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July 21, 2018

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Las Vegas Aces’ top pick adjusts to life at the next level

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Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson (22) reacts to being called for a foul against the Atlanta Dream during their WNBA game Friday, June 8, 2018, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The Drem won 87-83.

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A’ja Wilson has an occasional habit of slipping into a third-person point of view when assessing her performance, and it really comes out when she’s leveling criticism.

After making six of 16 shots from the field in an early-season loss to the Washington Mystics, Wilson took herself to task. The No. 1 overall pick in April’s WNBA Draft expected more than 37.5 percent shooting, so she let herself have it.

“Poor shooting,” Wilson said. “A’ja has been throwing this ball all over the place, and that’s not her. It is a process. I’m still trying to learn and get into the league, but these games have been tough. I’ve been down on myself a lot.”

Wilson is definitely her own biggest critic, whether it’s a first-, second- or third-person scouting report, and her frustration is understandable. Her South Carolina team lost back-to-back games just once during her four-year college career, and that came against the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the nation last season. So a 0-4 start against middling WNBA competition came as a shock to her system, and the team’s spot near the bottom of the league standings feels completely foreign to Wilson.

Bill Laimbeer is in his second decade as a WNBA coach, so his evaluation of Wilson comes with the benefit of perspective. He sees her talent—at 6 foot, 4 inches, tall Wilson possesses a rare and enviable blend of power, coordination and grace—and understands how important she is to the future of the franchise. In winning NCAA Player of the Year honors while averaging 22.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game as a senior, Wilson demonstrated the potential to become the centerpiece of a WNBA championship team one day.

A big part of Laimbeer’s job is teaching Wilson the finer points of the WNBA, but his most important task might be instilling in her the confidence—and patience—to fulfill her vast potential.

“She’s learning,” Laimbeer says. “She hasn’t yet realized how big and strong and fast the players are in this league, and also that the teams will set their defense for her, especially when we don’t have the shooters around. She’s going to have to learn these things. She’ll struggle from game to game in different aspects, but we keep talking to her about little things she has to learn. You can’t wait; you have to attack right away. You can’t dribble into three people; they’re too big. You have to turn and shoot right away—that might be the best shot you’re going to get. All the little things she’ll learn over the course of time will make her a better player.”

Laimbeer compares Wilson’s development to that of Tina Charles, another former No. 1 pick who won the league’s MVP award in her third season. Laimbeer traded for Charles in 2014, and the pair transformed the New York Liberty from a bottom dweller to an Eastern Conference finalist in their first year together.

Laimbeer believes Wilson and the Aces can accomplish something similar. “I’m going to ask a lot of [Wilson],” he says. “She’s the No. 1 pick in the draft, and I can demand of her. If she folds, that’s a problem. I don’t think she will. I’m going to push her and push her and push her. I’m going to teach her, and educate her, because she has a lot to learn about our league. … Compare her to Tina Charles, who struggled in her first three or four years in the league. You know, 4-for-15 [shooting], 5-for-21, until she understood that she had to do certain things and different things than she did in college in order to be successful in this league.”

Wilson understands that individual and team success might not happen right away, but she’s committed to the process. With a little patience and perspective, Wilson knows she can do great things with the Las Vegas Aces. And she certainly seems to be learning quickly. Through her first 12 games, she averaged an impressive 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per contest, and after her early shooting struggles, she’s up to 55 percent on the year, including a 35-point performance against Indiana in which she nailed 16 of 24 shots from the field.

“I’m a rookie,” Wilson says. “I’m the new kid on the block. I haven’t really played this game at all. I’m still trying to get adjusted to it, and I’m going out here playing against people who have been in the league four-plus years, so it’s hard to even compare myself. Slowly but surely, I’m starting to get a feel for more things.”

She finishes her optimistic thought by stepping outside herself again. “That’s my main goal, to continue to do me and get back to the A’ja that I’m used to.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.