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A’ja Wilson Talks WNBA Growth, Gatorade, and Three-Peat Dreams in JWS Exclusive

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 14: A'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces smiles after the game against the Phoenix Mercury on May 14, 2024 at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images)

After earning two league MVP awards and back-to-back WNBA championships in the last four years, Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson has witnessed the WNBA’s recent glow-up firsthand — along with all the growing pains that come with it.

"Even after 2020, it was kind of like ‘Oh make me a sandwich, get back in the kitchen, this isn't a real sport,’" she told Just Women’s Sports last week. "Now we get the barbershop talk, we get the rivals, we get the talks, and I feel like that is when we see really true growth."

Growth in the WNBA can take a lot of different forms: There are the sold-out crowds, the record TV numbers, the overwhelming spike in merchandise sales, and a wealth of other data points that tell the story of a league ready for its time in the sun amid the larger sports landscape. 

Much of the league’s growing popularity can be attributed to a shining rookie class bringing more eyes to the sport, with off-court murmurings revolving around young stars getting attention from big brands as both pros and at the college level via NIL deals. But Wilson is quick to mention that generations of talented players have been pushing the sport forward for decades, and she sees her own recent opportunities as a piece of that evolving puzzle. 

The 27-year-old’s WNBA accolades are many, but she is also an Olympic gold medalist hoping for her second this summer, a best-selling author, and a worthy face of a still-growing league. She announced her first signature shoe with longtime sponsor Nike just before the 2024 WNBA season tipped off, and her latest venture has her joining Gatorade’s elite athlete roster.

A'ja Wilson drinking a Gatorade in black and white, with orange Gatorade sweat
A still from Gatorade's "Is It in You?" revival commercial. (Gatorade)

Wilson is one of the stars of Gatorade’s newest and largest campaigns, a slate of ads that place top women athletes in direct conversation with superstars of men’s sports past and present. The throughline from Michael Jordan to players like A’ja Wilson and Caitlin Clark has never been more obvious than it is now, a narrative the brand hopes to represent visually — through beads of sweat.

"I feel like it's just one of those full circle moments," Wilson said about the campaign. "As a kid, it's something that I've always been drinking — juice wasn't a thing, it was like, ‘Pass me the Gatorade.’"

Nostalgic affinity aside, Wilson also noted that in order for public opinion of the WNBA to continue to move forward, more players needed to be included in the daily discourse that surrounds all sports, which includes TV commercials and magazine spreads. Visibility leads to curiosity about how WNBA players excel on the court day in and day out, and she feels the league is ready to show off.

"I think that's the best thing that we can ever ask for," she said. "Learn about us, know that we're deeper than basketball players, know that we've been doing this for a minute, and we've been true to this, not new to this."

Yet working to be seen can sometimes be in danger of eclipsing the very thing a player wants to be seen for: playing championship basketball. Wilson says that while sometimes she feels like she "is on a plane more than walking the Earth," she never loses sight of the most important thing in her career. "I love having my voice being heard. I love meeting everybody and connecting with different people. But at the end of the day, the ball must go in the hoop," she said with a laugh.

The ability to balance a long book tour and a variety of offseason appearances with preparing for the WNBA season is something she attributes to her teams, both personal and within the Aces franchise. Las Vegas is one of the few WNBA teams with their own practice facility, and the investment has paid off in spades.

A'ja Wilson (L) #22 and Jackie Young #0 of the Las Vegas Aces pose with their 2023 WNBA championship rings
A'ja Wilson and Jackie Young tried on their 2023 WNBA championship rings in front of a sold-out Las Vegas crowd this month. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"It is a game-changer to know that people are invested in you and pouring into you, because it's a lot to play, you pour out a lot," Wilson said. "When you have companies, you have a fan base, and a franchise that is like, ‘No, we're gonna pour into you,’ that's when you get the best out of athletes."

The Aces have needed Wilson at her sharpest to start the 2024 season. WNBA legend Candace Parker retired with immediate effect at the beginning of training camp due to lingering injuries, and the team has been without starting point guard Chelsea Gray since last year’s WNBA Finals (which, of course, the Aces won).

Despite the team’s setbacks — or, perhaps, in light of them — Wilson has responded without missing a beat. She already sits third in the league in points per game, while also leading the league in rebounds and sitting fourth in blocks per game. Her candidacy for a third MVP trophy is well on its way as she helps guide her team through an early bout of adversity on the court. Las Vegas has only suffered one loss thus far, but hasn’t always looked like their dominant selves through sections of games, particularly on defense, but Wilson’s perspective has remained solid.

"The past few years, we would go through this funk maybe post All-Star [break], or right before All-Star, but now it's just a little earlier," Wilson said. "But I love that for us because it really allows us to not be complacent — it really allows us to really dial into what needs to be done.

"Ultimately, if it was too easy, everybody would be going back-to-back."

