A’ja Wilson wins WNBA Most Valuable Player award

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert hugs Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson after presenting her with the 2020 Most Valuable Player award. Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas Aces.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert hugs Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson after presenting her with the 2020 Most Valuable Player award. Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas Aces.

A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces won the WNBA Most Valuable Player award Thursday, receiving 43 of 47 first place media votes. Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm was second, with two votes, and Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky received the remaining first place vote.

The 6-4 Wilson led the league in blocks with 44 (2 bpg), was second in scoring (20.5 ppg), and sixth in total rebounds (188, 8.5 rpg), while leading her team to the league’s number one seed in the playoffs.

Wilson won Rookie of the Year in 2018, but coach Bill Laimbeer emphasized how much she had grown since then as a player, and especially, as a leader.

What makes Wilson special, he said, is “her willingness to be a leader now. You know when she first got here, it was unclear whether – what her path held as far as leading the team.”

“Last year she went through a lot of emotional struggles with it. It affected her play. But this year, she came with that mindset of ‘Okay this is my basketball team. I have a responsibility,'” Laimbeer said.

“And she will tell you today, and any day you listen to her now, that she understands what being a professional basketball player is, especially in this environment we’re in, and she will tell you she is a professional basketball player. And she will only get better. She will work on her game every year, she’ll improve in every part of her game.”

Wilson was unquestionably the leader of the Aces in 2020, even though the starting lineup included veterans like Angel McCoughtry and Danielle Robinson.

She said that leadership came to her slowly.

“I think it’s something that I had to grow into, and I had to figure it out. I think that’s the biggest thing, and I don’t even know what I was figuring out. But I figured it out,” Wilson said.

“I think it’s just knowing not only that my team needs me, but every time. . . . Like they need me every possession, every time, and I have to be there, no matter what. And I think that’s something that I had to learn and grow and . . . trust myself in a lot of situations.”

Wilson said it was a process.

“There’ve been times where I might have doubted myself or been down because I feel like I should have did a certain thing a certain way, but that’s not the case,” she said. “I just had to honestly just, one, let the game come to me and two, just trust myself and trust others around me.”

Wilson has taken that lesson to heart, and has been a model of consistency. In 22 games this season, she has scored 20 or more points 14 times. She has scored fewer than 17 points just three times, all still double-digit outings. In seven games she has logged a double-double, and she has grabbed fewer than seven rebounds just four times. She has blocked at least one shot in 21 of 22.

Ordinarily, the MVP learns of the award via a phone call, and the commissioner presents the trophy later, during a playoff game. But many things are different in this bubble year. Commissioner Cathy Englebert showed up at an Aces team meeting to surprise Wilson with the award, and the 24-year-old cried.

“I was the underdog coming into the season,” Wilson said. “We were the underdog coming into this season. And just for us to play the way that we’ve been playing and to prove a lot of people wrong . . . This is how you change people’s outlook and the look of everything and how they may think now. You can’t count everybody out.”

In a light moment, nine-year-old WNBA reporter Pepper Persley reminded Wilson that she had called winning the NCAA tournament “like getting a giant bowl of ice cream,” and asked how the MVP award compared.

Wilson smiled and said, “Oh man! I think it’s now like four giant bowls of ice cream, we can say that! I think that is like the equivalent right now of . . . just the feelings. I can’t even put into words how happy and how grateful I really am.”

The ice cream would be strawberry.

Wilson and Las Vegas play their first playoff game on Sunday, as they take on the Connecticut Sun.