A'Ja Wilson poses during the Team USA Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 shoot on Nov. 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.
A’ja Wilson has always been comfortable being one of the youngest members of her team.
That’s often been the case so far as the 23-year-old forward establishes her spot on the U.S. women’s basketball team. But with a 43-0 career record on USA Basketball teams across the youth and senior ranks, and a growing role on the latter, she could be in line for a long future with the red, white and blue.
Wilson, the youngest player on the U.S. team that won the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, is now part of a core group of players who committed themselves to Team USA training during the WNBA offseason.
Last month, the team swept the FIBA Pre-Olympic Qualifying Americas Tournament in Argentina, going 3-0 in group play.
The experience highlighted both the ability and potential for the rising star.
Wilson, who stands 6-foot-5 and plays for the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA, wasn’t her sharpest in Team USA’s opener. She finished 2-for-8 from the field for six points in a 76-61 win against Brazil and finished with more turnovers (three) than rebounds (one).
“My teammates and my coaches, they didn’t really harp on anything because they knew what I was capable of doing,” said Wilson, who was named the 2015 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year as a youth player. “They know who I am, they know how I play, and they know that was unlike me.”
Change came quickly. Wilson’s next game was a stronger performance in a 91-34 win against host Argentina. She finished 4-for-8 from the field for 10 points, adding seven rebounds and two assists.
“The beauty of USA Basketball, especially during this time, is you have another game to play,” Wilson said. “And it really kind of helped me settle down to what I need to do. And to see the A’ja that I know, and the A’ja that everyone else knows. From there on it was kind of like, ‘OK, I’m back to work now.’”
Her work was on full display in Team USA’s final game, a 104-48 win against Colombia where Wilson finished with a game-high 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting, plus a game-high-tying nine rebounds.
Performances like the last one are helping Wilson make her case to be included on next year’s Olympic roster.
“I can’t even put into words how special it would be to be an Olympian,” Wilson said. “It’s mind-blowing. It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of.”
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Wilson said she has long felt a special pull to the Olympic Games because her birthday on Aug. 8 often falls during the Games. She’s had birthday parties in past years with the Games playing a big role and knows next year’s 24th birthday could be the best yet.
“If I make the team, my birthday will be in Tokyo,” she said. “It’s just crazy how it’s really full circle in that way.”
Should all go as planned, however, Wilson wouldn’t be playing on her 24th birthday but rather one day later in the women’s gold-medal game on Aug. 9.
Wilson has already experienced a world-class stage with the national team at last year’s World Cup. She traveled to Spain with the team just a month after her 22nd birthday and brought home a gold medal.
“I was really a sponge to everything, and I’m still a sponge,” Wilson said. “It’s pretty cool to kind of be a baby in this thing and to watch USA Basketball grow.”
Wilson came off the bench for all six games in the tournament and averaged 10 points and four rebounds per game, while soaking in wisdom from her veteran teammates.
“I definitely talk to Sylvia Fowles a lot,” Wilson said of the three-time Olympic champion center. “She just tells me, ‘Don’t change up everything. USA Basketball is all about roles. If you do your role, we’re winning gold. Nothing different.’"
Another landmark ahead for Wilson in 2020 is, literally, a monument.
The University of South Carolina is planning a statue of Wilson, a native of Hopkins, South Carolina, to stand outside Colonial Life Arena on campus. Wilson put together an all-time career at South Carolina, earning first-team All-America honors three times, leading the Gamecocks to the 2017 NCAA title and one year later being named consensus National Player of the Year.
The statue’s sculptor will be Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, who has a track record with athlete sculptures that includes the Michael Jordan statue in Chicago and the Jerry West statue in Los Angeles.
Just don’t expect Wilson to develop an outsized ego, since her college coach, Dawn Staley, is the head coach of the national and Olympic teams.
“You know, I really wished that things would have changed once I became a pro with Coach Staley, but it has not,” Wilson said with a laugh. “We are still the same two people that would bark at each other in practice, that would get on each other’s nerves, that would press each other’s buttons. We’re still those people.”
Wilson has seen first-hand the high standards Staley sets for her college and U.S. teams.
“I’m just so grateful to have her in the position to be the national team coach,” Wilson said. “I remember I would hate when she would leave for USA (Basketball) at school because I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s going to come back and she’s going to think we’re Olympians, and we’re going to make her mad.’ And now I’m on the other side of it, it’s like, ‘Oh I feel so bad that I know the feeling the girls are going to get when she goes back to South Carolina.’ So it’s definitely a lot of fun being on this side now.”
And Staley knows how to remind Wilson to uphold the standard of previous Team USA legends.
“It’s funny because my Olympic number is 9, and that was Lisa Leslie’s as well,” Wilson said. “And when I saw I had 9 for the World Cup, Coach Staley was like, ‘You going to have to take care of that number.’ And I was just like, ‘You know I will.’”
Gregg Found is a Denver-based sportswriter. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.