Aliyah Boston and the beginnings of the WNBA’s next (All-) Star
Despite her bright future as Indiana Fever center, the youngest starter in WNBA All-Star Game history focuses on the present
LAS VEGAS – On July 14, the first official day of All-Star weekend, 7-year-old Taraji Strong and her family stand patiently in line to meet Indiana Fever center Aliyah Boston inside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center as she signs autographs at WNBA Live, the league’s version of a fan fest.
Taraji, who is just tall enough to see over the table where Boston is sitting, emerges from the signing with a joyous smile and a now-autographed basketball glued to her palms.
The Strong family hails from Mississippi where they have been big fans of coach Dawn Staley and South Carolina women’s basketball, who Boston led to a national championship in 2022 as the National Player of the Year. When asked how big of a fan Taraji was of Boston, Taraji’s mother, donning an A’ja Wilson Las Vegas Aces jersey, motions to her daughter to turn around. As Taraji spins, bright pink braids emerge. They were inspired by the colorful signature braids of Boston.
They come from all over, young fans hoping to meet the WNBA’s next budding young star as her Fever team plays in league arenas around the country. In Atlanta, a young boy entered the Gateway Center Arena @ College Park dressed in a Boston shirsey (that’s a shirt jersey) and sported a garnet-colored braid attachment to mimic his favorite player. In Chicago, a fan stood with her dad holding a sign at Wintrust Arena that said they drove from Wisconsin to see Boston play. At Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, a young girl proudly displayed a sign with Boston’s signature that read “I spent all my allowance to see Aliyah Boston.”
“It’s truly special, it really is,” said Boston. “It lets you know there are a lot of people looking up to you.”
On July 15, Boston suited up as the youngest player to start a WNBA All-Star Game, becoming just the third player in league history to start in an All-Star Game before turning 22, joining Sue Bird and Chamique Holdsclaw, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“When you think of All-Star, you think about people that already have experience in the league,” said Boston, who had six points and 11 rebounds in 19 minutes for Team Wilson. “To be here – you’re just a rookie; OK, wow – it kind of motivates you to just continue to work.”
As Boston prepared to join her first All-Star weekend festivities, however, her focus was not on the work ahead or her promising future. For Boston, to ensure her success is more than a moment, she’s focused on staying in the moment.
“I think that’s when the distraction comes in ‘well if I don’t do this, then this can go away, or if I do this, then this,’ ” Boston said. “I’m just trying to stay true to the process.”
On a Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas, Boston is seated in a booth at The Palm Las Vegas restaurant in Caesars Palace – her signature braids, a fiery red and white this time, draped over her shoulder.
Boston, wearing a floral-patterned dress, appears loose and relaxed as she answers questions ahead of her appearance as the eighth rookie in WNBA history and the first since 2014 to start an All-Star Game.
During a dinner hosted by the governor of the Virgin Islands, Boston stands as the woman of the hour as those in attendance honor her participation in the league’s annual star-studded event. Also in attendance are Boston’s parents, sister and aunt, who traveled to Vegas to celebrate one of her first milestones as a pro.
As dinner ended, representatives of Virgin Islands stood to recognize Boston’s contributions as an ambassador. A member of the Virgin Islands’ tourism department unveiled a poster board for a new initiative in Boston’s native St. Thomas. Against the backdrop of a vibrant rendering of the Virgin Islands was Boston with words overhead reading “Welcome to St. Thomas, USVI.” To the right of Boston read “Home of WNBA All-Star Aliyah Boston.” It was a full circle moment for Boston, whose first dreams of the WNBA had been planted as a 9-year-old when she first picked up a basketball.
“Thank you so much,” Boston said. “Great picture choice.”
The gesture was yet another reminder of the astonishing trajectory Boston has charted in her early pro career.
Since being announced as the No. 1 overall pick in April, the spotlight that already shined on Boston since her time at South Carolina has only grown bigger and brighter. There’s a pressure Boston feels to succeed, steeped in the desire to make proud those that support her. Even so, she would never change anything about her place in the public eye. Just as hard as Boston has worked to get to this point and gain the attention her success has warranted, she knows that at any point that could vanish.
