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In A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Could Finally Have a Superstar Athlete to Call Its Own

Drafted no. 1 overall this spring by the WNBA’s brand-new Aces team, the former South Carolina star has all the tools—and the right coach—to take over the Strip

A’ja Wilson AP Images/Ringer illustration

This spring, The State, the biggest newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, ran an extensive reader poll called “Gamecock Madness,” with the goal of determining the most popular athlete in the history of the University of South Carolina. In the final round, quarterback Connor Shaw, who led the Gamecocks to three straight top-10 finishes in the AP poll from 2011 to 2013, beat out George Rogers, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner — an appropriate result for such a football-obsessed school.

That’s not to say Rogers himself isn’t absolutely revered: A statue of Rogers sits outside South Carolina’s football stadium, which is itself located on George Rogers Boulevard. Even so, Rogers didn’t think he deserved to advance that far in the Gamecock Madness bracket.

“I should have lost to A’ja,” Rogers told The State days after the poll ended. “That’s who you should have been saying is most popular, the girls basketball player that got four-time All-American and three times SEC Player of the Year.”

And Rogers didn’t even address the most impressive parts of former South Carolina basketball star A’ja Wilson’s résumé: In 2017 as a junior, she led the Gamecocks, who were playing without star center Alaina Coates, to their first national title and won the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honors along the way. This year, she followed that campaign up by sweeping the national player of the year honors, and last month, the brand-new Las Vegas Aces made her the no. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft. On Saturday, when Wilson walked across the stage at South Carolina’s commencement, she received an ovation so long and loud that the ceremony stopped in its tracks, and university president Harris Pastides announced that Wilson would be honored with a statue of her own.

Now, Wilson, the face of basketball in South Carolina — men’s or women’s — is off to Las Vegas, where she’ll have the opportunity to break new ground once again, potentially becoming the first star athlete Vegas can call its own.

Wilson’s South Carolina teams were electrifying, but not in the fast-moving, dangerously beautiful way in which we usually use that word in sports. Last year’s Oregon team — with its fast-paced, outside-shooting-based offense — was traditionally electrifying. South Carolina basketball is electrifying in the “NOT ONLY WILL THIS KILL YOU, IT WILL HURT THE WHOLE TIME YOU’RE DYING” sense of the word.

Last year, South Carolina finished third in the nation in free throw attempts, 10th in field goal percentage, third in blocked shots, and 26th in rebounding margin. It was, by contrast, tied for 238th out of 349 teams in made 3-pointers. Not only was this not Oregon-style, this wasn’t even the preppy, Disney movie bad-guy dominance of UConn — South Carolina was like a glacier, advancing slowly, and flattening the landscape in its path.

As a player, head coach Dawn Staley was a stereotypical point guard: quick, smart, and cunning. As a recruiter and coach, though, Staley loves power. The backbone of the 2017 national title team was the post duo of the 6-foot-5 Wilson and the 6-foot-4 Coates, who went second overall to the Chicago Sky in last year’s WNBA draft. Both Wilson and Coates are from towns just outside Columbia, and keeping that local duo in-state was the greatest recruiting victory of Staley’s tenure.

Wilson isn’t exactly a modern NBA-type big — in four years of college ball she attempted just 16 3-pointers — but she was one of the most physically dominant post players in recent college basketball history.

She’s quick enough on the dribble to get from the foul line to the bucket, even through traffic, with an array of spin moves, jump stops, and Eurosteps at her disposal. But she’s at her best when she establishes position down low before the entry pass by strolling into the post, delivering a brutal hip check to her defender’s navel, and sliding closer to the bucket. Then, once she gets the ball, trying to take it away is like trying to get a Frisbee out of a tree — all you can really do is wait and hope that she not only misses the shot, but also whiffs on her first chance at an offensive rebound. When Coates went down, Wilson frequently had to get to the hoop with two or even three defenders hanging off her, but it never really seemed to bother her. Even leaving out the impact of her Mr. Fantastic–like arms on defense, where she blocked more than three shots a game as a senior, Wilson plays a distinctly unkind brand of basketball.

Wilson attacks the basket with a frightening intensity, and when she finishes in traffic, she usually lets out a scream or a fist pump. But that intimidating on-court persona is at odds with Wilson’s cheerful disposition off the court. Whenever she’s not busy making defenders wish they’d joined the pep band instead, she’s smiling, almost like she physically can’t help herself. When the Aces picked her first overall, Blake Griffin — Wilson’s favorite NBA player — recorded a message of congratulations. Wilson’s reaction is worth watching.

