September 19, 2020
A’ja Wilson, Bill Laimbeer react to a surprise MVP announcement
Wilson earns MVP honors in just her third season after leading Las Vegas to No. 1 overall seed
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited, and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives, and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues, and grows. Paid subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
Photo credit: Las Vegas Aces
The Aces kept the secret.
They managed to surprise A’ja Wilson as WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Aces players and staff convened on Thursday to hear the news. At just 24 in her third WNBA season, Wilson has been named the 2020 WNBA Most Valuable Player.
Wilson knew she would be sitting down in the players’ lounge for an interview on Thursday. Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer also told Wilson to expect a meeting after that. Then Engelbert showed up. It quickly became clear that the commissioner wasn’t just there for some run-of-the-mill debrief ahead of the start of the semifinals.
“[Engelbert] started just reading off my stats and I think that’s when it honestly hit me that it was going on,” Wilson told reporters on Thursday. “And I wish I could tell you the rest, but I couldn’t hear anything because I was bawling my eyes out. I’m just crying because I’m just honestly just so grateful for this moment. They really got me. I don’t honestly get surprised a lot, but they surprised me with that one.”
Laimbeer disclosed that the burden was on him to keep the secret on Thursday. It was a surprise to the entire team. Winner of three WNBA championships and multiple coach of the year honors, Laimbeer had never coached a player that went on to earn MVP honors in that same season. The longtime WNBA head coach spoke glowingly of Wilson’s individual effort to get the Aces to the top of the standings and earn this nod.
“It’s my first one,” he said. “I’ve had lots of great players, lots of All-Stars, but no one with the individual performance that carried a team like A’ja has this year. It’s great for her, it’s great for our players, it’s great for our franchise. It’s well deserved. She’s grown up. Every year you see more and more of her ability and more of just who she is as a person and as a basketball player. And there’s still more there. She knows it, and we all know it as teammates and coaches. It’s going to happen. She’s one of those players. I think today it was a very well-kept secret. I didn’t tell my assistants; I didn’t tell our COO. Only three people knew.”
Wilson led the Aces to an 18-4 record and the No. 1 overall seed heading into the playoffs. As a top-two seed, Las Vegas earned a double-bye into the semifinals. As a result, the Aces got six days to rest and prepare and avoid single-elimination play altogether. In particular, Wilson noted how proud she was to have led the Aces to this point. The Aces were not a very popular preseason pick to nab a top-two spot or win the title without starting point guard Kelsey Plum (Achilles) and All-WNBA center Liz Cambage (medical exemption).
“I think the biggest thing was just the feeling of being counted out,” Wilson said. “I was the underdog coming into the season; we were the underdog coming into the season. And just for us to play the way that we’ve been playing and to prove a lot of people wrong, which is something that’s not like a, ‘We did it!’ because our job’s not done. But it was just a moment where it’s like, wow, you’ve changed people’s outlook…It was just a special moment that I was just glad that I could share with everyone around me.”
Laimbeer stepped in to share that he was especially proud of Wilson to have earned this honor because he specifically directed the social media and marketing teams not to outwardly promote Wilson for the award at all during the season. “I don’t believe in it,” he said. “I think the body of work that the player or the team does in a given year is what sells, not a marketing campaign. I’m very proud of her for winning this on her own merits.”
Once the 2020 season officially began at IMG Academy, each team surely heard plenty about who wasn’t there due to opt-outs and injuries. In addition to playing without two high-impact players in Cambage and Plum, the Aces were severely limited in their short training camp due to a few minor injuries and several players joining late. Both Laimbeer and Wilson’s teammates have made it clear that she sets their pace, and Laimbeer highlighted on Thursday how much he feels she has grown as a leader for the franchise.
“When she first got here, it was unclear what her path held as far as leading a team,” he said. “Last year, she went through a lot of emotional struggles with it. It affected her play. But this year, she came with that mindset of, ‘Okay, this is my basketball team. I have a responsibility.’ And she will tell you today and any day you listen to her now that she understands what being a professional basketball player is, especially in this environment we’re in.
“And she will only get better. She will work on her game every year; she’ll improve every part of her game because there’s more to do. She wants to win. She wants to win championships, and she wants to win a lot of championships. My job is to surround her with players that can do that. But she has become the leader that I saw in her from the start, and I’m very proud of it,” Laimbeer said.
Wilson elaborated on how she feels she has grown into that leadership role with the Aces to have accomplished such a feat in the regular season while setting her team up to be successful in the postseason.
“I think it’s just knowing not only that my team needs me, but every time. I think that’s the biggest thing, kind of not getting caught up in ‘Okay, I did this.’ No. They need me every possession, every time, and I have to be there no matter what. And I think that’s something that I had to learn.”
Wilson shared a moment on the phone with her parents shortly after the surprise announcement with the trophy in hand. The league also announced Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve and Crystal Dangerfield and Coach of the Year and Rookie of the Year, respectively. The rest of the league’s official awards honorees have yet to be announced.
Wilson and the Aces learned after Thursday’s second-round games that Connecticut, the lowest remaining seed, will be their opponent in the semifinals. Both best-of-five series begins on Sunday. Both series are scheduled to follow an every-other-day format, save for one extra day before Game 4s (if necessary) on September 27.