Local recruit makes good: Wilson transforms Gamecocks

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As much as A'ja Wilson loved the on-court celebration in Dallas, the welcome home, the parade, the ring presentation at a football game and the countless "Way to go!" interactions with fans in the wake of South Carolina's 2017 national championship, one quiet and solitary moment might have meant the most to her.
"I was just lying in my bed at home one time this summer and thinking, 'Wow. It actually happened,' " Wilson said. "In my room, I have each jersey that I have had -- from high school to McDonald's All-American to USA Basketball -- and I just looked at them and thought about the moments I had in those jerseys.
"My college one isn't up there yet, but I thought, 'This is going to be in the history books: that South Carolina won an NCAA title.' And I'm from here."
Wilson will have her senior night Thursday as the Gamecocks take on LSU, and it will be that mixture of pride and sadness, as most such ceremonies are.
"I'm a very emotional person," Wilson said. "It's hard to find the words for how I've been feeling."
With a transformational player such as Wilson, the feelings will be all the more heightened with fans, too. They'll have the chance to see her again in the NCAA tournament early rounds, as the Gamecocks are certain to be in the top 16 seeds and host. But the closing days of the dream college career of the hometown girl are playing out.
So this season when coach Dawn Staley and her assistants have watched Wilson work her way around three defenders or block a few shots in succession, they made sure to absorb it.
"We say, 'Soak it up. We won't ever get another A'ja Wilson,' " Staley said. "We may get someone who's impactful as far as statistics, but she's all-around. When people come to you with great character and morals, you can work to help them become a better player. But we didn't have to make her become a better person. She already came with that."
Wilson was the perfect recruit at the perfect time: A No. 1 prospect, born and raised in Columbia, whose high school, Heathwood Hall, was just 6 miles from Colonial Life Arena. Most every top college coach in the country came there to recruit Wilson. When she made her announcement in the spring of 2014, it was like hitting the jackpot for the Gamecocks, who had made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 that year.
Staley had been steadily building a program that got better each season, and the 6-foot-5 Wilson was the answer to what the Gamecocks still needed. Wilson's freshman season, South Carolina made its first Women's Final Four. She came off the bench and averaged 13.1 PPG and 6.6 RPG, while also establishing her shot-blocking prowess with 65.
Despite all that, there were times she was frustrated, thinking she wasn't doing enough. Now a senior on a team with a lot of freshmen and sophomores, Wilson thinks back.
"Seeing the young ones go through what I went through, I tell them, 'Hey, there's a light at the end of the tunnel,' " Wilson said. "It's OK; everyone goes through it. It's not just you. There will be times when you're going to break down. Because it's normal; you're in unfamiliar territory.
"Not saying I'm perfect now, because I'm far from it. But I definitely try to make sure my teammates understand that it's OK to mess up and get a little crazy at times and then learn from it. It's a part of all of it."
Senior A'ja Wilson is closing in on the top of the South Carolina all-time scoring list.
Her sophomore season, she was a starter and consensus first-team All-American, along with SEC player of the year, averaging 16.1 PPG and 8.7 RPG, with 103 blocks. The Gamecocks were upset by Syracuse in the NCAA Sweet 16, and lost their senior guard core, led by Tiffany Mitchell.
But transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis, plus then-freshman Tyasha Harris, helped make up the supporting cast around Wilson last year that led to the national championship. Wilson (17.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 90 blocks) was again a first-team All-American and SEC Player of the Year, and she added Final Four most outstanding player to her trophy case.
With Gray, Davis and Alaina Coates -- who missed the NCAA tournament with an ankle injury -- gone to the WNBA draft, Wilson was left as South Carolina's rock for 2017-18. She's averaging 22.7 points and 11.5 rebounds, both career bests, and with 86 blocks might end up passing her season high of 103.
She still gets upset when she thinks she's underperforming; a 4-of-18 night from the field for 14 points in a loss to UConn on Feb. 1 was one example. But Wilson takes something from every experience, and in that case, Staley implored her to ease up on herself.
"I told her, 'You took all the pressure on yourself, and it's too much to bear, especially against good basketball teams,' " Staley said. "She has to figure out better how to get her teammates to play with her more effectively in those moments."
For Wilson, being the focal point on the court and in the community just comes with the territory. She's an athletic star who is recognized when she goes to a store or restaurant in Columbia. And now on a team with many youngsters, she has to be the voice who says what needs to be said.
"When you're winning games and getting all the hype, it's a good feeling, but it's also been a whirl of emotions," Wilson said. "But I signed up for it, and I knew it was going to come.
"You're always happy that you can be that person who people can count on, and they listen to you. At the same time, when they look at you and you don't know what to say, you've got to think about it. It really keeps me on my toes."
But she stays grounded, thanks to her parents, Eva and Roscoe Wilson Jr., who've been alongside A'ja every step of the way. She has also had a close and communicative relationship with Staley.
"A'ja is completely honest with me, so she'll tell me when she's feeling pressure and when her world is 'crumbling,' in her mind," Staley said. "We talk about it. Other players may just take it on and release it at the wrong time. She has people around her -- myself, her parents -- where she can release these things. It can recalibrate her."