Wilson was an absolute superstar in college in every sense of the word and seemed immune to the pressures of the game’s biggest stage and the crushing expectations of a hometown hero. And in Las Vegas, she has the potential to become an even bigger name.

It’s a good time to be a Vegas sports fan. After decades of having only minor league baseball and the occasional hot UNLV basketball team to look forward to, last year Las Vegas became a major league sports town for the first time when the NHL added an expansion team called the Golden Knights.

The Golden Knights have taken the city, and indeed the hockey world, by storm. Expectations for the club could not have been lower before the season, but the Knights are now just two wins from becoming the first NHL expansion team in 50 years to make the Stanley Cup final. (Even that record is more impressive than it sounds — before the 1967–68 season, the NHL expanded from six teams to 12 and placed all six expansion clubs in one division, so while it’s impressive that the St. Louis Blues played for the Cup in their first year, some expansion team had to.)

But while the Knights are beloved, their mystique is broadly based in their being a team of castoffs. The only marquee name in the club, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, will forever be remembered as a Pittsburgh Penguin — the club he won three Stanley Cups with. The Knights are celebrated not just for what they’ve done this season, but for doing it after they were rejected by other clubs. It’s not “William Karlsson scored 43 goals” so much as it’s “William Karlsson scored 43 goals — how the hell did the Columbus Blue Jackets let this guy go?”

Las Vegas has star athletes, but its stars are adopted sons. That might be appropriate for a Sun Belt growth market, but there’s something special about cheering for an athlete from the moment they hit the pros. Knights fans will have that opportunity in years to come, as will Raiders fans once the NFL arrives in Sin City in 2019 or 2020.

But Wilson and the Aces present that opportunity now. The Aces aren’t an expansion team — they moved from San Antonio this past offseason — but they bring with them a new identity, and new faces of the franchise in Wilson and head coach–president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer. In every meaningful way, this feels like a new beginning.

Importantly, the Golden Knights have provided a blueprint for the Aces to follow. The WNBA, existing as it does in the weird purgatory of women’s professional sports, doesn’t get covered or promoted the way the NFL and NBA do, and therefore has trouble minting its own stars. But hockey isn’t exactly part of the cultural fabric of Nevada either, and look what the Knights have done in just one season. Las Vegas has shown that it will embrace a team if it’s good and fun, and the Aces being named after a gambling term — a statement the NHL was afraid to make — is a reason to hope the organization will be fun.

As for whether they’ll be good, well, that’s up to Wilson and Laimbeer. As with any college athlete with a physical style of play, it remains to be seen how effective Wilson will be playing against grown-ups. But she couldn’t ask for a better teacher.

Laimbeer is one of the most decorated coaches in WNBA history, with three titles and two Coach of the Year awards under his belt. Laimbeer comes to Las Vegas from the New York Liberty, who finished first in the Eastern Conference in each of his last three seasons with the club. But crucially for Wilson, Laimbeer knows a thing or two about playing as a physical big. Laimbeer, a four-time NBA All-Star, won two titles with the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons teams of the late 1980s, bullying his way to more than 10,000 career rebounds.

Under Laimbeer, center Tina Charles led the league with 21.5 points per game in 2016, and in 2017, she was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week seven times, including five times in the season’s last seven weeks — nobody else took home that award more than twice. Charles finished second in MVP voting to Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles.

Wilson is already a punishing post scorer who plays with an edge, and as she grows into her mid-20s under Laimbeer’s tutelage, it’s a little scary to imagine how vicious those position-establishing hip checks could become. Wilson will also benefit from more floor-spacing shooters in the pros than she had in college — 2017 no. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum, the all-time leading scorer in women’s college basketball, is one of the Stars holdovers relocating to Las Vegas. So is guard Kayla McBride, who tied for sixth in the WNBA in 3-point attempts last season. And 26-year-old guard Shoni Schimmel, one of the most fearless shooters in women’s basketball history, just signed with the team as a free agent after playing for Laimbeer with the Liberty in 2016. It’s not a bad situation for a rookie to walk into, and if Wilson plays her cards right, she could end up with a statue in Las Vegas as well.