The notion seems absurd. How could any 6-foot-5 woman, much less one who has spent almost every day of the past two years being discussed by recruiting analysts and basketball staffs nationwide, be anonymous?
“I finally feel like I’m normal,” A’ja Wilson grins. “I can finally breathe now. Sometimes I hear whispers, ‘Oh my God, there’s A’ja,’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no’ … but I’ve enjoyed it.”
As the top prospect in the country, Wilson battled through two years of constant phone calls, text messages and speculation. Even when she ended it by choosing South Carolina in April, the buzz only subsided for a bit – then it morphed from No. 1 Recruit A’ja Wilson to A’ja Wilson, Star of The Country’s No. 2 Recruiting Class.
It’s summer. USC only has a tiny slice of its usual student body on campus. Wilson goes to one class per day, walks around campus and heads don’t turn. There are some who recognize her, but mostly, she’s free to melt into the role of A’ja Wilson, College Student.
Of course the “No. 1” tag will return when the season starts. But until November, Wilson is cheerfully and thankfully living anonymously as just another college kid.
“It has been different, but really, not having that title is a good thing for me,” Wilson said. “We do weights, class, pickup, Dodie. That’s the part I’ve enjoyed – being on a schedule, like, ‘I have to sleep, but I do have this exam coming up, got to pick one.’ ”
She’s adjusted to much-earlier wake-up times, increased weightlifting and realizing that the free time she had as a high-school senior is limited as a collegiate athletic freshman. Even in the summer, the Gamecocks’ players have their days planned; when the school year begins, a free evening can only be described as a godsend.
That’s fine with Wilson.
Last year at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, recruiters and reporters knew when she was getting out of school or about to start practice. Her phone would relentlessly buzz. Now if it buzzes, it’s usually just a loving reminder from Mom to make sure she eats something.
Wilson will keep the routine until the end of July, when she goes to Colorado with Dawn Staley for the under-18 FIBA Americas World Championships. She’ll get a crash course in what it’s like to play for Staley.
The biggest change is playing on the wing, her preferred position. Wilson played in the paint in high school because it was best for the team. Now she wants no part of the lane – she wants the wing, where she can show off her rather under-sung jump shot and still slash to the rim.
“I’m not a huge fan of the block,” Wilson said. “I’ll go there if I have to, but I’m not a huge fan of it. Coach Staley knew that coming in. She asked me if I wanted to go to the wing or post up in drills, then she told me to go to the wing.”
It saves her a lot of the daily beating that forwards Elem Ibiam, Alaina Coates, Aleighsa Welch and Jatarie White dish on each other (“Whoooo, glad I don’t have to be down there!” Wilson quips) and allows her to fine-tune a piece of her game she often didn’t get to in high school. It also brings some of the pressure circling back around – the Gamecocks return both of their starting wings, one of whom is SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell. Wilson’s minutes may be hard to come by at first.
That’s OK. A big part of her decision was to join a team that took a major step into the elite last year, and to keep it there. She’s dealt with the pressure of living up to her No. 1 ranking the past two years, dealt with the pressure of coming oh-so-close to winning a state championship before she did it as a senior, knocking down a buzzer-beating, overtime-producing 3-pointer to help the cause.
Pressure’s nothing new. She’ll handle it.
After the blissful few months where she can sometimes sit by herself for an entire hour and her phone remains silent.
“I’m going to keep on working in practice and trying my hardest, giving my all,” Wilson said. “I’m excited. I’m very excited to get this college thing on a roll. Just being a college student, then when the season comes around, I’m going to be really excited.”
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