A’Ja Wilson (Photo: Steven Maikoski/USA Basketball)
Judging by the direction her career has taken, it is difficult to fathom that there was a time when A’ja Wilson did not want to play basketball. She said she was 9 or 10 and stood 5-foot-9 when her father, Roscoe, signed her up for a Rec League. At that point just getting a T-shirt and leaving the gym would have been fine with her.
From there, Roscoe Wilson signed A’ja up for an AAU team. She barely touched the court during her first year. And that point, Roscoe, who played professionally in Europe from 1974-1984, issued her a self-imposed deadline. She had one year to prove to him that she could play this game.
“That’s when I would go outside and I would shoot,’’ A’ja Wilson said. “And I was like, `Alright, I’m going to do this. I’m going to show my dad that I want to play next year.’ So I’m just shooting and shooting and I was like, `Uh-oh, the ball’s going in.’ So the next practice, he’s there. `A’ja go in.’ And I started shooting and I was like, `OK, I kind of have a feeling for this.’ So, really, he played a huge role in just making me push myself. And so does my mom (Eva). My mom keeps me humble. It’s really a great balance between my parents.’’
Four years later, Wilson, a 16-year-old, versatile 6-4 wing from Hopkins, S.C., is now regarded as the No. 1 player in the Class of 2014. This week she is the second youngest player competing at the USA Basketball U-19 Team Trials at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. and is one of only four high school players from her class among the 33-player field vying for 12 roster spots.
This is Wilson’s third invitation from USA Basketball in as many years. Conflicting with exams in each of the past two years, Wilson respectfully declined.
“It was so bad. I was just like, `God, I really want to go,’’’ Wilson said. “And then luckily this year we have exams when I get back. So I was like, `Yes, this is the perfect opportunity.’ So I said, `Dad, let’s go. Mom, come on.’ So, yeah, we’re here now.
“Really just finally being here I was nervous. I was very nervous. But I knew (the nerves) would probably go away once I hit the court. Being here, playing with the best and competing with the best it’s a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying it.’’
According to Max Preps, Wilson averaged 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3.0 steals and 5.0 blocks in 22 games this past season for Heathwood Hall Episcopal High. She scored at least 30 points in 12 games and had 20 double-doubles for the Highlanders.
Wilson has amassed 1,726 career points, 989 rebounds and 58 double-doubles in 71 games in the last three seasons.
“A’ja is a coach’s dream,’’ Heathwood Hall coach John O’Cain said. “Not only is she a great basketball player, but I think she is even a better person. As a player she puts the time in to be successful. She is very competitive and a great team player. Basketball will take her a good ways in her life path, but her personal nature will take her even further. I can see A’ja succeeding at anything that she puts her mind to. I have truly enjoyed coaching A’ja over the past five years. She is a once in a lifetime type of player to coach.’’
Wilson is not at all fazed by being the top player in her class. In fact, she was initially unaware of the ranking until she was informed by others via word of mouth, Twitter or Instagram.
She is humble. She is grounded. And the “No. 1’’ in front of her name will not change who she is or how hard she works to improve.
“I was just like, `A’ja, you’re No. 1. But you still have to train like you’re No. 2,’’’ Wilson said. “I’ve just watched so many athletes get a big head and then it goes downhill from there. And I know Coach O’Cain always has this quote `Once you’re satisfied you have no place else to go but down.’ So I’m never satisfied about the way I play. I’m never satisfied with anything that I do on the court and off the court. So, really, when I saw it I was like, `That’s great.’ I just kind of leave it alone, but really it’s nothing different I guess. My life hasn’t changed really.’’
Obviously, Wilson has attracted a significant amount of attention from college coaches, including UConn’s Geno Auriemma. This has been something that she has found to be enjoyable.
“It’s a lot of fun talking to them and hearing the different personalities and the accents and everything,’’ Wilson said. “I love to talk. I do. It’s a great experience. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. And I’m waiting to see what the future holds.’’
At this point, Wilson is not close to making a decision regarding where she will play at the college level. She said she will sit down with her parents next month to discuss where she will take her official visits.
UConn will be one of the schools that she visits.
“It is on my list because, of course, they’re the defending champions right now,’’ Wilson said. “So I would like to take a visit there.’’
Here is what Wilson, who aims to be an Olympian in the future, said she is looking for in choosing a school …
“Probably seeing myself there if I were to get hurt or if I couldn’t play anymore, seeing myself there for the rest of my years that I would be there because my team is going to be pretty close to my immediate family in the relationship that I’m going to have because, of course, my mom or dad will not go off to college,’’ Wilson said. “So they’re going to be my family and I really need to feel like I’m home. So that’s really what I’m looking for. Also, when I graduate where can I go because my ultimate goal is to play at the highest level that women can play in basketball. So I want my coach to get me there.’’
Wilson said that the distance from home will be something that she will discuss with her family and her coaches.
“I don’t know if I want to stay close to home or if I want to go away,’’ Wilson said. “And I think that’s what I’m really going to be looking at when I go to my officials. Where ever I go it’s kind of like, `Let me see,’ because, of course, my parents would want to see a game. So it’s a thought. Of course, it is. But it’s not a huge problem for me.’’