“I never really want to have to think about ‘I remember when.’ I take what comes with it and just trust it,” Boston said.
Shortly after being named as an All-Star starter, Boston was asked by a reporter if she was surprised by her early-season performance, to which she replied, “I don’t want to sound like I’m being cocky, but I expect greatness.” A look into who Boston is as an individual is to see how she defines greatness. Greatness, to Boston, is not measured in stats or end of year awards. Instead, it’s being able to capture her full potential.
“Greatness is just being true to who you are but also working hard to accomplish the goals,” Boston said. “Every time I step on the court, I expect to be dominant. I go out there every game and I’m just going to be who I am.
“I don’t always need to have the points or the rebounds. It’s about, do I affect the game in the way that my team needed me to? People expect, ‘oh, you need to have this, this and this,’ and that’s what’s considered to be a top player. If shots don’t fall tonight, that can’t change my defensive presence or the way I communicate.”
As the Fever’s first No. 1 overall pick, Boston will be responsible for helping to revitalize a franchise which hasn’t had a winning season in seven years, which is also how long they’ve gone without a playoff appearance. It’s a steep departure for an organization that once made 10 straight appearances in either the conference finals or WNBA Finals – winning the title in 2012. The city has clung to the heyday of forward Tamika Catchings-led clubs that put the franchise on the map.
There is hope that Boston will answer that call, her immediate success on the court accelerating the timeline of the Fever’s rebuild. With Boston and first-year coach Christie Sides, there’s a new presence and energy in Indiana. Fever fans have taken notice and begun to buy in. The Fever are averaging 3,133 more fans per game than they did a year ago.
“She’s going to be a great one,” Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon said of Boston following the All-Star Game. “Already what I think coach Sides has done in Indiana, the culture and everything that she’s trying to build there, and they have a centerpiece. Literally, a centerpiece.”
But as this first season has shown, the turnaround won’t come easy. In the first 12 games of the season, Indiana matched last season’s win total. Since then, however, the Fever have lost eight straight games.
Boston said it’s all about the process.
“No matter what ups and downs come with it – the victories, the losses – it’s all a part of the bigger goal, bigger cause. That’s to continue to win, make the playoffs, and be a franchise that competes in championships,” Boston said. “That’s definitely what it is, and it starts now. It starts now.”
Through the first 20 games of her career, what Boston has accomplished statistically in the league is eye-popping. She leads the league in field goal percentage and offensive rebounds, ranks in the top 20 in scoring and in the top 10 in total blocks and rebounds.
A look deeper at the company Boston is keeping through her first 20 games shows how uncommon her level of performance has been. She is the first player in WNBA history to average 15 points per game on 60% shooting through 20 career games. Since the WNBA’s first All-Star Game in 1999, Boston is the second rookie to lead the league in field goal percentage, after Brittney Griner. She’s the sixth player over the last two decades with 300 points and 150 rebounds through their first 20 games, after players such as Wilson, Breanna Stewart, and Candace Parker.
Boston is on pace to become the eighth rookie in WNBA history to average 15 points, 5 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block per game. The four players no longer active on that list each went on to become Hall of Famers (Lauren Jackson, Yolanda Griffith, Lisa Leslie and Catchings).
“You wouldn’t know that she’s a rookie. She’s polished in everything that she does. She’s a professional,” said All-Star guard Kelsey Mitchell, Boston’s teammate on the Fever. “She’s a great post player, obviously. More importantly, she’s got the professional look already and she’s just getting started. I’m proud of her.”
Much of what has made Boston so successful thus far in the league are the same qualities that she nurtured at South Carolina. It’s the use of her strength and size, textbook footwork, court awareness and a tenacity around the rim.
