August 15, 2022
How A’ja Wilson has put together another MVP-worthy campaign
The 2020 WNBA MVP has put together another incredible season deserving of multiple awards but she only wants one thing: a championship ring
The 2022 WNBA season has been the longest in league history. Every team has played 36 games, with many players playing in every single one. It’s challenging to be consistent over half a season, let alone a whole season. However, this season, A’ja Wilson has not only been consistent but dominant through all 36 games. That is why she is in the discussion for MVP and DPOY.
“[The biggest difference this year has been] my mental toughness. I feel like I’m really locked in this season more than ever. I really honed in on that, especially coming off of the season that we had last year,” Wilson told The Next. “I wanted to make sure that I was mentally present for my teammates at all costs. I knew physically I was gonna be good… but mentally, I’m coming in and I’m making sure that I don’t take any plays off.”
Wilson has been putting up gaudy numbers all season long. She has scored in double figures in all but two games this year. Wilson also scored at least 20 points in 56% of her games this year. In addition, she is averaging career-highs in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, rebounds, steals and blocks. Wilson has been able to put up these outstanding numbers through her ability to get to where she wants to be on the floor.
“Just getting to my spots, determination; I think that’s the biggest thing is I was sometimes settl[ing], but this year, I think if I really looked at my game and how it’s changed, I don’t settle, and I go after it. I get it,” said Wilson.
Wilson has been scoring with ease this year, but it’s not all coming from one area. She expanded her offensive arsenal from when she first came into the league. She has been driving to the basket, shooting the midrange and added a three-point shot on top of everything else this year. Her three-point shot has been very good for someone who had only ever attempted two in her WNBA career before this season. She has made 31 threes this year and her shot has forced teams to guard her out on the perimeter, making her even more dangerous.
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Not only has Wilson been outstanding on offense, but her defense has been on another level. She leads the league in blocked shots and is top-10 in steals and fourth in defensive win shares. She has been the anchor of the Las Vegas defense. While the Aces’ defense has had up and down moments throughout the season, Wilson has remained the steady force in the middle.
“I think it’s the way our defense is set up, and so was able to showcase [Wilson’s] abilities a little bit more.,” Dearica Hamby told The Next. “Everything’s always been team defense, but I think our defensive scheme this year is really emphasized on being a team and help. Her on-ball defense may be not getting as much recognition, but she’s always on the help side.”
For Wilson, she has always been a good defender, but this year she has started to get recognition for her play on the defensive side of the ball. She feels that she can see what’s going on around her a lot easier than she has in the past, which is reflected in her game. She is all over the floor, helping her teammates, contesting perimeter shots, jumping in passing lanes and protecting the rim.
“I’m becoming more aware of what’s going on around me,” said Wilson. “I think in college, I was just so single-minded that I just couldn’t wave it. But now I’m paying attention and trying to make sure that I’m on both sides of [the] basketball because I know my teammates need me.”
“This is gonna sound really corny, but just her alertness as to what’s going on,” said Las Vegas head coach Becky Hammon of Wilson’s defense. “Seeing everything come at her and being able to anchor, pass people out quickly on mismatches and then just the overall effort, attention to detail that she’s put in.”
While Wilson’s play on the court has been so crucial to the Aces’ success this year, her biggest contribution to the team has been her leadership. She has been the team’s vocal, emotional and physical anchor all season long. She is the star of this Aces’ team, but she doesn’t let it go to her head. She is very humble, wants to see her teammates succeed more than have her own success and only cares about one thing: winning games.
“I’d say just her leadership. People in the past and even this year have talked about our lack of leadership, and A’ja’s one of those players for me; you want to play hard because you’re playing with her,” said Hamby. “She busts her ass every possession and she just does what she does and carrying a team and for me, I want to play hard for her and I think there’s a sense of urgency for a lot of people.”
One of the biggest differences for Wilson this season was her decision not to play overseas in the offseason. She knows the wear and tear playing year-round puts on players’ bodies and didn’t want to put herself in that situation. So instead, she spent her offseason working on herself, her game and spending time with her family and friends. She feels the time off allowed her to create a more balanced life and it helped prepare her for this strong season.
“I think the biggest benefit is I get some time to rest. I get some time to decompress, and I get my own schedule. I get to do whatever I want whenever I want to and just put in the work,” said Wilson. “I guess the downside is that I’m not playing like others. People come into training camp and play in shape and everything, but not me. But I’m okay with that. I feel like I can pick up that space in between throughout the regular season. So I love it. I’m gonna continue to do it this year.”
Wilson also understands how important it is for athletes these days to find a balance between focusing on their sport and taking time away. She sees taking days off and finding time for a mental break as incredibly important. She always talks about how much she misses her dogs when the team is on the road and how much they help her unwind. Wilson knows spending time away from the game can be just as beneficial as time spent on the court or in the film room.
“It takes a lot of your mental capacity if you’re constantly thinking about the game and you’re constantly saying, ‘Okay, what can I do? What can I do?’” said Wilson. “It’s draining overtime, and I felt myself getting really drained mentally because I was like, ‘I got to play better.’ I understood that I had to take off days where I don’t talk basketball with anyone. I can call my parents. I call my best friends who are completely distant from the game because I need that outlet. It was a blessing for me and I came out refreshed.”
Wilson has been in a battle down the stretch of this season with Breanna Stewart for both the MVP and DPOY awards. In the final game of the regular season on Sunday afternoon, they met, and Wilson won the matchup. Not only did the Aces win the game, but Wilson outscored Stewart and had an impressive block against her to help seal the game. If you ask any of Wilson’s teammates, she deserves the awards.
“I think the numbers are there… she’s still the anchor of this team.” said Hamby on if Wilson should be MVP. “Obviously, what she’s done percentage-wise is incredible. This team is having a lot of success and she’s a big, big portion, if not the biggest portion.”
“She’s been solid all year long,“ added Chelsea Gray. “Whenever we went through those lows, she stayed the same. And I think that’s what an MVP does. She has the stats and everything. She leads in categories, but I think her willingness to be that leader and not go up and down. She’s doing it all and knows we need her to do it all. She does it night-in and night-out, not a night off.”
For Wilson, none of what she’s done this season is new. She has dominated since she first stepped into the WNBA, but she has remained that happy-go-lucky person who enjoys life and wants to put a smile on everybody’s face. She understands that basketball is her job and wants to put on a show for every fan who comes to see her play. However, for Wilson, she could care less about the individual accolades. She only cares about one thing: a championship ring.
“It is the only driving force for me; at the end of the day, that is what I’m here to do,” said Wilson. “I’m here to entertain, I’m here to have fun. I’m here to just play with my teammates and play the game that I love, but that solidifies it with the ring. That’s something that people can’t take away from me. And I love that feeling to know that a lot of people said I couldn’t have done it, but I got it. The ring is really a big deal to me.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.