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For A’ja Wilson, it’s Winning Time in Vegas

The Aces forward has been working toward this moment since she entered the league. Now, a WNBA title is in sight — and she’ll accept nothing less.

On a rare off day between the end of the regular season and the launch of the playoffs, A’ja Wilson got to be a regular Las Vegas resident for once.

The reigning WNBA MVP hung out with her Aussiepoo puppies, Ace and Deuce, and went grocery shopping at the local Smith’s Food and Drug.

“I was kind of like a normal human being today,” she told Boardroom.

A taste of the ordinary is refreshing for a 25-year-old power forward who routinely displays superhuman production on the court. She followed up her 2020 MVP season in the bubble with 18.3 points and career-high marks of 9.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game for the Aces, plus an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo for good measure.

And after earning a double-bye for finishing second in the WNBA regular season standings, Las Vegas opens its postseason schedule Tuesday at home for Game 1 of the semifinals against the Phoenix Mercury. Ahead of tipoff at Michelob Ultra Arena, Boardroom spoke with the three-time All-Star about her singular quest for championship glory.

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MVP Resume, Underdog Mentality

Wilson’s on-court success has led to an NCAA championship at South Carolina, a WNBA MVP trophy, and Olympic gold. But in her mind, she hasn’t won anything yet at the pro level because she’s yet to win a championship in the W.

“I want that championship that bad. That Finals MVP is where it really is at,” she said. “But I’m blessed to be an MVP. No one can ever take that away from me. I’m listed alongside hella greats, but at the end of the day, I’m still just going as if I’m still an underdog.”

Wilson was reminded of the mantra that two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo repeated, telling reporters not to call him MVP until the Bucks won it all.

“I feel that 100%,” Wilson said.

It’s why the native of Hopkins, S.C. (where she still shops at Publix) uses her infrequent off days so wisely. Wilson doesn’t change up much from her routine between the regular season and playoffs, but she took her week off to dial in more to her body and mind — a mental reset of sorts. For the postseason, she’ll take extra treatment to get her body right and get to the gym a little earlier to lock in physically.

Players who win MVP at such a young age might feel like they can rest on their laurels, but the 6-foot-4 Wilson said the honor helped her grind even harder. That helped the Aces avoid the WNBA’s first two single-elimination playoff rounds, something they experienced two years ago in a nerve-racking game against the Chicago Sky. Vegas needed nothing less than Dearica Hamby’s half-court shot to save their season.

“Basketball is crazy,” Wilson said. “The basketball gods are just insane during that time.” 

It’s a March Madness feel that’s great to watch, but torture to play in. Wilson is more focused on her next opponent, and thankful that Las Vegas can get its bearings in a best-of-five series rather than face the possibility of going home after one bad night shooting the ball.

“It really comes down to the basketball,” she said, “because you scout a team for five games, or at least three, you start to know the team like the back of your hand. So it really comes down to just schemes and just playing basketball. That’s what I love about it.”

The game itself comes before everything, though Wilson did acknowledge that she and her fellow WNBA players definitely appreciated the new monetary bonuses that came with the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup. But as it became clear that the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm would play in the final of the competition, Wilson didn’t ultimately pay too much mind to the details — she locked in all the more on winning each individual game.

In the not-too-distant future, we’re increasingly likely to see the NBA implement its own midseason tournament, something Wilson thinks would be fun to see knowing that the W got the ball rolling on the idea.

“It’d be pretty nice to kind of share those particular things with [the NBA],” she said. “And it’s gonna be a lot more teams. That’s gonna be pretty intense.”

The A’ja Wilson Brand

As intense, focused, and successful as Wilson is on the court, she’s also become a bankable and marketable brand off the court. From an endorsement deal with Kim Kardashian West’s SKIMS, a podcast with Just Women’s Sports, an apparel line with Mountain Dew, and even her own candle company, Wilson knows what she loves and tries to bring her personality and aesthetic to everything she does.

“I want that to show in the things that sponsor me or that are behind me,” she said, “because that’s when you really love something — when it’s really close to you.”

Last Christmas, Wilson’s mother told her that she should actually start her own candle company. So she went to the bank and got her Burnt Wax brand off the ground with scents like “MVP,” “National Champion,” and “All-Star.”

When the line was released in April, its inventory sold out within hours.

The excitement Wilson has when describing Burnt Wax — which she calls her biggest business endeavor — is palpable, with the release of her fall scents on the way and friends like New Orleans Pelicans wing Josh Hart supporting her along the way.

“My house is full of candles, and now to have my own business and have all my friends and my fan base tap into it,” she said, ” I’m just super excited for the future.”

Why Not Us?

For the present and future, Wilson is also pumped about the state of Las Vegas sports. The way the fans are engaged and invested in the success of their WNBA, NFL, and NHL clubs, there’s more than just circumstantial evidence that Vegas is a legit sports town.

Mark Davis, the owner of both the Raiders and Aces, wants the city’s sports stars be as visible as possible. Right on cue, Wilson was shown on screen during ESPN’s broadcast of the Silver and Black’s season-opening thriller against Baltimore on Monday Night Football on Sept. 13.

“It’s so dope to be a part of something like that,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to have our own sports community here, because you could tell our residents were waiting for something like this to happen. And I have to credit Mark. He makes sure that we’re out there, that we’re seen no matter where we are.”

All that’s missing for Wilson and the Aces is a championship.

And as their postseason campaign begins, the question she’s asking herself is simple: Why not Vegas?

“No one can ever tell me why it’s not us,” she said, “so in my mind it is us.”

Wilson is thankful for everything she has — her gold medal, her businesses and endorsements, her NCAA title, her friends, her dogs, her MVP. Nobody’s going to take those away from her. Yes, she’s happy, but far from content in the bigger basketball picture. That one crowning achievement is missing.

“My main goal is to bring a championship here to Vegas.”

And until she relaxes on her next off day in Nevada, hanging with Ace and Deuce and making ordinary grocery runs, winning it all will be the only thing that matters.

About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.