Now Starring… A'Ja Wilson!

a'ja wilson south carolina college basketball 

The most exciting newcomer in women's college basketball is A'Ja Wilson, but she hasn't always been a phenom. When Wilson was 11 years old, her father tricked her into trying out for a local basketball team. "I didn't know I was trying out, but I made the team," she recalls. "The first two years I didn't get any playing time. I was terrible. Awful."

Her feelings shifted around the age of 12. Wilson went from hating the game to watching it, and then she took to the hardwood. When she walked through the doors of Heathwood Hall (a private school in Columbia, South Carolina), she was a 5'9" freshman, but in four years she transformed into a 6'5" senior and champion, leading the Highlanders to their first ever state title and averaging 34.4 points, 13.9 rebounds, 3.0 steals, and 5.0 blocks. She was named a 2014 McDonald's All-American and picked as the top-ranked girls' recruit of her class.

Last April, Wilson announced at her own press conference, live on ESPNU, that she would not be joining Geno Auriemma at UConn or volunteering her services at Tennessee like most top prospects. Instead, she chose to stay close to home. Wilson grew up about 20 miles from the South Carolina campus. Last year the upstart women's program won its first regular-season SEC championship and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (The Gamecocks lost to North Carolina 65--58 in the Sweet 16.) The coach is Dawn Staley, a basketball Hall of Famer and three-time Olympic gold medalist. When Wilson was deciding on where to go, she asked herself, "Why wouldn't you want to be a part of that?"

SI KIDS spoke with Wilson about being a rookie, her favorite Southern food, and making history in her home state.


The toughest thing about being a college freshman is...

The workouts. Lifting in the weight room is probably the hardest because I didn't lift weights in high school.

My weirdest recruiting memory is...

One of my assistant coaches doing a new dance called the Nae Nae on my official visit to South Carolina. Watching her prepare and do the dance was hilarious.

My favorite Southern food is...

A Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit.

My favorite South Carolina tradition is...

"Sandstorm." It's a techno song that plays before every kickoff at the South Carolina football games. All the fans have towels and jump up and down. There are no words to describe it.

What I miss about being 5'9" is...

Being the same height as my mom. I would always look at her eye to eye. I was only 12 or 13, and I thought I was bigtime. My mom would always let me know that I wasn't an adult; I was only a teenager, but it was still fun.

The task that changed the most when I grew was...

Buying food. I always had an appetite, but when I started to grow taller, I needed a lot more food. Buying clothes was probably the most difficult task though, because they don't really sell clothes for tall girls in stores. I had to order stuff online and wait for my packages to come.

If I were not playing basketball, I would play...

Volleyball. I quit to pursue my basketball career, but I loved playing it.

If I am not playing sports, I am...

Sleep or watch television. I am a huge cartoons fan. I love Phineas and Ferb, and I watch Disney Channel and Cartoon Network all the time in my dorm room. So if I'm not on the court, I would probably be sleeping or watching cartoons.

My Netflix queue has...

Hey Arnold!, The Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, and Pretty Little Liars.

My best dunk was...

Two-handed. I've never attempted a dunk in a game, but my best one yet was a two-handed dunk in practice.

The coolest thing I did when I won a FIBA championship with Team USA in Lithuania was...

Paddleboarding. We went to the beach, and I kind of stood up on the board. I don't have the coordination to paddle and keep my balance, so I held my balance for maybe five seconds. But that had to be the coolest thing because I never thought I would try that.

My favorite basketball player is...

Blake Griffin. Ask anyone who knows me, and they know that I have a huge obsession with him. He's my favorite.

A basketball player I compare myself with is...

Candace Parker. She's my idol and role model. That's who I strive to be on and off the court because she's a great person.

I want to make South Carolina history by...

Winning a national championship.


Photo: CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 

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