COLUMBIA - She presents a big target, with a 6-5 frame and such an ability to elevate that rumors have always circulated about her dunking in practice. Around the rim, she possesses the touch of a natural scorer. But A'ja Wilson also has something else that's helped her emerge as one of the top players on the top-ranked women's basketball team in America.
Teammates who are willing to sacrifice their own statistics as South Carolina pursues the program's first national championship.
Wilson has started just one game this season, and the freshman forward from Hopkins is likely to come off the bench again Sunday, when the unbeaten Gamecocks host No. 10 Kentucky at 1 p.m. But that reserve status belies her role as the team's second-leading scorer behind reigning SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell, with four double-doubles and an average of 14.3 points per game.
"My teammates help me out so much, in everything I do," said Wilson, who has been named SEC Freshman of the Week three times. "They get me the ball, and they just open up things and make things a lot easier. It's been great. I give it all to them, honestly, because without them I wouldn't be where I am now."
For a USC team two- or three-deep at every position, managing minutes has proven head coach Dawn Staley's greatest challenge. From the beginning, there was no denying Wilson's talent - in her second college game, Nov. 20 against Clemson, she led all scorers with 18 points - but she also had to fit into a rotation featuring five returning starters from last season's SEC championship team. That meant for Wilson to be on the floor, somebody had to give up their own time.
From the outside, it seemed a recipe for discontent. But in the preseason, Staley had at least one starter approach her and offer to sacrifice minutes if that meant a better chance of reaching the Final Four. So Wilson has carved her niche, perhaps at the expense of some other inside players, but with the overarching goal of cutting down the nets in Tampa, Fla., always in mind.
"A'ja has a pretty good head on her shoulders. She knows why she's successful. Part of the reason is, she's able to grow because of the type of teammates that she has. We put her in a position to be successful, because our other players are sacrificing," Staley said.
"Aleighsa Welch, she wants to win. It's not about the stats for her. She wants to make an impact on the game, and the way she does that is, she still scores, she still rebounds, she puts A'ja and (other freshmen) in a position to do well. Sometimes that's sacrificing her personal statistics."
Welch, a senior forward from Goose Creek, averaged 13.7 points last season, and is scoring 9.8 per contest this year. Sophomore center Alaina Coates has also seen her scoring average drop slightly, from 12.3 per game last season to 11.7 this year. Welch and Coates are both proven players who attract a lot of attention from opposing defenses, opening opportunities for Wilson - whom Staley calls "the biggest mismatch on the floor" because she's often guarded by a smaller defender.
Of course, there are times when roles are reversed - like Thursday night's victory at Alabama, where Coates led all scorers with 20 points while Wilson was limited to 11. But the very presence of so many potent inside players forces opposing defenses to give something up. Wilson has scored in double figures in 14 straight games, though she's sure to face better teams and bigger front lines as the Gamecocks (15-0, 3-0 SEC) get deeper into conference season.
That will likely be the case Sunday against Kentucky (14-2, 3-0), which lost two games to South Carolina last season before upsetting the Gamecocks in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. For now, though, Wilson is flourishing at the college level - thanks in part to both the support and sacrifice of her more veteran teammates.
"I kind of hit that freshman wall like every freshman does, and that kind of shook me a little bit," Wilson said. "But these veteran girls really helped me. They told me, 'It's just a wall, you can break through it, everybody has to get through it.' And day by day, practice by practice, game by game, I really started feeling it come along, and it feels great."