A’ja Wilson Talks Aces, Olympics, Dawn Staley, And How She Is Trying To Get Better After An MVP Season

A’ja Wilson has been a star for a long time, but 2020 saw her put an official stamp on that with an MVP-winning season in the WNBA Bubble while leading the Aces to a Finals appearance for the first time in Vegas’ brief history.

This yeah, she’s followed her MVP campaign up with another tremendous first half, averaging 19.4 points, nine rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game. The Aces are, once again, one of the WNBA’s top title contenders. In the immediate, Wilson’s focus is shifting to USA Basketball’s quest for a seventh straight gold medal for the women, as she gets a chance to play for her college coach, Dawn Staley, once again. Wilson can’t wait for that and just wants to hug Staley the moment she can, but the long goal remains the same in Vegas, which is to “chip away” until they win a title.

Dime got the chance to talk with the reigning MVP on Monday afternoon on behalf of Mountain Dew, who she’s partnered with on a new merch collection. We talked about being an Olympian, playing for Staley, what Chelsea Gray’s addition has brought the Aces, lessons learned from their Finals run, and how she’s still focused on improving her game even coming off an MVP campaign. Oh, and we also discussed how cool it is to just be able to put a real statue of yourself on some merch.

I know you’ve been working with Dew for a few years now, but how did this merch collab come about and the hoodie design and all of that?

Yeah, it’s crazy because when I first signed with Mountain Dew, I loved the way that they really focused on us athletes off the court. Like, what we really love and things that people may not see, so when it came to this new merch and the gear, I really tapped into the culture of who I am. I could greatly appreciate it like, starting with the hoodie, it has all my [accomplishments] and the biggest accomplishment of them all, which is the statue, of course, and it’s pretty cool to see that come to life. And then I just recently started adding like do rags to my tunnel fits and everything, so it was pretty cool to see the Dew do-rag, really kind of add a little A’ja Wilson twist to it. Because my fan base is just incredible and they love anything having to do with me, so it’s pretty cool to like, have Mountain Dew bring that to life. I hopped on a call with them and we dissect some things about where I wanted to go, and then you got the merch so it’s pretty it’s exciting. It’s dope.

I mean it’s pretty boss to be able to just throw a statue of yourself on something, right? Like that’s got to be a cool thing to just be able to do.

Yeah, it’s lowkey a flex, kinda. I’m not gonna lie.

You know, light work.

Right [laughs].

Absolutely. A lil home game for you right now with with camp in Vegas, you get to be at home, which I have to assume is nice for you. What are you looking forward to the most with this being your first Olympic experience and what does it mean for you to be headed off to Tokyo here soon?

Yeah, I mean I’m super excited. Like I don’t even think it honestly hit me that I’m an Olympian just yet. It still sounds sounds weird with me even saying it, but I’m just super excited just to be a part of it, of the USAB family. And like you said, to have training camp here in Vegas, it kind of makes it that much better because my family can come visit me as I’m getting ready for Tokyo. So, I mean, this is the moment you dreamed of. As an athlete, you want to be at the highest levels so I’m excited, I have no idea what to expect, but it’s pretty cool to be playing underneath my college coach again, Coach Staley, so it should be some fun.

Yeah I wanted to ask about that. Obviously y’all had so much success at South Carolina and now you get to go and have this experience. I know she’s been coaching for World Cup and stuff but the Olympics is just a different level, and what does that mean to you to be able to share this with her?

Oh, it means the world to me, honestly, because I remember when she first got the job of being the head coach, I was still in college — I think maybe even a sophomore — and I was like crying because I was just so happy for her. And I didn’t even think that I could actually be a part of that roster, because 2020 at the time sounded like so far away. So it’s pretty cool to now finally be like, oh my gosh, like we’re literally back at it again, we gotta do something, this is huge for us. So I’m excited just to see her, I haven’t seen her in a long, long time so right now I just want to hug her, because I missed her. [laughs]

What would you tell your teammates about what they can expect getting coached by her and what camp and the Olympics is going to be like with her leading the way?

Yeah, it’s gonna be chill in a way. Like Coach Staley’s really … she’s a firecracker, like she’s a fireball when she really gets into coaching and playing, but when it comes to camp, she’s pretty chill because she’s been there done that. So she understands like that third day of camp our bodies may not be working out well, like she gets that. It’s pretty chill so I don’t have any [warnings], but she’s still crazy at the same time.

I also want to get your thoughts on being able to play an All-Star game in an Olympic year, which is something new for the WNBA. What are your thoughts on the All-Star format? Because it’s exciting as a fan, because it’s a little bit different, it’s gonna be Team USA versus the rest of the All-Stars. And what do you think it’s gonna do for you all as the USA Basketball roster getting such a tough test early on in your exhibitions?

