Originally posted on New Haven Register by Jim Fuller
Years before coaches from national powerhouse programs like UConn and Tennessee began scheduling trips to Columbia, S.C., to see Heathwood Hall basketball phenom A’ja Wilson dominate on the hardwood, the multi-faceted Wilson had to deal with some humble basketball beginnings.
Since her father Roscoe played professionally overseas for a decade and had an invitation to try out for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, it is hardly a shock that A’ja Wilson would have an early introduction to basketball.
However, the player considered by more recruiting insiders as the top player in the Class of 2014 and the top uncommitted player on the recruiting radar of reigning national champion UConn, was anything but an instant hit the first time she picked up a basketball.
“I didn’t want to play basketball at all,” Wilson said in a phone interview after the morning session at the U.S. Under-19 national team trials on Friday. “I wanted to stay away from it, and plus I was little, so it wasn’t like everybody was saying ‘you should play basketball all the time.’
“I didn’t play until my dad kind of got me in a rec league. He said ‘give it a try.’ My first year in AAU I never touched the court. I would just sit at the end of the bench getting people water and stuff. He said ‘A’ja you have one year.’ I just started shooting, my jump shot was starting to fall and I thought ‘I’d like to do this whole basketball thing.’ That is when I started getting into the gym and working out. I love the sport so I would keep working hard and pushing. My dad did help me out a lot because he taught me, he molded me. He said ‘A’ja you need to get your dribble down’ because when he played in Europe. He played in Sweden for 10 years and he was kind of in the same position I was in, he was the smallest (post player). He was 6-8 but he was still the smallest (post player) overseas. He had to work on his ball handling so he kind of pushed that over to me and that really helped me out a lot.”
While Wilson struggled to make an impact on the basketball court when she was 10, within four years she made enough progress to draw attention from college recruiters from coast to coast.
Wilson averaged 15.5 points and 14 rebounds a game for Heathwood Hall when she was an eighth grader. Within a year Wilson went from an athletic 5-foot-10 prospect that ran a sub 13 second time in the 100 meters to a dynamic 6-foot-4 superstar who would emerge as the nation’s top player in her class. As a junior Wilson averaged 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3 steals and 5 blocks per game, and she recorded the fifth triple-double of her high school career.
Having honed her skill as either a perimeter player or undersized post before her growth spurt, Wilson now has the size to dominate both inside and outside.
“It helped me out a lot because me starting out so small, people would put me as a guard and I would really focus on my ball handling,” Wilson said. “My dad, my AAU coach and high school coach would have me do ball-handling drills before every practice and then when I hit my growth spurt it kind of gave me that edge that I could play guard but I have the height of a post player.”
Hall of Fame coaches including UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Sylvia Hatchell of North Carolina have made multiple trips to see Wilson play. South Carolina is another school very much in pursuit of Wilson. However, Wilson shrugs off the high-profile visitors at her games.
“I really just ignore it,” Wilson said. “I really don’t get into the hype. Everybody is like ‘A’ja, such and such is here.’ I am like ‘that is great.’ I don’t care if they weren’t here I am still going to play hard and make sure my team gets the win no matter what. I don’t care if there were 500 coaches in the stands or even one or none; I am still going to play my hardest and work with my teammates better and make sure we come out with the win.”
There is no lack of rumors regarding Wilson’s college plans. She merely laughs it off as little more than just idle chatter. While she talks with her parents on a nightly basis about the recruiting process, she hasn’t officially come up with a list of schools.
“I am taking all of my officials,” Wilson said. “I sit down with my parents and every night we have a discussion about what is going to happen over this summer and pray over it.
“I am very open right now because I am focusing on getting out of junior year. I don’t have a top 10, a top five, a top three. I get out of school on May 31. In June that is when I will start settling in because I will have a lot more time on my hands without worrying about school so much and that is when I will start thinking about it.”
So what is she looking for in her college of choice?
“Just having a great relationship with the coach and the team, of course and also what would I do after I graduate from the school, where could I go, where could they get me,” Wilson said. “I want to go to the next level. I want to go to the highest level of basketball I could possibly go. Also, if I would get hurt or couldn’t play anymore, could I still see myself there for the rest of the years that I have there. In college my team is going to be my second family, almost pretty close to my immediate family because I am going to be around them for so long.”
Wilson got a glimpse of what could be ahead of her on her way to Colorado Springs from the U-19 trials. At a layover in Dallas she could not believe her eyes when she realized who she would be sharing a flight with.
“When I got to the airport the first people I saw were Breanna Stewart, Bria Hartley and Morgan Tuck and it was amazing because they had just won a national championship and I was in the airport with them,” Wilson said. “Then I look over and I see (North Carolina’s) Xylina McDaniel, Meighan (Simmons) and Cierra (Burdick) from Tennessee and it really hit me ‘wow, I am here with these girls and I am flying on the same plane with these girls.’ It is great to see how they could have lost to a team but they come together as one here.”
Stewart, also a versatile 6-foot-4 player who was the top-rated player in her class, is a player Wilson looks up to.
“She is one of my role models,” Wilson said. “I can really see myself in her. She is a great player, she really is. She is a quiet player and that is what we have the most in common. Sometimes she is on the wing and she will drop to the post and the next thing you know she is running back down the court with two points.”
Before Stewart committed to UConn, her USA Basketball teammates resisted the temptation of pressuring her into choosing the school they were going to. Expect Stewart and the other Huskies in Colorado Springs to make her college decision without adding undue influence on her.
Her AAU coach Jesse Dickerson, who also coached former UConn guard Kalana Greene in AAU, said that UConn is very much in contention to land Wilson but that she may not make it up to UConn for a visit until she can take an official visit to campus. It’s likely that UConn will look to get Wilson onto campus in the middle of October when the Huskies host their First Night festivities.
In the meantime Wilson is hoping to earn one of the 12 spots on the U.S. team competing in the FIBA U-19 World Championships. It will be no easy task of 18 of the 34 players at the training camp recently wrapped up their freshman seasons in college including the UConn trio of Stewart, Tuck and Moriah Jefferson and 12 others are incoming collegiate freshmen.
“I am so anxious, I am going to give 100 percent every time,” Wilson said. “I am very excited when I heard I was one of the only (four high school juniors trying out). It is very exciting to come out here and compete against the people I see on TV and I am really enjoying it.”
The 12-member team will be announced on Sunday. The FIBA U-19 World Championships will be held in Lithuania from July 18-28.
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