If the only storyline you know heading into the medal round of the women’s Olympic basketball tournament is that Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are attempting to win a fifth gold medal, you are missing out.
Because the biggest storyline of these Games so far is 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson. The key to Wilson’s success may lie in part with the mentorship of U.S. head coach Dawn Staley.
Staley – who is also the longtime coach at South Carolina – made Wilson – who grew up in nearby Hopkins – her recruiting mission in 2014. Staley believed team success would rely on her ability to recruit homegrown players.
Wilson’s debut at South Carolina was far from expected, but it was just what Staley and Wilson needed. In her first game, the top prospect recorded only four points and coughed up three turnovers while shooting 2-for-7. Staley made a decision that solidified their bond. She pulled her star recruit from the starting lineup.
“From that moment, we’ve been like this, no matter what,” Wilson told Forbes while interlocking two fingers. “I was 17 years old. For me, I had to kind of bite the bullet and say, ‘She knows what’s best, this is the reason I came to South Carolina,’ and go from there.”
Just gonna leave this here 😂 pic.twitter.com/FjpZl1sWLz
— A'ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) July 19, 2021
It’s that trust that made Wilson believe Staley when she told her young post player to reject the ‘gold or bust’ mentality in her first Olympic Games. Instead, the three-time Olympic gold medalist told Wilson to stay in the moment.
“She would just say, ‘Stay in the moment,’” Wilson said. “‘Don’t let it escape you because you’re so worked up or you’re so ready to play. Just enjoy it,’” Wilson said as reported by The Athletic.
“I think what she has going against her is that this is her first Olympic Games, and she can’t treat it that way,” Staley said to the media on July 26.
Staley reminded her young star to be herself. She empowered her to be the same A’ja Wilson that carried South Carolina to the 2017 NCAA National Championship. To be the same A’ja Wilson who led the Las Vegas Aces to back-to-back WNBA Finals and won the 2020 season MVP award. And Wilson has done just that.
Four games into the Olympic tournament, Wilson is leading the team in points per game (17.8) and is tied with 2020 WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart in player efficiency (23.8). She trails only Stewart in rebounds per game.
The efficiency hasn’t come easy. Wilson has been open about her struggle with mental health, as well as her family’s importance to her success. The 2018 first overall draft pick chose to play for her hometown college South Carolina instead of Connecticut, North Carolina, or Tennessee. In her fourth WNBA season, she has never chased big money by playing overseas in the winter offseason.
So, how is Wilson coping with being nearly 7,000 miles away from home without her family in the stands due to COVID limitations in Tokyo? She calls on her inner circle, literally.
“I lean on my crew, my family the most,” Wilson told the media on July 29. “My parents are like, ‘Call us! We don’t care if it’s 3:00 am,’ I need that. Those little things there help me separate and understand … everything’s okay, I can get through this.”
Wilson is doing more than surviving, she is thriving.
She is the fourth leading scorer in the entire Olympic tournament, per FIBA. She is tied with three other WNBA players – Emma Messeeman (BEL, Washington Mystics), Astou Ndor (ESP, Chicago Sky), Las Vegas Aces teammate Park Ji Su (KOR) – for first in tournament double-doubles.
Apart from medals or records, Wilson relishes her chance to play under Staley again and hopes she’s given the opportunity to “catch up with her in gold medals.”
“She has done things that I dream of doing, and to see how far she’s come with USA Basketball and just shattering that glass ceiling is something that I’m going to always be inspired by,’ Wilson told The Athletic in February.
Wilson and the U.S. women’s national team continue their quest for gold Friday, August 6 against Serbia. You can stream the game here!
Follow Erica L. Ayala on Twitter @Elindsay08
During the Olympics, you can also catch up on all of the major storylines in women’s sports by watching “On Her Turf @ The Olympics,” a 30-minute show that will stream for free on Peacock. Hosted by Lindsay Czarniak, MJ Acosta-Ruiz, and Lolo Jones, the show kicks off on Saturday, July 24, and will stream every day of the Games (Monday-Saturday at 7pm ET and Sundays at 6pm ET).