South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and A'ja Wilson can give each other plenty of hilarious grief; it's just part of their good-natured but competitive communication. Yet Staley always is looking out for the best interests of her star, and that includes how Wilson can maximize her senior year and get ready for the WNBA.
Wilson already has accomplished so much. She was the most outstanding player of the Women's Final Four last season. She repeated as SEC player of the year. She fulfilled the dreams of going to her hometown university and winning a national championship.
But she's not done yet. Wilson, the espnW preseason national player of the year, has continuously expanded her game since she joined the Gamecocks.
Staley knows there's still a lot further for Wilson to go. And she has very high hopes for what that bar should be. What player does Staley think the 6-foot-5 Wilson can model herself after?
"Probably Lisa Leslie," she said of the Hall of Fame center, with whom Staley competed in three Olympics. "A'ja's going to have to improve her range and become a more respectable 3-point shooter to help protect all the other things she does so well inside the arc.
"She's getting there. She's pretty good 15 feet and in. She's got to become a better catch-and-shoot player. I think she also can be more like Candace Parker, because she's doing some things now in that way: She's rebounding and then pushing the ball up the court."
You can't go wrong trying to emulate Leslie, a three-time WNBA MVP, and Parker, a two-time MVP. Parker, who just finished her 10th season with the Los Angeles Sparks, has made 183 3-pointers in her WNBA career. Leslie, who retired in 2009 after 12 seasons with the Sparks, wasn't the long-range shooter that Parker is, but she had 22 treys in two different seasons, and finished with 122 for her career.
Wilson has taken just four 3-pointers at South Carolina, making one. But she might also look to Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, who had taken only 14 3-pointers, between the regular season and playoffs combined in her first 13 years in the WNBA. Then this past season, Brunson took 75 combined 3s, making 24. She put in a ton of work practicing from behind the arc.
Wilson, who might end up as the No. 1 selection in the 2018 WNBA draft, isn't thinking much about any of that yet, though she has been developing confidence in her shooting range. And she's very aware of the leadership role she plays for the Gamecocks.
"My biggest thing is making sure that Coach doesn't have to do all the work about upholding our standards," Wilson said. "That she knows that she can trust me to talk to people.
"My personal goal this year is to be the best teammate that I can be. I want to be legendary when I leave South Carolina, to leave something positive."
Suffice to say, even with a season to go, she has already done that. Wilson came off the bench her freshman year and averaged 13.1 points and 6.6 rebounds. As a sophomore, she boosted those averages to 16.1 and 8.7, all while blocking 103 shots. Last season, her scoring went up to 17.9 per game, with her rebounding (7.8) and blocks (90) staying pretty steady. Her shooting percentage from the field last season was a career-high 58.8.
Wilson also embraced the mantle of "big-game player" last season, and nowhere was that more evident than at the Final Four in Dallas. She had 13 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks in the 62-53 semifinal victory against Stanford. Then in the final versus Mississippi State, Wilson had 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots as the Gamecocks won the title 67-55.
Wilson attended the USA Basketball senior national team training camp this fall, which was a chance for her to go against her soon-to-be peers in the WNBA. She has handled being in the spotlight as the face of the Gamecocks, and her expression recently when she saw her national championship ring for the first time said everything about how much it has meant to Wilson to do this at home.
Next year, Wilson will have to leave Columbia for her WNBA destination, and Staley said she'll need to be prepared for the step up in physicality that requires. Allisha Gray, Wilson's teammate last season, was the WNBA rookie of the year this past summer.
"Allisha has been back on campus, and I know they've had discussions on the pace and physicality of playing in the W," said Staley, who spent nine seasons in the WNBA herself. "If you're not prepared for it, you won't be there very long.
"A'ja is going to be able to utilize all of her skill set for us this season, and we'll be playing her more on the perimeter. I think her versatility is going to be valuable."