Losing is never easy. Losing in the Finals is an even tougher pill to swallow.
After getting swept by the Seattle Storm in the 2020 WNBA Finals, the reality of being so close to a championship but yet so far is likely setting in for one of the league's biggest stars Aja Wilson. And while the end goal wasn't achieved, let's not look at this season as a failure for Wilson, but rather another step in the right direction.
Wilson came to the Las Vegas Aces as decorated as a college player you could possibly be. A three-time SEC Player of the Year, SEC Freshman of the Year, four-time SEC first-teamer, three Consensus first-team All-American nods and a Consensus National Player of the Year award her senior year at the University of South Carolina. She was a surefire 1st overall pick and the Aces didn't hesitate to snatch her up.
The return on investment was evident early, as Wilson led the Aces in scoring her rookie year averaging 20.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.7 blocks while shooting 46.2 percent from the field. Her individual performance earned her an All-Star selection and later the Rookie of the Year award. The franchise had found its face in their first season in Las Vegas after moving from San Antonio.
Wilson was box office hit, but the team's record didn't reflect it. The Aces finished 14-20, good for dead last in the tough Western Conference.
Wilson's second season got a shot in the arm when the team added Australian Liz Cambage to the mix. Cambage and Wilson together looked to be a frontcourt force that would get the Aces to the promised land. Alongside Cambage, Wilson showed the ability to defer to another star player and still make an impact on the game. Wilson found other ways to score and defended at a high level. The combo of Wilson and Cambage led the Aces from the basement of the West to a 21-13 record and more importantly, a playoff berth.
Things got shaky early in the postseason when a tough Chicago Sky squad almost upset the Aces in the single-game elimination second round match-up but a miracle 3 from Dearica Hamby kept the Aces' season alive. It felt like the Aces dream season might be a championship one, but they would run into the eventual champion Washington Mystics in the following round and were outmatched by a more veteran team. Wilson followed up her rookie season with a solid sophomore year but struggled through her first playoff run.
Season three is when players normally take their biggest jumps in the WNBA. Elena Delle Donne leaped into superstardom in her third year earning her first MVP award. Breanna Stewart did the same, winning the MVP award in her third season as well. Wilson was set to take that leap as well, but heading into her third season which now had championship expectations, she found out that starting guard Kelsey Plum would miss the entire year with an Achilles injury and Cambage would opt out due to the coronavirus pandemic. With expectations now slightly lowered, Wilson didn't let that stop her from having a career year.
The 24-year-old solidified herself as one of the best players in the WNBA averaging 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks per game. She posted a career-high efficiency rating of 25.0, an offensive rating of 108.8 and a defensive rating of 96.3. Wilson became a complete player in year three doing it on both ends of the court and unlike her rookie year where she proved she could handle the spotlight, her team was winning. The Aces finished with an 18-4 record - the best record in the league. Like Delle Donne and Stewart had done before her, Wilson claimed the league's MVP in her third year and was ready to redeem herself after her poor showing in her first playoff run the year before.
It didn't start out as planned, as the Connecticut Sun took a 2-1 lead over the Aces in their best of five series, but two MVP level performances with her team's back against the wall by Wilson helped the Aces get to their first Finals appearance.
We know how the story ends, the Storm were too much for the Aces to handle, but what Wilson has done this season should not go unnoticed.
In three years, she's put herself in the conversation as one of the best players in the world. In three years she's taken a franchise that didn't exist to the Finals. In three years she's helped basketball grow in Las Vegas. If you've been following the A'ja Wilson story, you would know by now not to count her out. She and the Aces have taken a leap every year she's been on the court and with Plum and Cambage likely to return next year, the Aces will once again be favourites to compete for a title.
So while the entire WNBA world rightfully heaps praise on the Storm, Stewart and the incomparable Sue Bird just know that waiting in the wings is A'ja Wilson.
Her time will come.
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