Yeah I think it’s gonna be a big step forward for us. I think it’s fun, of course this is a different year where you have the Olympic team versus the All-Stars of our league. But I think it’s really cool just to have the energy of the city around us, especially heading into the Olympics and also All-Star, just being an All-Star Game. I’m just super excited to be a part of it, honestly. We’re going to get tested, of course everyone knows that we’re going to get everyone’s best game. But I think it’s gonna be pretty cool to kind of start off at a light-hearted game, with players that we play against all the time, and then gradually start off into our exhibition game. So should be exciting, should be a lot of energy, I can’t wait to like just see everything come to life. I think that’s the best thing and of course when you partner with Mountain Dew, it’s going to be top notch.

Absolutely. You’re now at the midway point of the season with the Olympic break and just, when you take stock of the first half for the Aces and kind of where you are, what are your thoughts on how the first half went?

I think we’re right on track, I think we’re right on track where we need to be. We still have a lot of things to learn about each other, but I think the chemistry where we are — at the beginning of the year I was kind of like, uh oh, I don’t know what this is gonna look like, but to now make it to All-Star break, I think we’re heading in the right direction. I’ve never been on a WNBA championship team so I don’t know the feel of it when you feel that championship coming, but I’m definitely loving the vibes that we have around in our locker room. How we’re playing, I think we closed out not the way we want it to, but the game that we just recently had against Dallas was a good win for us. So I think we’re in the right direction and we’re on the right track.

Adding someone like Chelsea Gray obviously brings a different dynamic particularly to the backcourt and what she’s able to do and bring you — I think the the biggest example of that was the way she closed out that game against the Storm in overtime a few weeks ago. What has she brought in and what have y’all learned in the first half about playing with her and integrating her into what you guys do?

I mean, she’s just a leader. She’s a leader on court. Like, they always say the quarterback’s the coach on the field, it’s the same about the point guard on the court. The way she leads the way she can just take over games, it releases a lot of pressure from myself, from Liz, a lot of us superstars that are so used to that pressure, it gets released when you have a point guard like Chelsea Gray with the ball in her hands during crunch time like the OT games. So it’s big to have her. She’s a great addition to our team. That’s my home girl no matter what, like we’re like this [crosses her fingers] so she’s a joy to play with, and just, we’re just having a lot of fun. Like we’re really starting to get to really know each other.

We talked about the new merch, you’ve got the MVP on the front. Something that I’ve talked about with some guys from the NBA — in particular one of my favorite conversations I’ve had about this was with Damian Lillard, and we talked about once you get to a certain level, how do you continue to work on your game and find things to improve. And the thing he said is, look, every team has a scouting report on me, and they’re trying to get me to do something, and each offseason, I have to try to take something off that scouting report. What are the things that you found in your game that you continue to try to work on, even as you’re playing at this elite level?

Yeah, I think the biggest thing is working in small spaces. I’m not like Dame. The ball is not always in my hands, so I have to find different ways that when I get the basketball, how can I work in small amount of spaces. And that’s something that as a collegiate athlete, high school athlete I wouldn’t even think of, because it’s like, oh wow, no, I can work in however much space I can. But, no, it’s amazing to see when you create space, you may not need a lot of it, but just creating it is something that could bring a difference to your game. So that’s super key to me is like okay maybe taking one dribble instead of three or two, is something that I’m going to continue to work on, especially when I know teams are going to bring a double team, or they’re gonna sag in the paint. So, that’s my biggest thing that I try to work on now, especially even just game by game, I’m like, alright, this may be a game I have some space, this might be a game I don’t, so that’s the big key that I’ve just continued to work on.

Last year y’all made the Finals but it didn’t end as you wanted to. What did you think, as a team, you learned from that where you can continue to build on that and grow in the second half of the season and going into the playoffs?

I think the biggest thing we learned is how hard it is. It’s like, really, really hard. It was quite, it was easier in the bubble, because we didn’t have homecourt advantage and everything was the same, but it was still super super hard. And I don’t think my teammates and I really understood that until you’re in it, and it’s like, wow, this journey is really hard. Like I was planning on going home August 13, but I didn’t go home until October 13. So like those little things, it just weighs on you, so you constantly think about it all the time. Our league is good or league league is elite, and on top of that, we’re going to get everyone’s best game because we’re the Aces. On paper we’re a super team. So it’s just really, really hard but I love a challenge. I love how competitive our league is and we’re gonna keep trying to chip away, chip away and hopefully we can end up with a chip.