Earlier this week, South Carolina star forward A’ja Wilson was presented with the Naismith Trophy, one of the most prestigious college basketball honors given annually to the best player in the country. While it’s the last honor she’ll receive as a student-athlete prior to the WNBA Draft, the Naismith helped her complete a clean sweep of all major player of the year awards. Wilson will leave South Carolina with a stuffed trophy case — and much better than she found it.
There’s been a lot of recent discussion about Wilson’s legacy, and where she stands in the pantheon of Gamecock greats. While her numerous feats and accomplishments are well known to South Carolina fans at this point, it’s still immensely enjoyable to go back through them. Before Wilson likely becomes a member of the Las Vegas Aces as the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft, here’s an abridged list of her career highlights:
- Unanimous national player of the year (2017-18)
- Three-time SEC Player of the Year (2017-18; first player to do so)
- Four-time All-American
- NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player (2016-17)
- All-time leading scorer (2,389 points)
- Career points scored in an SEC season (1,020)
- Free throws made in a career (597)
- Free throws attempted in a career (835)
- Free throws made in a season (186 in 2017-18)
- Free throws attempted in a season (254)
- Blocked shots average in a career (2.63)
- Blocked shots average in a season (3.18 in 2017-18)
As the national high school player of the year and No. 1 overall recruit in 2014, Wilson could have gone literally anywhere to play her college ball. Instead, she chose to stay with her hometown Gamecocks, declaring “There’s no place like home” at her commitment ceremony at Heathwood Hall. Thus began an incredible four-year journey that culminated in scores of individual honors, a record-setting four consecutive SEC Tournament championships, and a national title. A force to be reckoned with the moment she stepped on the court as a freshman, Wilson only got better each year, eventually averaging 25 points and 12 rebounds during her senior season. Against much of the competition, she had no equal — and even ultra-talented UConn couldn’t keep her from getting to the basket.
With all due to respect to the many other skilled players who have suited up for women’s basketball at South Carolina, it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s unfathomable to consider where the program would be without Wilson. She wasn’t just a standout on the court; with her playful and fun-loving personality, she was a fan favorite off of it as well, and quickly became a face of not just the women’s team but South Carolina as a whole. Wilson was, quite simply, the total package: a homegrown star athlete so genuine, so easy to root for, so inspiring as a representative of the university. Do the Gamecocks climb that mountaintop and capture a national championship without her? Does South Carolina lead the nation in women’s basketball attendance without her?
For these reasons, it’s hard — if not impossible — to argue that A’ja Wilson is not the greatest Gamecock of all time. Bare minimum, the No. 22 should never again be worn by another women’s player, much like it’s been retired for the men. NBA Hall of Famer Alex English, who wore the same number, penned a touching tribute to Wilson’s career in which he called her “the University of South Carolina’s greatest basketball player.” Fellow Gamecock legend George Rogers, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, took it a step further, airing his desire to see both a statue and a street name in honor of Wilson: “If they can make a statue of me, they can put one up of A’ja.” Coach Dawn Staley added her voice as well, encouraging Gamecock fans to “flood” athletics director Ray Tanner and university president Harris Pastides with requests for a statue outside Colonial Life Arena. Last but not least, fellow beloved basketballer Sindarius Thornwell chimed in:
It remains to be seen how South Carolina will choose to honor Wilson. The specific process and requirements to retire a number seem a bit nebulous and inscrutable, although Wilson’s mark on this school is anything but. Is a statue in the cards? If it can pick up enough steam, maybe so. Regardless of when or if that happens, Gamecock fans know the score.