Freshman A’ja Wilson is a double-edged sword when it comes to her impact on the women’s college basketball landscape.
When she chose to remain in Columbia to attend the University of South Carolina in April, she bolstered the Gamecocks’ recruiting class to No. 2 in the nation.
She also chose South Carolina over the likes of traditional powerhouses Connecticut, Tennessee and North Carolina, showing that the Gamecocks, ranked No. 2 in the country, have closed the gap that once stood between them and the nation’s elite.
Expectations are high for the nation’s No. 1 recruit. As a senior at Heathwood Hall, the 6-foot-5 Wilson averaged 34.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and five blocks per contest en route to winning the Class AAA state title.
Head coach Dawn Staley is excited about the talent Wilson possesses but acknowledges it is unrealistic to expect similar numbers at the collegiate level.
“I think a lot of people are putting a little pressure on her to do what she did at Heathwood Hall,” Staley said. “I think she’s got a little bit more help [at South Carolina] than she had [in high school].”
Wilson, who started at the small forward position in the team’s exhibition against Coker, has the ability to play all five positions on the floor. Though Staley said it isn't ideal for Wilson to defend another team’s guards, Wilson’s versatility gives Staley a lot of flexibility when sampling lineups.
As for the program, Staley’s signing of Wilson seems to have solidified South Carolina as the premier destination for recruits who hail from the Palmetto State. Staley did not have a South Carolina recruit at her disposal in her first two seasons before signing Aleigsha Welch in 2011.
Wilson acknowledged the impact her Hall of Fame coach has had on the rise of the Gamecocks’ program, adding that Staley helped make Columbia feel like the best fit.
“It is tough keeping people home because everyone wants to have that college where it’s like ‘I want to get away from home,’ but really here has been just great for me,” Wilson said. “I live 25 minutes away, and I still feel like I’m in that college feeling.”
At the Women’s Basketball Media Day in mid-October, a flurry of reporters surrounded the Hopkins, South Carolina native that had yet to play a minute for the Gamecocks at the time.
That day was just a sample of the coverage Wilson figures to receive throughout her freshman year and beyond. While most first-year players might be nervous from the hype, Staley said she has no worries about Wilson’s ability to block out the attention.
“She’s taking it all in, and it couldn’t happen to someone who’s more even-keeled,” Staley said. “She’s not egotistical, she handles things well, but I think at times it’s a little tiresome for people to put pressure on her to have performances like she did at Heathwood.”
With the season set to begin Saturday, the focus now shifts to Wilson’s impending contributions on the hardwood. Above all else, it is understood that the primary reason the Naismith National High School Player of the Year came to South Carolina was to win a national championship.
Although Wilson says the on-the-court product was the main factor in her decision, her “there’s no place like home” mantra didn’t hurt either.
“It wasn’t really a huge impact on my decision, honestly,” Wilson said. “I was kind of looking at the support system, but of course, having girls here with home around the South Carolina area is great.”