A’ja Wilson won’t be satisfied until Las Vegas Aces reach Bill Russell status | ET REALITY

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In Super Squads, The Athletic follows the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces in their quest to win a WNBA championship. Our reporters will tell the stories of players from two of the most star-studded teams in league history and examine how their paths shape the future of the WNBA.

LAS VEGAS – With less than a minute left in the first game of the WNBA semifinals, the Las Vegas Aces led the Dallas Wings by 17 points. Even though the defending champions had the victory comfortably in their hands, A’ja Wilson attempted to steal an inbound pass from Crystal Dangerfield and her momentum carried her off the field. She had to jump on the court-side seats to avoid falling.

After averting disaster, Wilson took a quick bow to the fans behind the bench before returning to the court, where she was greeted with laughter from Kelsey Plum and Alysha Clark, but also a stern talk from Chelsea Gray, who told her that would retire. her out for the rest of the afternoon.

On a day that showcased Wilson at his best on the basketball court, that moment summed up what makes the superstar so special to the Aces and the league at large: No one plays harder than the two-time MVP, and no one has more. fun while he does it.

There’s no reason for Wilson not to have fun in 2023. Sunday was another tour de force in a fun-filled year. He started the game with a bucket on one end and a block on the other en route to 34 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and two steals; Las Vegas won its 34 minutes by 26 points and lost the other six minutes by 14. The game began with Wilson accepting her second straight defensive player of the year trophy, but every performance by Wilson proves that she is the best player of the year. the game – period.

“She does everything for us,” says teammate Jackie Young. “She can score at all three levels, she defends herself for us. She can protect everyone from one to five and brings it every night. She is a leader for this team. “We all trusted her and got discouraged.”

Wilson began his offseason by heading to Australia to win a gold medal at the FIBA ​​World Cup, earning MVP honors in the process. She anchored the WNBA’s best offense as well as its best defense during the regular season. She had the best statistical campaign of her WNBA tenure, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks per game, while posting her highest shooting percentage in six seasons. She met those thresholds despite playing the 24th most minutes per game in the WNBA, as the Aces didn’t need her down the stretch of her many blowouts.

The 3-point shot has disappeared a bit from his arsenal this season, but Wilson has improved on his bread and butter. Regardless of where he receives the ball inside the arc, he has expanded his face-up game to be able to get to the basket, whether with his dominant left or his improving right hand. He also continues to hit his mid-range jumper right out of the gate: He connects on 53.4 percent of those attempts, well above the league average of 36.6.

“She looks so comfortable,” Mystics coach Eric Thibault said the night Wilson scored a career-high 40 points on Washington without a single 3-pointer. “The numbers he’s doing and everything don’t seem forced, they don’t seem rushed. She plays with her time and her rhythm. She doesn’t force. She doesn’t make many bad shots. And I think one thing about the great players in our league (she’s obviously in that group) is that you don’t feel like you can rush them. You don’t feel like you can make them nervous and she seems very composed.”

When Wilson is on the court, every play gets his maximum level of effort, forcing everyone else to reach that intensity. He allows Becky Hammon to coach her hard in front of her teammates because she wants to continue growing as a player and leader.

“We all talk about her and her talent and the way she plays, but I don’t think we talk enough about her effort,” Plum says. “I just think she plays harder than everyone. When you have a superstar who really plays that hard all the time, it’s impossible to defend him.”

Plum, who has been Wilson’s teammate during her six seasons in the WNBA, believes Wilson’s effort is a sign of her selflessness. Wilson plays hard on both sides of the ball, not waiting for easier matchups on one end to focus on the other. She runs hard down the court in transition even if she doesn’t touch the ball because that opens the door to three-pointers for her teammates. Wilson doesn’t call for more scoring plays to be drawn, but rather he works with the flow of the offense. Aces veteran Candace Parker says Wilson is the best she’s ever seen at making a play, even when it’s not directed by him.

That quality extends off the court for Wilson. He signed an extension below the maximum he could have received in free agency (well below the supermax) to help keep Las Vegas’ core in place. She gave Kiah Stokes credit for helping her win defensive player of the year and brought Stokes up on stage to accept the award, allowing her strike partner to pose with the trophy as well.

“He’s a selfless superstar and a lot of times we don’t appreciate that quality,” Plum says. “It’s a pleasure to play with someone who just competes and has no ego and just wants to win. And you see, she wins wherever she goes.”

Winning makes it easier for Wilson to have a good time while competing. As a third-time All-Star captain, she can joke about not properly following curfew or hydrating over the weekend. Hammon calls her vibrant in her locker room as she energizes her teammates. Alaina Coates, who played with Wilson on a youth team and at South Carolina before joining the Aces in August, says Wilson is the same goofball he always was, only he’s busier now.

The schedule has been accelerated because Wilson intends to be an all-time great. Just as she doesn’t play by the score during the game, she runs her own race when it comes to leaving a legacy.

“Of course, it’s entertainment, but this is my job,” Wilson says. “This is what I do, and the last thing I want to do is disrespect the game and be complacent about who I am and where I am in my career.”

She wants to continue expanding the women’s basketball fan base in Las Vegas. As a rookie, Wilson could sneak into Target without being noticed, and now people cheer her and she shows off her team’s Aces when they see her leaving. But there is more room to grow.

Wilson sees Parker as a model of how to stay relevant during the offseason by building her business off the court because she doesn’t play overseas. Like Parker, Wilson now appears in national commercials and wrote a book that will be published during the 2024 offseason. She wants to be a role model for young black girls and children with dyslexia. Having had the deck stacked against her as a child, she feels uniquely positioned to help her readers and fans feel proud of being exactly who they are.

While she’s proud of who she’s become, that doesn’t mean Wilson is happy with the accolades she’s earned so far. She flatly rejects the “super team” moniker and hesitates to compare herself to the all-time greats because she hasn’t won enough yet. She told the media that she wouldn’t consider the Aces super until they surpass Bill Russell’s Celtics in the NBA.

That means there is more work to do. More learning about the game, more teammates to grow with and more barriers to overcome.

It would be foolish to bet against Wilson fulfilling those intentions considering the fire he causes every time he steps on the court. He will chase his targets the same way he chases an errant out-of-bounds pass. No one will surpass Wilson on her journey, and a WNBA title in 2022 gives her no peace on her journey.

“I want another one, I’m greedy,” Wilson says. “I’m a pretty greedy person. I mean, I’ll give the jersey I have to anyone, but when it comes to my career and my legacy, I’m greedy. I want it all.”

He is five wins away from reaching the next level on his resume.

(Illustration: Ray Orr / The Athletic; A’ja Wilson Photo: Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Super Squads series is part of a partnership with Google Lens. The Athletic maintains total editorial independence. Partners have no control or input over the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

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