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WNBA star A’ja Wilson is ready to take on the world for Team USA

‘I’m so grateful and honored to wear those three letters across my chest’

WNBA star A’ja Wilson had no idea what the game of basketball could do for her while growing up. She couldn’t have imagined the places it would take her professionally as well as personally.

“The game of basketball opened up so many doors for a little girl in South Carolina,” Wilson told The Undefeated. “And it’s not even just literal doors of traveling and meeting new people, but just finding myself, finding that confidence, that self-esteem, and knowing that I could wear my height well. I can still be a beautiful woman and play sports on and off the court. So, I think that’s what really the game of basketball did for me. …

“It’s a blessing. That’s really all I can really say, you know? I was just a young girl that didn’t even want to play this game. I absolutely hated it. So, for the game to kind of pay me back in this way. … And people say that I’m scratching the surface. It’s something that’s so eye-opening to me.”

Basketball could soon take Wilson to the 2020 Games in Tokyo. The No. 1-ranked Americans qualified for the 2020 Summer Olympics after winning the 2018 FIBA World Cup. (Wilson was a part of that squad.) In the meantime, the USA women’s national basketball team will travel to Belgrade, Serbia, for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which begins Thursday.

It will be a chance for the world to get to know the 23-year-old Wilson.

Wilson has averaged a team-high 14.5 points along with 6.2 rebounds in 20.3 minutes per game through six exhibition contests — on a roster that includes Sue Bird, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sylvia Fowles, Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner and and Nneka Ogwumike.

“For me to finally get that red, white and blue, I look at it and say, ‘This is something special,’ ” Wilson said. “And the fact that I can kind of pick brains of future Hall of Famers of our game just in a practice is just huge. So, I’m so grateful and honored to wear those three letters across my chest.”

A’ja Wilson (center) of the USA women’s national team grabs the rebound against the Louisville Cardinals during an exhibition game at KFC YUM! Center Feb. 2 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jeff Reinking/NBAE via Getty Images

Wilson began getting noticed on the college level with the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, where she was the 2018 National Player of the Year and a three-time Associated Press first-team All-America selection. She led the Gamecocks to a 2017 NCAA tournament championship and a 129-16 record over four seasons under head coach Dawn Staley, who will coach the USA Basketball women’s team at the 2020 Games.

In 2018, Wilson was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft by the Las Vegas Aces and went on to win the rookie of the year award after averaging 20.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Last season, Wilson averaged 16.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and led the Aces to the WNBA semifinals, where they were eliminated by the eventual champion Washington Mystics. (She also played for the Shaanxi Red Wolves of the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association during the 2018-19 season.)

“I’m glad to be one of the young faces of it that can input different things, bring a different personality, a vibe from it in that way,” Wilson said. “I’m so glad to see our league grow each year that I’ve been in it. It’s kind of hard on the outside looking in, but now that I’m in it and now that I can see myself and help my teammates in ways in my city of Las Vegas, it’s going to be a lot of fun. The future’s so bright for the W.”

Wilson is also excited about the much improved collective bargaining agreement in the WNBA.

“I’m excited that this deal has advanced the player experience in several areas and glad that we now have progressive workplace benefits,” Wilson said. “Paid maternity leave, mental health support, upgraded travel standards are all standouts for me.

“I’m really happy for the moms in our league and glad that those who do want to become mothers, now have the support from a league they work tirelessly for, and the new jump in salary cap means that all players, from the rookies to the top, will benefit. This is an exciting deal and I think it sets a precedent for all female leagues.”

This season, WNBA players will also be taking a break during the Olympics from July 24-Aug. 9. The WNBA won’t resume competition until Aug. 16 and will skip the All-Star Game during the 2020 season.

For Wilson and her USA teammates, there will be no break. But Wilson is looking forward to the opportunity to represent her country. She’s also excited to be reuniting with Staley during the Olympics.

“I always say she’s my mom away from my mom,” Wilson said. “She was always the one that kept me in check in school for everything and I could go to her for anything. So, to see an African American woman lead a USA team is something that is always going to be something that’s near and dear to my heart.”

USA’s women’s basketball team is one of the most dominant forces in Olympic history. Team USA has won the last six Olympic gold medals and hasn’t lost in the Olympics since 1992. The last three American teams have won by a point differential of at least 275 points.

This year’s team will also be the heavy favorite.

“Yes, it is pressure,” Wilson said, “but at the end of the day, it’s basketball. It’s basketball, and that’s something that we’re all good at. So, we can’t harp on that.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.