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A’ja Wilson’s Idols Becoming Her Rivals During Stellar Rookie Season

A’ja Wilson has spent her entire life looking up to the stars of the WNBA.

In particular, Wilson notes how much she enjoyed watching Elena Delle Donne, Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie growing up. Right there with that trio on Wilson’s list is former WNBA MVP and five-time All-Star Tina Charles.

Now, though, instead of watching her heroes from afar, Wilson finds herself sharing the same court as them in the WNBA.

On June 13, Wilson had the chance to play against Charles for the first time. Her Aces beat the Liberty 78-63, and Wilson had 13 points in the win.

That game shows just a sliver of Wilson’s impressive start to her WNBA career. She became the second rookie in WNBA history, along with Parker, to put up 35 points and 10 rebounds in a game — and has scored 20+ in eight of her first 13 games.

She also stacks up well against the entire league, ranking fourth in scoring at 20.8 points per game and fifth with 8.2 rebounds per game. Wilson will look to continue her hot start on Friday, when the Aces host Charles and the Liberty at 10 PM ET on ESPN2.

The 6-foot-4 rookie’s play has caught the eye of many around the league, including Charles. The nine-year WNBA veteran cited Wilson’s shooting, driving and ability to finish with both hands as what has impressed her the most.

“I think the WNBA is in great hands in the future because of her,” Charles said.

In just the first third of her first season, Wilson’s game has already blossomed and she has shown many similarities to Charles on the court.

The two are both more than comfortable setting up office hours on the block. Both also accept the burden of a high usage rate and the need to score consistently for their teams to have a chance to win. Charles ranks first in the WNBA in usage rate, with 31 percent of her team’s possessions ending with a shot, free throw or turnover from her. Wilson is second at 29 percent. Despite taking all of those shots, Wilson is shooting 46 percent from the field, right around the 47-percent mark put up by the veteran Charles.

At this stage of her career, Charles isn’t as dynamic a rebounder or shot blocker, so Wilson (8.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game) has the edge there. Charles has steadily increased her assist totals over the course of her nine-year WNBA career, and this season is averaging 2.7 dimes per game. That’s a touch higher than Wilson, who averages 2.2 per game. But Wilson also turns the ball over less, showing a discipline and basketball IQ that is beyond her years.

In other areas, Wilson could look to Charles as an example for how to develop into a perennial All-Star and modern big. Wilson has yet to attempt a three-point shot in her WNBA career. That’s essentially the same way it was with Charles in her rookie season, as she attempted one three-pointer and missed it. In Charles’ first six seasons, she never attempted more than five shots from beyond the arc.

Then, in 2016, Charles showed off a new weapon in her arsenal, going 17-of-49 from deep. Last season, she made 35 percent of her attempts. Although Charles has dipped to 26 percent this season, defenses have learned they must respect her outside game.

Only time will tell if Wilson can develop a three-point shot like that. Right now, she is comfortable facing up and pulling up in certain spots, mostly around the elbow areas.

Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer emphasized the off-court aspects of the game that Wilson has to learn in order to catch up to Charles. Laimbeer coached Charles for four years with the New York Liberty, seeing first-hand the process that Wilson, still just 13 games into her WNBA career, must endure.

“It’s a growing experience, it’s a learning experience,” he said. “You have the early success because of the great player that you are, but you still have to learn what the WNBA is about. That means better defenses, bigger, stronger, faster players that you have to play against every night, the relentlessness of the schedule. It never stops.

“Tina learned that and became a consummate professional. And that’s what I’m trying to accelerate A’ja on also. They both have similar skills. A’ja is a better driver, but Tina is probably a better power post player. But overall, I think they are going to have similar tracks and careers as time goes by.”

There will be setbacks as the season goes along – no one is immune to the rookie wall. Wilson’s personal success hasn’t translated directly into team success, as the Aces are just 4-9 on the season. But there is no doubt that Wilson has gotten off to an excellent start in Las Vegas. She is on her way to a potential All-Star appearance and maybe one day, the honor of being on the short list of WNBA greats next to names like Delle Donne, Parker and Leslie.

And even though she is just a rookie who used to look up to many of the league’s stars, she is not afraid of facing them.

“Playing in this league now,” Wilson said, “your idols become your rivals.”