disrespected, our team was being disrespected as a whole. Yes, Liz and K.P. are part of our puzzle, but they’re not the whole puzzle.”
More than raw production, though, it has been the responsibilities laid at her feet that represent her biggest area of growth, according to Aces Coach Bill Laimbeer.
“The first year was, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’ ” Laimbeer said of Wilson’s outlook. “Second year, I really thrust a leadership role on her, and she had to do it — it wore her down in some games. But this year, she came with the focus that this is her basketball team — that she’s going to do what she has to do for this basketball team to be successful.”
In many ways, this trajectory is a familiar one. Wilson won the Rookie of the Year Award in Year 1, and M.V.P. in Year 3 — just like Stewart, Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles, whose talent level, said Laimbeer — who coached Charles with the Liberty — is within Wilson’s reach.
“I guess Year 3 is a special year for a lot of us,” Wilson said, adding that it was a “big deal” to be mentioned with those players. “I think it’s the year that you really start to know yourself, to know the league.”
But what’s striking in the conversation around Wilson is less that she’s reached these heights already, at age 24, but that everyone, Wilson included, sees a ceiling so much higher than this current perch, even as she sits atop the league’s pecking order.
For Laimbeer, it’s seeing Wilson, a natural lefty, build on her ability to drive to her right by getting comfortable shooting right-handed anywhere on the court. Staley talked about Wilson extending her range beyond the 3-point line; she has just one attempt from deep in three seasons.
And then there’s that final hurdle: doing it all the time.
“I think that’s really what I focused on in the off-season — just making sure that I can knock down shots in my way and making sure that no one gets in my way of getting there,” Wilson said.
That work came to fruition in the late moments of Las Vegas’ final regular-season game, also against Seattle. Up 82-79 and coming out of a timeout, Aces guard Danielle Robinson fed Wilson at the top of the key, forcing a defensive switch. It was the clear play call to get the ball to Wilson in that spot. The Storm surrounded her.
She scored anyway.
Aces up 5. Timeout Seattle. Game all but over.
Staley said plays like Wilson’s block on Stewart, and Wilson’s ability to seal a game when everyone knows the ball is coming to her, factor into the debates about who should be named among the league’s finest. Even if she didn’t intend to send a specific message with her block of Stewart, Staley said Wilson did anyway.
“A’ja has that ability that when the stakes go higher, her play goes to another level,” Staley said. “I know she was playing for M.V.P. every time she was playing Seattle. I know it was in her head. And that is the game within a game that people fail to see and talk about. Because those inner competitions are a real thing.”
Wilson said her goal was to “leave a legacy” this season, so that people would think of her first when looking back on 2020, as they do Stewart with the 2018 campaign in which she won both M.V.P. and a championship.
Greatness also comes from a relentless pursuit of getting better. Wilson rushed to note that just before that game-deciding play, she’d chosen to pass to Kayla McBride in a similar moment, only to be reminded by Laimbeer that this was her time to take over.
“It’s crazy to think that I’m just really honestly just scratching the surface,” Wilson said. “And I think that’s the beauty of it all is just knowing that there’s so much more to learn in this game and I tend to forget sometimes how young I really am.”