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Inside the W: Jackpot to Be Won with A’ja Wilson

A’ja Wilson leaves South Carolina as the local girl made good — the homegrown star who brought the hometown program to new heights, not to mention a first-ever championship.

Presuming that she lands in Las Vegas in just a few days, as the newly minted No. 1 pick in WNBA Draft 2018, her impact may be no less seismic.

The player who swept the all of the National Player of the Year awards, who was the first person ever to be the SEC Player of the Year three times, will became the new face of a new franchise that’s already finding its way in a new city with a new identity.

Wilson would give the Las Vegas Aces a franchise player, a talent around which they can construct both their offense and their future in a new city.

“Players like A’ja are built to take the league to the next level,” said Dawn Staley, the South Carolina coach who had her own illustrious career in the WNBA. “She’s not going to fit the mold of just another WNBA player. A’ja had time here to grow into the face of our program and she has an opportunity to grow into being the face of women’s basketball. It takes more than points and rebounds.

“It takes charisma and a great personality and the ability to be relatable and she has all of those things. I do think she’s unlike any other player in the league.”

Wilson arrives at the cusp of her WNBA career as pro-ready as she can be from the perspective of her versatile, mature game. The 21-year-old, 6-foot-5 post has size, quickness, athleticism and instinct.

Aces coach Bill Laimbeer has compared Wilson to Tina Charles, who he coached for five seasons in New York. Another WNBA coach said Wilson is a combination of Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. Or perhaps the next coming of Yolanda Griffith, the eight-time WNBA All-Star who won a title with Sacramento in 2005 and was one of the most dominant players in the game in her day.

Wilson will also be expected to immediately provide Laimbeer’s team with the ability to compete in the Western Conference, where Brittney Griner (Phoenix), Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota) and Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker (Los Angeles) have all led their teams to titles in the past five years with their stellar play in the paint.

Wilson said earlier this week that she’s working on expanding her game.

“I need to be more consistent from the outside,” Wilson said. “I think people know I can play pretty well in the paint. But going to the pro level, they are going to scout you, they are going to know your go-tos like the back of their hand. I need to focus on my counter moves, how I can be productive, but not necessarily by doing my go-to things.”

In the days leading up to the draft, Laimbeer would not give away his plan for the top pick, but he really didn’t have to. The Aces head coach is not expected to pass on Wilson with his franchise-defining No. 1 pick.

Laimbeer said the “intangibles” set Wilson apart.

“You don’t get many players that can drive like she can. She can attack the basket with one dribble and cover a tremendous amount of ground,” Laimbeer said. “It says something that when you have a player of her size take the ball out of bounds all the time where the trust factor is there for her to make the right pass. She’s also the player who comes back to get the ball and is the outlet pass to start, whether it’s a press break or get the ball in, because she’s going to make the right decisions. Those are the intangibles you look for in a player.”

ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo calls Wilson a “unique talent” with a lot of room to grow and improve.

“But she’s ready right now,” Lobo said. “I think she’s one of the players that you look at and say this is someone who could eventually be an Olympian, who could be a WNBA All-Star and is only going to continue to get better. But she has the pieces necessary right now to immediately help a team.”

One of the best coaches in college basketball history said, that in her mind, Wilson is ready for the next level.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer joked that Wilson caused her a few sleepless nights as the Hall of Famer tried to come up with a game plan to defend her at the 2017 Final Four in the national semifinals. Wilson led the Gamecocks to a spot in the national title game at the expense of VanDerveer’s Cardinal in that game.

“She’s got great size and versatility and she is a really smart player,” VanDerveer said. “In a way, she’s going to be a better pro than she was a college player because they have to guard her one-on-one, and she’s hard to guard one-on-one.

“Look what’s she’s done at South Carolina. She put them on the map. She’s going to be a great pro.”

Wilson said she is excited for a change of scenery as she embarks on leaving her home state for the first time. She also said she’s already getting a taste of a new pace in her life as a professional athlete with her schedule packed in the days leading up to the draft.

“I’m excited to get out there,” Wilson said. “I am exciting to get a different feel and a different style of play and be on my own.”

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.