August 9, 2021 

Passing the torch: What A’ja Wilson’s Olympic debut means for the future of women’s basketball

Wilson's cool and consistent competitiveness provides edge for Team USA

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A’ja Wilson dribbling past Japan’s Monica Okoye. Photo via USA Basketball.

A’ja Wilson is taking an extra special 25th birthday present back to the States from Tokyo: an Olympic gold medal.

There’s no shortage of accomplishments Wilson has achieved over her career — high school champion, top overall recruit, freshman of the year, conference player of the year, national champion, national player of the year, top overall draft pick, rookie of the year, MVP, her own statue and now she’s a decorated Olympian. Just about the only thing missing is a WNBA championship, which her eyes will be set on upon her return to Las Vegas.

This most recent feat, helping lead Team USA to its seventh consecutive gold medal, encapsulates everything that makes Wilson’s game special — the drive, hustle, hunger and selflessness, and yes even the goofiness. Especially the goofiness.

But even with all the success Wilson has experienced so far in her young career, putting on that USA uniform is no simple task.

It comes with an enormous amount of pressure and an expectation of the utmost excellence on the court. As a first-time Olympian, Wilson rose to the occasion.

When the U.S. seemed slow to start early on in the tournament, Wilson stepped up — locking in double-doubles in her first two Olympic games and dominating the fourth quarter of the third game to push the undefeated red, white and blue past the group stage.

And she didn’t stop there. Wilson put up 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists, in addition to swatting away five blocked shots (a U.S Olympic women’s single-game record) in Saturday’s gold medal game.

“USA has a standard, not just on the court, but off the court as well. The way we carry ourselves is something that goes into how we play,” Wilson said after the game. “I think it just lays the foundation down for the young kids like me. I would sit in the locker room like, ‘They really did this five times?’ … It makes you want to come back and continue to give and to continue to build for the next generation. I don’t know if I have five in me, but we’ll see.”

Between Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles and other veterans, Wilson had plenty of talent and experience around her to soak up during the Games. She’s also played for USAB alongside Breanna Stewart before, whose versatility and sharp-shooting complements Wilson’s aggressive presence in the paint quite nicely.

Not to mention her reunion with head coach Dawn Staley, the first Black woman to be named a U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball head coach. As it turns out, Staley’s first run as head coach will also be her last with USAB, she announced after the game Saturday.

Staley and Wilson’s track record of excellence goes way back, winning a 2017 NCAA title, the 2018 FIBA World Cup and now the 2020 Olympic gold medal. Over the years, they’ve formed a special relationship, and Wilson even calls Staley her second mother.

Her familiarity with Staley and the confidence that the renowned coach has in Wilson surely helped her feel comfortable at her first Games and allowed her to play with confidence. For Wilson, this tandem win with her coach isn’t just another award to add to the trophy room.

“It means the world,” Wilson said of playing for Staley again. “I remember when she got that head coaching job at South Carolina, and I didn’t even think I could be a part of that team, so now to be a part of it and share this with her, to let her wear my gold medal, it’s something that’s so special. I’m happy for her, I tried to do my best for her this whole tournament.”

A’ja Wilson and Las Vegas Aces teammate Chelsea Gray celebrating their gold medal victory. Photo via USA Basketball.

Wilson’s success in her Olympic debut is just another sign that the future of women’s basketball is still as bright as ever. The Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi era may be ending, but a new one is just beginning. And it’s headed by selfless young players with a hunger to win and bring gold back to the U.S.

Players like Brittney Griner, who scored a record 30 points in the gold medal game (second-most in Olympic history), and Stewart, who boasted 14 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. This deadly trio is likely to fill Bird and Taurasi’s shoes as leaders of USA Women’s Basketball come Paris 2024.

“Our players really understand the pecking order of USA Basketball — the older ones lead and the younger ones follow and take notes,” Staley said after the game. “I know the start of this winning occurred before them, but they finished it off. They took the torch and they took it to another level … Our sustained success occurs because of the sacrifice of our players.”

The players come in, not just knowing their role, but understanding how they can best fill it in order to get to that coveted gold medal game. They’re able to set everything aside and focus on winning. Griner says that’s the character of USA Basketball, and that the key to their success is selflessness.

Under new leadership from Wilson, Griner and Stewart, USAB will continue to thrive for years to come. But first, Wilson returns to the Las Vegas Aces with fellow Olympian Chelsea Gray seeking one more achievement to add to her already lengthy resume: a WNBA championship.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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