By Ryan Gregory | @Ryan_Gregory_
Sports Capital Journalism Program
TENERIFE, Spain — Expectations are high for the United States in this year’s FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup after 94 victories in its last 95 major international games. This roster is filled with veteran leadership. Sue Bird has been part of three gold medal-winning World Cup teams. Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles have each won two.
As the USA attempts to extend its record with a tenth gold medal in this tournament, a new generation will join the veterans with a chance to write their names in history. The 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup provides the pen.
For National Team newcomer A’ja Wilson, a 6-foot 5 forward, big stages are nothing new. Big expectations are even more familiar.
“This is the biggest stage of them all,” Wilson said Friday after the final practice before the USA begins World Cup play against Senegal at 1 p.m. EDT on Saturday. “I’m playing with and against the greatest of the great and it’s something special.”
When she arrived at the University of South Carolina in 2014, Wilson ushered in an era of success, scoring a school-record 2,389 points, bringing the school four Southeastern Conference championships, and leading the Gamecocks to their first Final Four in 2015 and a national championship in 2018. She left for the WNBA a three-time All-American, three-time SEC player of the year and 2018 consensus national player of the year.
The Las Vegas Aces selected Wilson first overall in the 2018 WNBA draft. Previously the San Antonio Stars, the Aces moved to Las Vegas the same year they drafted Wilson in search of a face for their new team. Again, stakes were high. Again, Wilson delivered.
She averaged 20.7 points and eight rebounds per game and almost pushed the Aces to the WNBA playoffs. Wilson’s efforts made her a unanimous choice as WNBA Rookie of the Year, validating her No. 1 selection and further crowding her trophy case.
The 2018 FIBA World Cup presents a challenge not yet known to Wilson. Instead of a college program or a professional franchise, she will be tasked with representing her country.
While many would feel overwhelmed with that responsibility, Wilson can benefit from having a familiar face in her corner. Dawn Staley, Wilson’s coach at South Carolina, is coach of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team.
“Coming into training camp, I already kind of knew some of the stuff she was going to put in, Wilson said of Staley. “That put me at ease because this is a nerve-wracking situation. You want to compete, you want to do your best. For me to have her is a big stepping stone.”
Wilson’s first World Cup appearance will be guided by a coach who has made a personal investment in her progress for the past four years.
“I was totally amazed,” Staley said of Wilson’s recent growth. “She has adjusted so quickly. She’s been allowed to grow and learn from her mistakes, which helped her confidence.”
Wilson has displayed that confidence in her time spent playing internationally. Twice this month she has led the veteran-laden United States National Team in scoring. She recorded 14 in an exhibition with Canada on Sept. 15 and scored 22 against Senegal the next day. The precedent set by the veterans is a lot to live up to, but Wilson doesn’t feel that pressure.
“I just want to take it all in stride,” she said. “Of course, I’d love to play well, but at the same time I’m embracing this moment and taking it all in.”