July 8, 2024 

How A’ja Wilson has lifted the Aces as she becomes their all-time leading scorer

‘She’s the greatest player to put on the uniform, period, as she would say,’ Becky Hammon said of Wilson

In the world of sports, we don’t always take the time to recognize someone’s greatness in the moment. Usually, we wait until after that person is done playing to look back and remember how great they were. However, the recognition for what A’ja Wilson is doing, both this season and in her career so far, was put in the spotlight Sunday afternoon when she became the Las Vegas Aces’ franchise all-time leading scorer during a 104-85 win over the Dallas Wings. Wilson has done so much for the Aces’ franchise, and this milestone only adds to her illustrious career.

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“A young girl, literally from South Carolina, that didn’t know anything about the West Coast, comes down here and kind of shifts things,” Wilson said. “It’s so special and I’m so grateful to have like K[elsey] P[lum] that was before me to now. Then we get Jack[ie Young] and then we get different pieces. When we’re talking about culture and bringing people in, I’m so happy that we have an ownership and a coaching staff that’s willing to bring me in to and be like ‘What are your thoughts?’

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“That is what I take a lot of pride in, because I’m like they trust me to guide our locker room to the promised land. … It really is bigger than me, but to say that we started a culture and an era in Las Vegas and it started with a draft pick of a young girl from South Carolina, it’s something that never gets old.”

Wilson was born in Columbia, South Carolina. She grew up down the street from the University of South Carolina, so it was a no brainer for the 2014 No. 1 recruit in the country to commit to stay at home and play for the Gamecocks. During her time at South Carolina, Wilson became the school’s all-time leading scorer and led the Gamecocks to a national championship.

A’ja Wilson goes to high-five Las Vegas Aces teammate Jackie Young
A’ja Wilson goes to high-five teammate Jackie Young in the Aces’ road win in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra | The Next)

For Wilson, the opportunity to play at South Carolina was bigger than just basketball. Wilson has said many times that her own grandmother couldn’t even walk on the school’s campus when she was her age, that she was forced to walk around the university in her own hometown. Now, that Wilson has a statue of herself in front of the Colonial Life Arena on South Carolina’s campus is a full-circle moment for her. She used her time at South Carolina to make herself an easy choice for the No. 1 WNBA draft pick in 2018, and the Aces took a chance on her, leading to another full-circle moment.

“This city welcomed me in 2018 and a new franchise and a new everything,” Wilson said. “They took a chance on a kid. [Former head coach] Bill Laimbeer took a chance on me, and was like ‘Hey, this is you. This is your team, do what you want to do with it.’ He stuck by me through and through, every single time, ever single year. …Then when you have someone like Becky come in that’s like ‘OK, I’m about to add some razzle-dazzle to the culture.’ It makes it a full-circle moment for me so I never would have thought I would even be, obviously I would be [leading] in some points, but to lead [the whole organization], no, absolutely not. I’m so grateful to be here.”

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The growth of Wilson in the WNBA happened quickly in front of fans’ eyes. She won Rookie of the Year award in 2018 after averaging 20.7 points and eight rebounds. It was the second-most points averaged by a rookie in their debut season in league history. She’s since been named an All-Star every year there has been a game during her career.

What many say makes Wilson great is that she never stops trying to get better. Chelsea Gray said she has added something new to her game every single year, and it has shown. She used to be able to go only left, and now she’s deadly attacking both ways. Then, people were allowing her to shoot, and she has since become one of the best midrange shooters in the game. Now people challenge her to shoot 3s. That’s coming along as well, as she shoot 3-for-4 from beyond the arc Sunday afternoon.

A’ja Wilson shoots over defenders
A’ja Wilson shoots over defenders in the Aces’ matchup with the Mystics on June 29, 2024. (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra | The Next)

The growth of Wilson’s game has come with a lot of recognition and honors. She was named MVP during the 2020 season, when the whole league was down in Orlando playing in the ‘Wubble’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilson won MVP in her first season with a rookie head coach in Becky Hammon. She has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, something she says she never thought would have happened back when she was in college. She’s garnered so much recognition in her career, but her relationships with her teammates are what have allowed for her biggest success. 

“Coming here to Vegas, she was like, ‘Come on. We’re doing something special here,” Gray said of Wilson. “I appreciate her having that conversation with me a few years ago and actually coming to Vegas. It’s changed the trajectory of my career, winning at a high level and gave me championships, so I’m appreciative of that and being able to play with a superstar like that. Breaking this record, you can’t take that lightly. Records are meant to be broken, but they’re really hard to break, and I hope she just takes in this moment. … I’m just really proud in the way that she’s doing it, the person that she is and the teammate that she is. She deserves it, and so I’m really, really happy for her.”

