COLUMBIA — South Carolina freshman A’ja Wilson got to see many sides of her new coach Dawn Staley at the FIBA U18 Americas championship last week, not all of them pleasant.
But the 6-foot-5 Wilson, the country’s top high school prospect last winter, is ready to handle all of Staley’s direction however intensely it’s delivered. Wilson won the tournament’s MVP as she averaged more than 19 points and eight rebounds a game for Team USA, which was coached by Staley.
“On the recruiting trail, she has this cover where she’s the nice Dawn Staley, all cute and innocent,” Wilson said Wednesday. “But now coaching, she gets furious sometimes.”
Especially, Wilson recalled, when she or others on the team repeated mistakes they’d been coached against. It gave Wilson a pre-college look at what she’ll deal with each South Carolina’s practice.
“Just seeing her at a coaching level got me excited for this coming season,” Wilson said.
Staley’s excited, too, after watching her prized freshman score in several different ways to help the Americans win the event for players born on Jan. 1, 1996, or later.
Wilson scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the title game win over Canada this past Sunday. She averaged better than 19 points and eight rebounds as Team USA went 5-0.
Staley didn’t see many offensive holes in Wilson’s game. But the coach expects her freshman – like most first-year players do, Staley says – to struggle defensively in the physical Southeastern Conference.
“You didn’t have to yell,” Wilson playfully told her coach.
“That’s because you have to play defense,” Staley joked back before the two hugged at South Carolina’s practice court.
Wilson is part of five-player recruiting class ranked No. 2 in the country by ESPN. It includes two other McDonald’s All-Americans besides Wilson in 6-4 forward Jatarie White and 5-5 guard Bianca Cuevas.
The centerpiece is Wilson, who Staley believes is versatile enough to play in several spots and provide matchup issues for opponents wherever she lines up. Staley mostly had Wilson at the small forward spot in the FIBA Americas tournament because of scoring ability.
Staley can’t wait to combine Wilson’s skill with Tiffany Mitchell, the reigning Southeastern Conference player of the year who averaged 15.5 points a game last season as the Gamecocks won the league’s regular-season title.
“From an offensive standpoint, she can give us what we’ve been lacking for many of the years with the exception of someone like Tiffany Mitchell,” Staley said. “A’ja can score.”
Just as impressive in Staley’s view was Wilson’s leadership. She was elected captain by her teammates and handled herself off the court with poise, something unique for college freshmen. “I expect her to be a captain for us some day.”
South Carolina won 29 games last year, second most in school history, and were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before falling to North Carolina in the round of 16. Staley has not been shy about pointing her club to bigger heights this year.
“I think if you’re going to be a good basketball team you have to have players who can make plays in postseason and we’re looking forward to putting (Wilson) in a position where she can score consistently,” Staley said.
Staley’s time with USA Basketball isn’t over yet. She’ll leave in early September for the women’s national team competing in the FIBA World Championships in Turkey as assistant to head coach Geno Auriemma of Connecticut.
Staley said she held back the fiery side with the teenagers because she didn’t know all of them well and was afraid of scaring them off. That won’t be the case when Staley returns in early October to start the Gamecocks preseason camp.
“If you see A’ja crying at the end of any of our practices, you know she got the real deal,” Staley said.