The Las Vegas Aces began last year as one of the WNBA's top teams and entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, but they got knocked out in the semifinals by the Phoenix Mercury. Not surprisingly, A’ja Wilson entered this season extremely motivated to lead her team to the WNBA Finals.
Under first-year head coach Becky Hammon, the Aces have raised their collective offensive game while operating in a spread offense. Wilson’s development this year highlights the trend that has defined modern basketball.
Post players are often asked to do a lot on offense — post up, set hard screens, run in transition, shoot the 15-foot shot and make good passes out of the paint, to name a few. Unless they have been deemed a 3-point threat during the college recruiting process, it’s unlikely the coach wants post players to consistently take deep shots, especially if the 3s are not within the flow of the offense.
Throughout the history of the WNBA, traditional centers like Lisa Leslie, Brittney Griner and Stefanie Dolson have enjoyed success and longevity. However, a shift is under way in which post players are adding layers to their games.
For Wilson, she improved her shooting to a career-best 50.1% from the field in the regular season, adding high-volume and accurate shooting skills to complete a well-rounded game that earned her the 2022 WNBA MVP award.
“You've got to guard me everywhere at this point, and I want to be a player that you have to guard on all three levels,” Wilson said before Vegas' series-clinching Game 4 victory against the Seattle Storm. “So I think it's just helped me because I'm not the Steph Curry of the league, but at the same time, you have to respect that in a way.”
Wilson, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick, made an immediate impact as a rookie, leading the Aces in scoring (20.7) and blocked shots (1.7) with league bests in free throws made (192) and free throws attempted (248). She always has been able to score with her back to the basket, but this year, she's evolved offensively with the ability to drive downhill and shoot the 3.
In her first four seasons, Wilson only attempted two 3-pointers and made one. In 2022, she went 31-for-83 from beyond the arc, shooting a respectable 37.9% on 3s.
“I think it's just the way the game is going,” Wilson said. “You want to be more versatile. You want to expand your game because that's how the league is going, and you don't want to get left behind. But I don't think the post, the center, the traditional center, is lost. I think it's still a piece of our game. But you just want to add some attributes to your game because that's where you see the game going.”
Even with an expanded offensive arsenal, Wilson has continued to impact games defensively. In addition to winning her second league MVP, she was named the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year, leading the WNBA in total rebounds (339) and averaging 7.6 defensive rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals during the regular season. In the playoffs, Wilson has increased her averages for defensive rebounds (9.2) and blocks (2.3).
Wilson's dominance will surely influence the next wave of WNBA post players and what skills they need to possess. It figures to be reminiscent of what Candace Parker did for players like Breanna Stewart who have the body of a post player but the skills of a guard.
Stewart, the Storm star known for her scoring duality, believes post players will continue to add new dimensions to their games to make them harder to defend. It also will increase their longevity in such a competitive league.
“That's just the way that basketball is evolving. You have to be able to do more than one thing,” Stewart said before Seattle's Game 4 loss to the Aces. “Obviously, we have some amazing centers that have come through our league. With Syl (Sylvia Fowles) retiring, obviously nobody plays like B.G., but when you can step out and hit an outside shot, it makes you really hard to guard from a different way.”