Inside the W: Wilson Savoring First All-Star Game

Someday, when A’ja Wilson is a grizzled WNBA veteran, she admitted she might be more excited about the prospect of the All-Star break than the All-Star Game. Maybe.

Right now, the rookie star of the Las Vegas Aces, one of only two first-timers playing in Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game, is soaking it all in.

“I am super excited just to be a part of everything, to play next to people that I see in my scouting reports,” Wilson said, as she prepared to board her flight to Minneapolis later this week. “It’s nice to have a little break from the regular season, but I’m doing something I love, so I’m taking it all in stride.”

Wilson is in Minneapolis on the merits of a spectacular debut WNBA season in which she has vaulted the Aces, in their first season in a new city and a new head coach, into playoff contention in one of the most competitive seasons in league history.

Wilson has been both dominant and consistent. She is averaging 20.0 and 8.6 rebounds a game. She has collected 10 double-doubles in 25 games and she has scored in double figures in every Aces game thus far.

She is the front-running candidate for Rookie of the Year.

And all that matters to her is that her young, rebuilding team takes its shot at the postseason. The Aces (12-13) are currently in the No. 9 spot in the league standings with seven wins in their last 10 games, just 1.5 games behind the Connecticut Sun for the final playoff spot with nine games to go.

It is a remarkable turnaround from an 0-8 start, a start that Wilson was not used to after years of success at South Carolina, where she led the Gamecocks to a national championship in 2017.

“It was tough for me,” Wilson said. “It was probably more games than I’d lost in all four years of college. I wasn’t used to losing, but when you lose, there is a lesson behind it. And we are learning those lessons and coming together as a team.”

Wilson, who rolled right into the WNBA season at the end of the college season, said she doesn’t feel like she’s hitting that rookie “wall” just yet, when fatigue starts to set in. That wall could be an even bigger climb in this shortened season with its back-to-back games and condensed travel schedule.

Wilson said the travel has definitely taken some getting used to, flying into a city at noon and being ready for a game by evening, for example.

“I’m feeling really good, resting as much as I can,” Wilson said. “I feel like it’s more of a mental thing and Coach Bill (Laimbeer) has been good about keeping me upbeat and making sure my mentality is in the right place.

“I’m a 21-year-old out here. My body is still moving.”

Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks said it’s obvious that Wilson belongs among the top players in the league at this young point in her career.

“It’s special when you see rookies come in and know that they belong,” Parker said. “And you could see from early on her figuring it out, that it doesn’t matter the age, when you come in and you can play. The key is figuring it out quicker than everybody else. And you can see the way that she operates and the spots that she’s able to get to, and to be so young, it’s tremendous.”

Wilson said she knows the All-Star Game experience is about fun and giving the fans a show, but she also plans on tapping into the wisdom of the veteran players that she’s long admired.

“I’m hoping there will be a lot of bonding with the women throughout the league and getting to know people outside of their team,” Wilson said. “The opportunity to play alongside somebody like a Sylvia Fowles or a Seimone Augustus, they are the legends of our league. When you are surrounded by the best, you never want to miss out on an opportunity to pick their brains and see how they operate.”

Wilson hopes she will be able to use that wisdom for a stretch run of the WNBA season that ends with an unexpected playoff spot for the Aces.

“Going from being 0-8 to possibly making it to the playoffs, we are on the bubble right now and anything can happen,” Wilson said. “That’s the beauty of the league we are in right now. But to have a shot at being a playoff contender, that is really fueling our fire.”

Wilson said her team knows that it is at an experience disadvantage in almost every game it will play over the final stretch. And they will have to overcome it.

“Some days you can tell with the teams that have more experience, because the mental toughness is there. They know it’s a game of runs and they keep their composure,” Wilson said. “But (experience) is something we can’t control. We haven’t been in some of these situations, and we are still going to have to dig ourselves out and find out different ways to pull out a win.”

Wilson said her team has the benefit of playing without expectations, that they have the opportunity to “write our own book.”

The Aces’ final nine games includes matchups against Phoenix, Washington, Connecticut, Minnesota and two games against the hot Atlanta Dream.

“The more experience we get, the more prepared we will be,” Wilson said. “We just need to do what we have been doing: play good defense and get up and down the floor.”

As for her All-Star experience, Wilson will try not to be star-struck while she sends a message to the rest of the WNBA that this rookie is ready for her immediate turn in the spotlight.

“I have no idea how this game is going to look, except I know people don’t play a lot of defense,” Wilson said, laughing. “But I am just going to appreciate the experience.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.