A'ja Wilson grows her game and brand in 2018


Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson said she has been taking notes, which is good. Someday she'll want to reflect on 2018, a magical but extremely busy year for her.
"My life has been that hectic and that fast," she said. "I haven't processed it yet. I'm taking it all in the moment. But I'm writing everything down. I've been kept on my toes 24/7, but that's all a part of it. This is the life that I was blessed to have."
Wilson is in China, where she'll continue her professional career after a WNBA Rookie of the Year season with the Aces. That was followed by winning a gold medal in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup with a U.S. team led by her former South Carolina coach, Dawn Staley.
"She's done so much for USA Basketball and women's basketball as a whole," Wilson said. "To see her as head coach of this team is something huge. I was glad to be a part of it and celebrate with her."
Wilson is also expanding her endorsement portfolio, as she is joining Mountain Dew Ice's team of NBA players and becomes the first WNBA player to represent the soft drink. Wilson is excited about the opportunity because she feels it's an ad campaign that focuses on the person she is off court along with her athletic prowess.
"They understand my personality, who I am, and they can just have a lot of fun with it," Wilson said. "Me being the first WNBA player with Dew is also special. I'm trying to use my voice to bring people together. And to help us all get an understanding that we're all out here doing things we love, but at the same time, we are part of something bigger than basketball."
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Wilson's outgoing nature and connection with her fan base has expanded from her college supporters in South Carolina all the way across the country to Las Vegas this year. But she said she was pleasantly surprised by -- and grateful for -- the number of Gamecock supporters who became Aces fans.
"My South Carolina fans can't see me the way they used to, so I kind of thought I would get a drop-off," Wilson said. "But it turns out, people are actually starting to follow [the WNBA] a lot more."
That desired connection between college fan bases and WNBA teams is a part of the league's growth process that hasn't always been robust. So Wilson doesn't take it for granted.
Her alma mater will be starting a new era without her this fall, which will be a challenging but interesting time for the Gamecocks. Wilson was a three-time SEC player of the year and led South Carolina to the SEC tournament title all four of her seasons. And, of course, she and the Gamecocks reached the pinnacle in 2017 with a national championship.
South Carolina lost in the Elite Eight to UConn in March, ending Wilson's college career. She was the consensus national player of the year and then the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick. She made the All-Star team and averaged 20.7 points and 8.0 rebounds, statistically one of the best WNBA rookie seasons in history.
"Coach Staley really prepped me so things weren't a shock," Wilson said of her adjustment to the physicality and style of play in the WNBA. "I didn't feel like I hit a rookie wall to where things weren't going my way. I would figure out what the problem was, and you can fix problems.
"But I think the best is yet to come. I still have a lot to learn, and that's what I'm most excited about. It's a lot of fun being on such a young team."
The Aces as a group had several members, including Wilson, who were willing to speak publically about different issues that WNBA players face. The Aces opted to not play an Aug. 4 game against the Washington Mystics after more than 24 hours of travel issues, a decision that resulted in a forfeit, because of the difficult travel and lack of rest proceeding it. The Aces said they took that stand not just for themselves, but for WNBA players as a whole.
Wilson at times was criticized on Twitter by people who didn't seem to understand the points she was trying to make about league salaries and travel issues. Still, she said she usually tries to engage even with critics.
"Growing up, my parents embedded in my head, 'Don't think you have to hold your tongue just because of what people may say or think,'" Wilson said. "You could ask any of my closest friends -- they know I'm going to speak what's on my mind."
And she has felt support from NBA players, which is another reason she's appreciative of her partnership with Dew. The company also sponsors NBA stars such as Russell Westbrook and four of the top 10 players taken in the 2018 NBA draft: Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr., Collin Sexton and Kevin Knox.
"People sometimes see the guys having our backs and coming to our games," Wilson said, "and they may think, 'Oh, they're probably just doing that because they have to.' But in reality, we have friendships with these guys, and we're in this together. This is real. We know where we're coming from and have an understanding of things that need to be done in both of our leagues."