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A’ja’s Got Next: Wilson Heads to Vegas as No. 1 Pick

NEW YORK – It seems fitting that the Las Vegas Aces made their first-ever WNBA Draft pick at 7:11 p.m. when WNBA President Lisa Borders announced that A’ja Wilson would be headed to Sin City.

While draft picks can often be seen as a roll of the dice, when it comes to Wilson, she entered the 2018 WNBA Draft as the consensus pick to go No. 1 overall. The 6-foot-5 forward from South Carolina swept every National Player of the Year award and became the first three-time SEC Player of the Year after averaging 22.6 points and 11.8 rebounds as a senior.

The combination of Wilson and head coach Dawn Staley elevated South Carolina to the elite level of women’s college basketball, capturing their first NCAA title in 2017. Now, Wilson will join two-time WNBA Coach of the Year Bill Laimbeer to introduce the WNBA to Las Vegas and turn around a franchise that won a combined 23 games over the past three seasons.

“It’s such a great feeling,” Wilson said just minutes after officially becoming a professional basketball player. “It means a lot to me to just kind of cap off my collegiate career with this. This is a great class. Just to be at the top, [it] really makes my heart warm. I’m pretty sure you could see my heart pounding through my jumpsuit when [Lisa Borders] was announcing [my name]. This is a great feeling. The nerves are gone now. It’s truly a blessing.”

Of all the prospects in this year’s promising draft class, Wilson stood out as the most likely player many believe can come in and make an immediate impact as a rookie. Her combination of size, speed, skill and energy make her a coach’s dream and an opponent’s nightmare.

“She’s an impact player,” said Staley. “She was an impact player when she went from high school to college and college has prepared her to go from college to the WNBA and be an impact player. She’s equipped with so many tools in her toolbox that you just can’t stop her when you take away one thing. She can block shots, she can rebound, she can score in a variety of ways.”

The South Carolina native took her hometown school to new heights and now has the challenge of doing the same more than 2,000 miles away from home as a foundational piece for the Las Vegas Aces.

“I feel like our team really brought South Carolina up together and coach [Staley] has changed the program and I know that is what coach Bill is going to look forward to doing [in Las Vegas],” said Wilson. “So just being alongside him and a great group of vets and my teammates, I feel like we’re going to form a team that everyone is going to come out and watch us and I’m super excited. Off the court I’m just going to do everything I can, I’m going to absorb it all, I’m going to be a sponge.”

Wilson mentioned looking toward her veterans for leadership, but the Aces are a very young team, with only free agent additions Tamera Young and Carolyn Swords with more than four years of WNBA experience. The core of this team is young and has been built from lottery picks over the past four seasons: Kayla McBride (No. 3 in 2014), Moriah Jefferson (No. 2 in 2016), Kelsey Plum (No. 1 in 2017) and now Wilson as the top pick in 2018.

No. 1 overall picks have been transformative players over the course of WNBA history. It started with Tina Thompson in the league’s inaugural season in 1997 as she helped the Houston Comets win four straight titles to begin her career. There was Lauren Jackson (2001) and Sue Bird (2002), who helped the Storm win titles in 2004 and 2010.

Diana Taurasi (2004) led the Mercury to titles in 2007 and 2009 and was joined by 2013 No. 1 pick Brittney Griner during Phoenix’s third title run in 2014. Seimone Augustus (2006) and Maya Moore (2011) were key to Minnesota’s magical run that saw them win four titles over the past seven seasons. Candace Parker (2008) and Nneka Ogwumike (2012) helped the Sparks win their first title since the Lisa Leslie era in 2016.

If tradition holds, it will be Seattle and Las Vegas that are next to make the leap to the elite. Seattle had back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2015 (Jewell Loyd) and 2016 (Breanna Stewart) and now Vegas has followed with Plum (2017) and Wilson at the top of consecutive drafts.

Before Wilson can think of bringing the Aces to title contention, she has to take the first step of transitioning her game to the WNBA and adjusting to life as a professional player.

“You have to come in and be effective as soon as possible and that’s something that I have to be ready for,” she said. “I have to get my body right, I’ve got to get my mind right because this is a whole different league.”

In the days leading up to the draft at Nike’s New York Headquarters, Wilson and the other nine players invited to the event were in the Big Apple to do everything from see the sights, meet with the media and go through an orientation where current WNBA players Alana Beard, Cappie Pondexer and Elizabeth Williams met with them to offer some advice on the transition to the WNBA. The veterans were not only impressed by the draft class as a whole, but specially by Wilson, who they have high expectations for in the league.

“She has a motor,” said Beard, a veteran of 12 WNBA seasons. “And anytime you see that in someone with her size and with her skill set, you know she has a chance to be pretty successful at the next level.”

In her ESPN interview immediately following her selection, Wilson closed her remarks with a message to the Las Vegas fans: “What happens in Sin City, stays in Sin City,” she said with a sly smile on her face that showcased her charming and bubbly personality and drew laughs from the crowd on-hand.

Wilson’s personality makes her a prime candidate to not just be the face of the Las Vegas Aces, but one of the faces of the WNBA for the next decade-plus.

“She loves the game,” said Staley. “She loves the game for the right reasons, not for what the game can do for her, but what she gets from playing and competing at a high level. She charismatic, she loves people and she’s just got the complete package to being great and that’s what it’s all about. It’s not just your stats on the floor, it’s being able to connect people and make them fall in love with the game.

“I think the league has stood the test of time and with players like A’ja Wilson coming into the league, being a breathe of fresh air, bringing people to the games, making them watch on television, I think that’s what its all about to take this league into another 20 years.”

It all begins May 20th when the Aces open the season against the Connecticut Sun. The home opener in Las Vegas is a week later on May 27th and will be the first step in expanding the WNBA to a new fan base both in Las Vegas and beyond.

“I’m just going to use the platform that I’m on right now and just try to branch out and help people understand that we love the game, we’re passionate about the game, and we should get respect off of that,” said Wilson. “I feel like we work just as hard as the guys and we should get enough respect where we can kind of get the crowd pumping and get people energized about the game. So I’m going to use everything that I can to just reach out to the community and everybody around me, whether its Las Vegas, South Carolina, New York, anywhere just to help people kind of bring everyone together with women’s basketball.”

And for Wilson, the time is right.