“I don’t like seeing rookies misidentifying themselves in the beginning of their career. I think that’s something Aliyah has done very well is that she’s just stuck to her guns,” said Los Angeles Sparks star forward Nneka Ogwumike, who played in her eighth WNBA All-Star Game. “I think the most successful rookies are those that go out there and don’t do too much about changing who they are.”
Also in Boston’s favor is her studious approach to improving her game. She doesn’t shy away from going up against the WNBA’s most dominant frontcourt talents, many of whom will eventually end up enshrined in the Hall of Fame, such as Elena Delle Donne, Griner, and Wilson. Boston approaches each of those matchups, no matter how daunting, as opportunities to develop her own game.
“My favorite thing is going up against the post players that I’ve watched,” Boston said in late June. “I’ll see their games and I’ll go to coach like, ‘can we watch their last game? This, this and this is happening.’ It’s been great to see how I’ve been able to adapt and grow my IQ just being able to to play against the best bigs in the entire world. It’s been so fun.”
Boston, a self-described “film girl,” has already been able to apply lessons learned from early-season matchups and adapt her game for when the Fever play opponents again. Simply look at Indiana’s first two games against the defending champion Las Vegas Aces. In Game 1 on June 4, matching up against Wilson, the reigning WNBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, Boston got into foul trouble and finished with just 7 points on 3 shots and 4 rebounds in 22 minutes. In back-to-back games against the Aces on June 24 and 26, Boston excelled, averaging 19.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks over the two games.
Wilson was unsurprised by Boston’s adjustments.
“I knew she had that all in her,” she said.
For Wilson, who managed to develop a phenomenal rookie season of her own into being one of the faces of the league, a key to Boston being able to continue to raise her star in the league is to never become complacent. The elite don’t settle. After winning a championship and multiple MVP awards, the five-time All-Star will never settle. She wants to see that in Boston, too.
“To this day, I feel like I have to prove myself in this league because the league’s just too good,” said Wilson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. “I feel like if [Aliyah] continues to have that pro mentality, she’s going to be fine. I’m glad things are going her way. Rookie of the Year in my book.”
Wilson and Boston won national championships under Staley at South Carolina. Wilson believes playing for Staley ensures Boston will continue on the trajectory she’s created.
“We just have a certain grit and grind that we have to ourselves that she’s instilled in us that I know she’s not going to have a problem,” Wilson said.
Jewell Loyd, the No. 1 overall pick in 2015, was named Rookie of the Year and has since become one of the most dominant guards in the league while winning two championships with the Seattle Storm. Loyd, who made her fifth straight All-Star appearance, said when it comes to sustaining a moment and being consistently great in the league, it’s all about preparation.
“It’s easy to have one good season. To have multiple is hard,” said Loyd, the WNBA’s current scoring leader who was crowned All-Star MVP.
Loyd first got to know Boston in September 2022 when both players attended USA Basketball’s training camp to prepare for the FIBA World Cup. Boston, who played for South Carolina at the time, was the only collegiate player.
“You saw that she wanted to work. You saw that she was hungry to get better and that’s a desire that you can’t ever lack,” Loyd said. “Things will change, but your work ethic has to evolve, has to get better. For her, her work ethic is what drives her, so her preparation – what she does after the season, what she does if she goes overseas or not – all of those things will add up to how she performs and she’ll be able to have more than just one good season and do what she’s doing much longer.”
As Boston took the floor July 15 in her black and gray Team Wilson jersey, she was among the game’s elite. Alongside her were stars such as Griner of the Phoenix Mercury, Stewart, of the New York Liberty and Loyd. On the sidelines sat retired WNBA legends Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus, Bird and Sheryl Swoopes.
It’s a world-class bunch – a group of players Boston hopes to join one day. She knows she’s on the right path to get there. To do so, she’ll lean on her faith and family as she always has while continuing to remind herself to never lose focus on the moment.
As she sat in the booth at The Palm and reflected on being in Las Vegas to embark on the weekend, Boston sat unburdened. She’ll return to the grind next week. For now, she was excited to celebrate a dream achieved.
Said Boston: “I’m really having a good time.”