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Wilson is now in her seventh season in the WNBA. With a free throw made at the 4:14 mark of the fourth quarter Sunday, she passed Sophia Young-Malcolm as the Aces’ franchise all-time leader in scoring. Young-Malcolm had scored 4,300 points in nine seasons in a San Antonio Silver Stars uniform, from 2006 to 2015. She was a three-time All-Star and four-time all WNBA team performer. She is considered one of the top three players in Aces franchise history.

The best part of Sunday afternoon was that it was alumni day at Michelob Ultra Arena, and Young-Malcolm was in attendance to watch Wilson pass her as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. The two met at center court after the game and embraced. Young-Malcolm was a very good player, but Wilson has done things in seven years with the franchise that were unheard of before she arrived.

“A’ja has brought world championships to the franchise and is the best player the WNBA has ever seen,” Aces alumna and current chief business development officer Jennifer Azzi told The Next. “A class act on and off the court.” 

The Aces franchise was one of the original eight founded in 1996, the year Wilson was born. Back then they were the Utah Starzz. Then, in 2003, they moved to San Antonio and became the San Antonio Silver Stars. Finally, in 2017 they moved for a third time, to Las Vegas and became the Aces. They added rookie A’ja Wilson.

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In the first 24 years of the franchise, the Aces had never had a Rookie of the Year. Wilson earned the honor in 2018. They’d never had an MVP. Wilson did that in 2020. They’d never had a Defensive Player of the Year. Wilson did that in 2022. They’d been to one WNBA Finals in 2008 as the Silver Stars but got swept by the Detroit Shock. Wilson took care of that, helping to lead the Aces to their first championship in franchise history in 2022 and, just for good measure, added another one in 2023.

“She’s the greatest player to put on the uniform, period, as she would say,” Hammon said of her superstar. “Her dominance, I mean, you could probably make an argument for both ends of the floor. I mean, just the greatest player to ever put on a Stars or Aces uniform. It’s not just what she’s doing for our franchise. It’s how she moves the needle across the world. She’s a special person, special player, so enjoy it because she’s a rarity. Players like her, people like her, don’t come around very often. So, you go back 27, 28 years, she’s the best player ever put that uniform on.”

Aces star A’ja Wilson claps on the court
A’ja Wilson celebrates a big play in the Aces’ road victory over the Mystics. (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra | The Next)

Wilson is now the Aces’ all all-time leader in both points and rebounds. She has done all this while playing 2,255 fewer minutes than Young-Malcolm did in her entire career. Wilson is currently on pace to set career highs in multiple categories, including points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. She is also on pace to set the record for most points averaged in a WNBA season.

“That means a lot. It it really does, but then I have to always give it to the ones that laid the foundation down before me,” Wilson said of playing in front of the franchise’s alumni. “The ones that grinded it out, the ones that had to do extra just to get seen a little bit to now we’re playing on national television and charter flights and everything else. I mean, it’s a huge deal for me and it’s something I don’t take for granted, but I’m never gonna lose sight of the women that literally had to teeth and claw and crawl their way up to just to get a foot in the door. As Black women, as women in general, just get a foot in the door to now that I can sit here and say no, we’re [going to] continue to pay [it forward]. Thank you for passing that torch. We’re gonna keep passing it.”

After the game, Wilson celebrated and was drenched in water by her teammates. But in the postgame press conference, Wilson remained herself. She was grateful for the moment but understood the bigger picture. She was still smiling and laughing with her head coach and teammates. Wilson happily showed off her new Louis Vuitton bag and let everyone know she had to run home to let dogs out before they tore up her house. She is the same person all the time, whether she is trying to win a basketball game, talking to the media or spending time with her loved ones. She is always A’ja Wilson.

After passing Young-Malcolm, Wilson now ranks 39th in WNBA history in points scored. She has a long way to go to catch Diana Taurasi in first place. However, that doesn’t matter to Wilson; in fact, she couldn’t care less. For her, it’s about winning and doing whatever she can to help her teammates get another championship. She knows her team’s defense still needs work and is more focused on that than the milestone she eclipsed on Sunday afternoon. However, becoming the Aces’ all-time leading scorer only helps to solidify her as the best player to don an Aces uniform and only helps to grow the 27-year-old’s case as a future Hall of Famer.

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.

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