June 23, 2024

In Super Squads, The Athletic follows the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces in their quests to win a WNBA championship. Our reporters will tell the stories of the players on 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 to play in the first game of the WNBA semifinals, the Las Vegas Aces led the Dallas Wings by 17 points. Despite the win comfortably in hand for the defending champs, A’ja Wilson attempted to steal an entry pass from Crystal Dangerfield, and her momentum led her out of bounds. She had to jump over the courtside seats in order to avoid falling over.

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After averting disaster, Wilson gave a quick curtsy to the fans behind the bench before returning to the floor, where she was greeted by laughter from Kelsey Plum and Alysha Clark, but also a stern talking-to from Chelsea Gray, who told her to sub out for the rest of the afternoon.

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

There’s no reason Wilson shouldn’t be having fun in 2023. Sunday was another tour de force in a year full of them. She began 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 her 34 minutes by 26 points and lost the other six minutes by 14. The game tipped off with Wilson accepting her second consecutive defensive player of the year trophy, but every performance from Wilson makes the case that she is the best player in the game — period.

“She does everything for us,” teammate Jackie Young says. “She can score at all three levels, she defends for us. She can guard everyone one through five, and she brings it every night. She’s a leader for this team. We all trust her, and we get going off of her.”

Wilson started her offseason by heading to Australia to win a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup, earning MVP honors in the process. She anchored the WNBA’s best offense in addition to the best defense during the regular season. She put together the finest statistical campaign of her WNBA tenure, averaging career-bests in points, rebounds and blocks per game while posting her highest shooting percentage in six seasons. She reached those thresholds despite playing the 24th-most minutes per game in the WNBA as the Aces had no need for her down the stretch of their many blowouts.

The 3-pointer somewhat disappeared from her arsenal this season, but Wilson has gotten better at her bread and butter. Regardless of where she gets the ball inside the arc, she’s expanded her face-up game so that she can make her way to the basket, whether that’s with her dominant left or her improving right hand. She also remains on target with her midrange jumper from straight away — she connects on 53.4 percent of those attempts, well above the league average of 36.6.

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“She looks so comfortable,” Mystics coach Eric Thibault said on the night Wilson dropped a then-career high 40 points on Washington without a single 3-pointer. “The numbers she’s putting up and everything, it doesn’t look forced, it doesn’t look rushed. She plays on her time and her tempo. She doesn’t force. She doesn’t take many bad shots. And I think that’s one thing about the great players in our league — she’s obviously in that group — is you don’t feel like you can speed them up. You don’t feel like you can rattle them, and she just looks so poised.”

When Wilson is on the court, every play earns her maximum effort level, which forces everyone else to meet that intensity. She allows Becky Hammon to coach her hard in front of her teammates because she wants to keep growing as a player and leader.

“We all talk about her and her talent and the way that she plays the game, 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 that actually plays that hard all the time, it’s unguardable.”

Plum, who has been Wilson’s teammate for all six of her WNBA seasons, thinks that Wilson’s effort is a sign of her selflessness. Wilson plays hard on both sides of the ball, not expecting easier matchups on one end to focus on the other. She runs the floor hard in transition even if she doesn’t touch the ball because it opens up 3-pointers for her teammates. Wilson doesn’t ask for more plays to be drawn for her to score, instead making do within the flow of the offense. Aces veteran Candace Parker says that Wilson is the best she’s ever seen at making a play even when it isn’t run for her.

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

“She’s a selfless superstar, and we don’t appreciate, a lot of times, that quality,” Plum says. “It’s just a pleasure to play with someone that just competes and doesn’t have an ego and just wants to win. And you see that, she wins everywhere she goes.”

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Winning makes it easier for Wilson to have a great time while she’s competing. As the All-Star captain for the third time, she can joke about failing to properly enforce a curfew or hydrate during the weekend. Hammon calls her vibrant in the locker room as she pours energy into her teammates. Alaina Coates, who played with Wilson on a youth grassroots team and at South Carolina before joining the Aces in August, says Wilson is the same big old goofball she has always been, just busier now.

The schedule has picked up because Wilson has designs on being an all-time great. Just as she doesn’t play to the score during the game, she’s running 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 in who I am and where I am in my career.”

She wants to keep expanding the women’s basketball fanbase in Las Vegas. As a rookie, Wilson could sneak into Target unnoticed, and now people cheer at her and show off their Aces gear when they see her out. But there’s more room to grow.

Wilson looks to Parker as a model of how to stay relevant during the offseason by building her off-court business because she doesn’t play overseas. Like Parker, Wilson is now in national commercials, and she 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 kid, she feels uniquely positioned to help her readers and fans find pride in being exactly who they are.

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

That means there is more work to be done. More learning of the game, more teammates to grow with, and more barriers to break through.

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It would be foolish to bet against Wilson meeting those intentions considering the fire she brings every time she steps on the court. She’ll chase her goals the same way she chases an errant pass out of bounds. No one will outwork Wilson on her way, and one WNBA title in 2022 doesn’t give her any peace on her journey.

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

She’s five wins away from that next notch in her resume.

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

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

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