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The Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson Is Already a Franchise Player

The no. 1 overall pick out of South Carolina has been crushing everyone this year—even when she gets hit in the braces

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Las Vegas Aces play the Dallas Wings tonight. Not counting the preseason game between the two, it’ll be the second time the teams have played each other this season. The first time was actually just a little more than a week ago. Let me tell you a little thing from the game real quick:

It was a fine-enough game, sure. (The Aces are one of the two WNBA teams I root for, so since they lost I can only refer to it as “a fine-enough game.” Had they won, it’d have been classified as “a wonderful game,” like every other game that they win.) Liz Cambage, who plays in the paint like an angry bulldozer for Dallas, was even angrier and more bulldozery than usual (she put up 28-18, which I found to be entirely unreasonable). And Skylar Diggins-Smith was there, and even though it took her 20 shots to get 20 points, she was still Skylar Diggins-Smith, a superstar, and so she’s undeniable. For the Aces, Kayla McBride was quietly very good, too, as she has been multiple times before. But it was the inevitable Rookie of the Year, power forward A’ja Wilson, who had the game’s secretly most memorable moment.

It wasn’t a shot or a block or a steal or anything else that could be squeezed somewhere into a stat sheet, advanced or otherwise. (In fact, relative to other A’ja Wilson games, this one was less than spectacular. She’s currently third in the WNBA in scoring, but managed only 14 points against the Wings, tied for her third-lowest output of the season.) It wasn’t even a thing that, short of rewatching the entire game on League Pass, you can find on the internet anywhere today. (I searched through the entire WNBA site and also through the available game-highlight videos on YouTube to grab it to embed into this article. Alas, nothing.) It was a quick little comment she made to Allisha Gray, the starting shooting guard for the Wings and Wilson’s former college teammate.

(Gray and Wilson won the 2017 national championship together for South Carolina.)

(Gray used that as a springboard into the WNBA, while Wilson stayed behind to play a final year at South Carolina.)

(Gray was drafted fourth overall by the Wings after she declared for the draft.)

(She went on to win the 2017 WNBA Rookie of the Year.)

(Gray is very good, is what I’m saying.)

(At any rate …)

The Wings and the Aces were playing, and, as it happens between opponents, Gray and Wilson crossed into each other’s planes of existence for a second. Gray, her arms busy and active, accidentally popped Wilson in the mouth during their crossing. Wilson, who has worn braces since May of last year, immediately recoiled, absorbed the pain suddenly radiating from her lips and teeth and gums, then shouted at Gray in that very specific way that friends shout at friends, “You know I have braces!”

(The closest I could get to finding evidence of it was Pete Iacobelli mentioning it in the game write-up he did for the Associated Press.)

Through just the first 15 games of the season, Wilson has already had several outstanding plays and moments. There was the 26-and-12 statline she hung on the Washington Mystics to help give the Aces their first win in franchise history three weeks ago. (Before this season, the Las Vegas Aces were the San Antonio Stars.) (Wilson had 27 and 8 in her third game for the Aces, but the 26-and-12 game stands as more important than that one because of the historical aspect of it.)

There was the game two weeks ago when, for the first time in her professional career, she went into EVERYONE’S GOTTA DIE TONIGHT mode, putting up 35 and 13 against the Indiana Fever, including scoring 17 during the fourth quarter and overtime to snatch the game away. (This one’s important because it confirmed that she can be dominant on a professional level.) (She became the first rookie in WNBA history to score 35 points, grab 13 rebounds, and have three blocks in a game.)

And there was the game one week ago when, against the deadly Seattle Storm and the even deadlier Breanna Stewart, she opened the evening up by scoring the first nine points for the Aces, the last two of which came off of a jab step + step back + spin move into a heat-check jumper that she didn’t even bother to wait to see go in before she started jogging back on defense because she knew she was entirely in her bag at the time. (This one’s important because … I mean … frankly, it was fucking cool, is why. It’s the kind of very sauce-heavy move you want to see from the player a franchise is pinning its hopes on.)

The best part of the play was one of the announcers laughing at what she had just seen while the other one shouted: “She’s testing the abilities of her game right now and her abilities are very, VERY high!” (The quote sounds a lot like the part in a science fiction movie where some scientists are all gathered around in a laboratory trying to figure out how to stop some alien that’s destroying all of everything and one of them is yelling something at the others like, “Stop her?! We don’t even know how powerful she is yet!”)

Were I to arrange all the A’ja Wilson things I’ve seen during a game this season, the heat-check play would be the no. 1 thing. I just really liked how everything built up for her into that shot. Those sorts of instances—when a player strings together enough good things in a row that they all begin to multiply up against each other—are always very exciting. It’s like a real-life version of the Gamebreaker shot from that old video game NBA Street Vol. 2.

The no. 1 non-game A’ja Wilson thing I’ve seen, BTW, would be the video where she’s giving a tour of the rec center that she played in as a little kid and then her mom starts trying to make a shot while A’ja is laughing after each miss in the background. Somehow—improbably, impossibly, unbelievably—it ends with her mom missing so badly that the ball accidentally gets wedged between the rim and the backboard. It’s great.

But so the point I’m making with all of this is: A’ja has been wonderful this season, and that even in her most uncomfortable moments (I used to wear braces; getting knocked in the mouth even the tiniest bit feels like you’ve just been smashed in the face with a 4x4), she’s entertaining. Her first season (which, as Mechelle Voepel recently wrote for ESPN, could wrap up with her being considered one of the five best WNBA rookies ever) will likely end with her team missing the playoffs, but it’s of no matter. Soon enough will come all the highlight plays and trophy ceremonies and championship(s). She will, it appears, be historically great.

But first: the Wings tonight.