With four five-star recruits rated in ESPN's Top 100 including four McDonald's All-Americans and the nation's best player, Dawn Staley signed a 2014 class rated No. 2 nationally, which not coincidentally is where the Gamecocks are ranked in the preseason coming off an SEC Championship in 2014.
In a class studded with jewels, A'ja Wilson is the Hope diamond, the nation's number top high school player who averaged 35 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks per game her senior year. When she announced back on April 16 in front of a packed home gym at Heathwood Hall that she would attend South Carolina, the entire gym and all of Gamecock Nation erupted.
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Fun-loving, charismatic and genuine, Wilson sat down with Gamecock Central on Wednesday to talk about that moment, her decision and her role at South Carolina.
GC: When you announced your decision, Jatarie White and Bianca Cueavas were together in California and White said when the heard your decision they were jumping up and down screaming together with excitement. Did you have a feeling about the impact your college choice would have on people?
A'ja Wilson: I knew people would be excited, but just sitting at the table and hearing my whole school erupt when I said "South Carolina" put a smile on my face. OK, if they're happy, A'ja is happy. Knowing Bianca and Jatarie were out in California going crazy and hearing my family members in Texas calling me, I didn't know it was going to build up that much excitement, honestly. But hearing it has been great so far.
GC: Being from here, did you give much thought to how much your private decision meant to so many people?
Wilson: Most definitely. I knew it would mean a lot when I was here on my official visit and people had on neon yellow shirts with "There's no place like home" on them. That was very overwhelming, and seeing it with my family just kind of smiling, I said, "Well, there is no place like home." We thought about that. We knew then that everyone wanted me to come here because I'm from here. But I didn't know the reaction would be so huge.
GC: What's it like to be a part of what's considered the best class in school history? Did that influence your decision to come to South Carolina at all?
Wilson: It kind of did, but then again it didn't. I knew it was my choice either way. Not to sound selfish, but whatever school I chose was going to be for me and not anyone else because I'm the one who has to go there for four years. But the recruiting class she's put together is phenomenal. She always does a great job recruiting girls and to see her do that was an eye-opener to me. OK, she can recruit. She's pretty darn good at that. The girls here now have been great.
GC: Dawn Staley has been an amazing success at South Carolina not just recruiting but in winning, growing a program over time the right way all the way to an SEC Championship last season.
Wilson: It was great sitting back and looking at what she's done here. She goes from having empty seats to almost selling out the lower level of the arena. Seeing that whole turnaround, seeing people come out and really respect the sport and support the sport is a great thing because that's not easy to do. It's not easy to do at all, and for her to do it has been great.
GC: What does Dawn mean to you as a role model for a female athlete who has accomplished so much as a player, winning a Final Four MVP, Olympic gold, playing in the WNBA where she was voted one of the top 15 players in league history and being elected to the National Basketball Hall of Fame?
Wilson: I slowly became aware of her career when she accepted the job as head coach here (in 2008). I was like, "OK, this is the new coach in my state, I should check her out." I never knew that I'd be recruited by her, because at the time I didn't really want to play basketball.
She's a role model to me. She's done everything that I want to do in life. She's such a great person and a great coach. It was my huge factor in choosing South Carolina. You don't want to follow in the footsteps of someone who hasn't done it, and she's done it. You want to be coached by her. She obviously knows what she's doing. I trust her and I know she can get me where I want to be. She knows the path there because she took that path. She's the biggest reason why I chose South Carolina.
GC: What's been your experience so far this summer with the team in the limited workouts you've had?
Wilson: It's been great, but tough also in the transition over from high school to college. Everything is fast-paced, now. We're never wasting time. Every minute we're doing something. Our workout trainer tells us all the time to keep moving, keep moving. In high school I was like, "I'll move when I want; I'm not feeling like moving today." Here, you're moving, so it's been a lot of fun.
GC: Do you have a sense of how your skill set is going to translate offensively?
Wilson: Not yet. We've played a few pickup games, but I haven't yet. I think when we get everyone here as a team I'll slowly start to see it. I think my versatility is my strength. I'm 6-3, 6-4 or whatever you want to call it, and I love to play the wing. I see Alaina (Coates) and Jatarie down there banging, and I'm just like, "Uhhh, no!"
I'm like OK, good thing I'm out on the wing!
GC: With Coates (6-4), White (6-4) and Elem Ibiam (6-4), this team has significant size inside. Does your size outside allow you to break down smaller opponents?
Wilson: The strong post presence was a big factor in my recruitment. I'm not a huge fan of going down to the block. If you need me to go down there I will, but that's not me. If you want the best of A'ja, you won't put me on the block. I'm not the biggest thing. It's huge for us to have that size going into the SEC.
I do whatever basketball gives me. I'm going to let the game come to me; I'm not going to force it. If a girl is shorter than me, I'll take her to the post. If she's bigger, I'll bring her out to the wing. It depends on what the game gives me.
GC: Have you set any goals yet? Are there things you know you want to achieve?
Wilson: My biggest goal is to win a national championship. You can ask any girl in the NCAA, and their goal is to win a national championship. That's my goal, and I don't think that's any secret around here. I do set goals, but I'll probably wait until August or so for that when I really get to see things.
GC: Did you watch the team last year and have any moments where you thought, "I could fit in and help there?
Wilson: Yes. That actually played a huge factor in my recruiting as well. I kind of put myself in a jersey and said, "OK, how would I be fitting in this system? Where would they put me?" That's when I also talked to the coaches and if they said they wanted me down on the block, that wasn't what I wanted.
Last season I put myself in a jersey and saw and listened to what Coach Staley said about how she saw me playing here, and that meant a lot to me know.
GC: You've had elite expectations for some time now, including your senior year as the nation's number one player. How has handling those prepared you for college?
Wilson: It was tough. Every night you had to go show what you had. There were times when I thought, "I'm so tired, I can't go on," but my family and friends and the support I had kept me strong.
GC: There's an energy and enthusiasm around women's basketball at South Carolina that is at perhaps an all-time high. Is that exciting to be around?
Wilson: Oh definitely. I'm so excited to be a part of Gamecock Nation I could burst inside!