Dawn Staley Is Still Coaching A’ja Wilson

LAS VEGAS — The day still haunts A’ja Wilson.

She was competing with her University of South Carolina women’s basketball teammates in an intrasquad scrimmage, but Coach Dawn Staley didn’t think Wilson was playing with enough effort. Staley stopped the practice, told Wilson to stand on the sideline and replaced her.

As the scrimmage continued, Staley told Wilson that she was “blending in” — looking merely average on the court. Wilson’s team began losing and she begged the Gamecocks’ other coaches to talk Staley into putting her back on the court, but Staley never did. Wilson and her losing team had to run the length of the court multiple times after practice, with Wilson cursing and muttering in frustration the entire way.

“She looked like everybody else,” Staley said. “And A’ja Wilson? Like, come on now. I don’t care if we are in college. That’s not what we’re going to do. That’s not what I’m going to be a part of. I ain’t one of your friends that’s just going to let you fail and let you exist.”

Wilson shunned Staley for the next two days, not saying a word to her at practice or in meetings. Eventually, they made peace with some help from Wilson’s mother, whom Staley called for help during their brief silence. But even while Wilson was upset, she knew that Staley was right.

“She showed me that I can never be average,” Wilson said. “I can never blend. I should always stick out whenever someone’s watching a basketball game.”

That moment became a turning point for Wilson, who is now one of the best players in the W.N.B.A. at only 26 years old. She is in the W.N.B.A. finals with the Las Vegas Aces, who drafted her No. 1 overall in 2018. She has won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award twice, including this season, when she was also named the defensive player of the year. She has yet to win a championship, but the Aces were leading the Connecticut Sun, 1-0, in the best-of-five finals series heading into Game 2 on Tuesday.

Staley has been in her ear the whole time.

Wilson, left, became the best women’s basketball player in South Carolina history under Staley, right. They won a national championship together in 2017.Credit…Frank Franklin Ii/Associated Press

What began as a coach recruiting a top high school player has blossomed into Wilson claiming Staley as her “second mother” and Staley accepting that role with her version of tough love, which includes providing equal amounts of affection and rebuke.

“We have lots of laughs,” Staley said. “I’ve wiped tears. I’ve hugged on her. I’ve loved up on her. I’ve criticized her. We are just authentic, and it just organically happened.”

Wilson thinks about being pulled from that college scrimmage almost every day, she said. “Never blend” has become somewhat of a motto for her, and it was top of mind after a disappointing performance in the Aces’ loss in Game 1 of the semifinals against the Seattle Storm.

Wilson scored just 8 points on 3-of-10 shooting and was outplayed by the star Seattle forward Breanna Stewart, who scored 24 points.

“There’s no reason people should be like, ‘Oh, A’ja played today?’ I should be making myself known,” Wilson said.

She responded by averaging 30 points and 12.3 rebounds over the next three games of the series to help the Aces advance to the finals.

Wilson played all but 4 minutes 6 seconds of the 165 possible minutes during that series, a stat that, along with her response to Game 1, showed Staley how much Wilson had evolved since her time at South Carolina.

“She could have never done that in college,” Staley said while laughing. “I mean, she could’ve but wouldn’t have been as effective or great.”

Wilson is the best player in South Carolina women’s basketball history. She was the national player of the year as a senior, finishing first in points, blocked shots and free throws made in a career at South Carolina. In 2021, the college erected a statue of her outside of the basketball gym.

She seamlessly transitioned to the W.N.B.A., averaging 20.7 points per game in her first season, when she was unanimously selected for the Rookie of the Year Award.

But there are still times when Staley has to remind Wilson that she is blending in, most recently during halftime of Game 1 of the finals Sunday. On paper, Wilson wasn’t having a bad game; she scored 12 points in the first quarter, and despite a difficult second period, the Aces were losing by just 4 points. But when she got to the locker room, Wilson checked her phone and saw a message from Staley: “One rebound, seriously?”

Wilson had two rebounds, but she knew Staley’s underlying point was right. “So I had to go out there and get me more,” Wilson said while laughing. “Seriously because I’m like, ‘No, she’s not going to disrespect me like that.’” (Wilson finished with 11 rebounds and the win.)

Texts like those are normal from Staley, who has been Wilson’s biggest critic since her South Carolina days but says she’s also Wilson’s biggest “hype man.” Staley talks to Wilson at least once a week about basketball and strategy ahead of matchups.

“I tell her when she sucks, but I also tell her ‘ain’t nobody can stop you,’” Staley said. “She’s too agile. She’s too quick. She’s too strong. She can score baskets; her midrange is wet.” She added while laughing: “Her 3-ball is, you know, under construction, but it’s solid. There’s no reason she shouldn’t average a double-double.”

Wilson and Staley’s bond started when Wilson was a senior at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, S.C., just a few miles south of the University of South Carolina campus. Staley had been recruiting Wilson, then the No. 1 high school player in the country, and she used to call Wilson weekly — so much so that she had scheduled separate weekly calls with Wilson and another with her mother, Eva. So when Wilson arrived as a freshman at South Carolina, she and Staley already had a bond beyond basketball that intensified as they argued, lost big games and won South Carolina women’s basketball’s first national championship together.

Wilson and Staley reunited as (official) player and coach with the U.S. women’s national team during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.Credit…Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“I can talk to her without being politically correct,” Wilson said. “I can be me. Like, I can just be myself, and she’s helped me out a ton.”

Their relationship often spills onto social media, like when the two were on Instagram live last year, and Staley needled Wilson about her rebounding. “I’m just glad you rebounding the ball. You can’t even get to a double-double!” Staley said to Wilson and nearly 700 viewers. “I mean, you’re averaging like nine. How can you be short of a double-double with like nine rebounds? Who does that? Even that thing out!”

Or after the Aces defeated the Storm in the semifinals, and Staley told Wilson on Twitter that they would be going to a popular shopping mall in Las Vegas, seemingly implying that it would be her treat. But she apparently meant it would be Wilson’s.

“I love hard, and I show tough love,” Staley said. “I try to create a balance so that players like A’ja can get an understanding of how to go from good to great. If you want to be great, and you tell me that, I’m going to hold you up to that as best I can — and she knows that.”

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