Las Vegas Aces A'ja Wilson (22) in action, shoots vs Indiana Fever at Michelob ULTRA Arena. Las Vegas
Wilson goes up for a shot in a May 25th game against Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever. (Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

With the 2023 banners already raised and rings doled out, the 2024 roster is looking to build their own form of chemistry throughout a long season. For Wilson, the biggest goal through what’s expected to be a grueling Olympic year is just to remain healthy — in addition to setting her sights on adding to her trophy case.

"If I'm better than I was last year, that's a check-off for me," she said. "I don't really believe in championship or bust. I don't really like that talk, because it's too long of a season for us, and we have a lot of stuff going on now. Obviously I just want to be a winner in every aspect, and bringing up my teammates with me of course is going to be huge because I cannot do this alone."

Where A’ja Wilson goes, it seems, the larger conversation around the WNBA follows, inching closer to becoming as universally spoken about as professional men’s basketball. "I feel like once people really see and dial into — and I can only speak for the Aces because that's my team — what we do, man, that's when the real talk is coming."

Katie Ledecky punches ticket to Paris, fourth Olympics

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JUNE 15: Katie Ledecky celebrates after winning the Women's 400 LC Meter Freestyle during the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Katie Ledecky is officially on to her fourth straight Olympics, punching her ticket to Paris in the 400-meter freestyle on Saturday. 

But Ledecky’s wasn’t the only name in the headlines in Indianapolis. Virginia’s Gretchen Walsh set a World Record in the 100-meter butterfly on Saturday in the semifinal. And roughly 24 hours later, she was an Olympian, taking first in the event. 

"I was definitely nervous," Walsh said. "There were a lot of what-ifs. Coming off breaking the world record, I was thinking, 'Do I need to do that again just to make the team? What if I get third? What's that even even going to look like?'"

She later added that she “couldn’t ask for a better start” to the meet. 

Both Torri Huske and Regan Smith were under the previous American record placing second and third respectively. But Smith, whose time would’ve won her silver at the Tokyo Olympics, won’t swim the event in Paris after placing third. 

And in front of a record crowd, 46-year-old Gabrielle Rose proved that age is just a number. She set a best time in the 100-meter breaststroke en route to advancing to the semifinals of the event. There, she finished in 10th place – and with another best time. 

“I’m just hoping to show people you can do more, you’re capable of doing more,” Rose, a two-time Olympian, said. “You can have more energy, you can have more strength than you thought was possible. I want women in particular to not be afraid to be strong, to lift weights, to take care of themselves and just know that they can have a lot more in the older chapters of their lives.”

WNBA’s Rookie of the Year race heats up

WASHINGTON, DC -  JUNE 6: Angel Reese #5 of the Chicago Sky and Aaliyah Edwards #24 of the Washington Mystics after the game on June 6, 2024 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA continues to make waves this season, with the 2024 rookie class continuing to impress. 

Sky forward Angel Reese has registered six straight double-doubles, tying the longest streak for a rookie even as Chicago skids to a four-game losing streak. It’s also tied for the most by a rookie in WNBA history alongside Tina Charles and Cindy Brown.

Reese is the only rookie to average a double-double this season. But Mystics rookie Aaliyah Edwards has been averaging near a double-double this month, as Washington rattled off two back-to-back wins after a franchise-worst 0-12 start.

Kamilla Cardoso has been solid in her start to the season, registering her first professional double-double on Sunday with 10 points and 10 rebounds. 

Caitlin Clark has had a solid month for the Fever, leading the rookies with an average of 14.0 points per game. On Sunday, she neared a triple-double with 23 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds in the Fever’s win over Chicago. 

And after an abysmal start amidst a tough stretch of games, the Fever have now won four out of their last six games, with last year's Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston getting into the groove with scoring.

In Los Angeles, rookie duo Cameron Brink and Rickea Jackson have been putting together a solid season, with both netting 16 points apiece in the team’s loss to Atlanta on Sunday.

Those looking for a clear frontrunner for rookie of the year won’t get one: Clark (assists), Reese (rebounds, steals), and Brink (blocks) each currently sit in the top five league-wide in a number of key stats.

13th NWSL Match Weekend Dominated by Draws

NWSL Washington Spirit's Croix Bethune celebrates her stoppage-time equalizer against San Diego Wave FC
Washington's Croix Bethune celebrates her stoppage-time equalizer against San Diego. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL's weekend action brought with it no separation on the table, as five of the weekend's seven games ended in draws.

Three of those matches finished without a single goal, as Houston, Angel City, Orlando, North Carolina, Seattle, and Portland all came down to 0-0 draws. Only Gotham and Utah earned wins, with the New York/New Jersey side passing the Thorns to claim fourth place in the standings. 

For the Royals, the 1-0 win over Bay FC ends a 10-game winless streak. Utah now sits one point behind Seattle at the bottom of the table.

Despite the split points, two games did provide some fireworks by way of epic stoppage-time comebacks. Center back Sam Staab had her first goal in a Red Stars uniform, helping Chicago save a point in Kansas City in the 90th minute.

Washington also saved a result in the nick of time, as a masterful 96th-minute Croix Bethune strike got the best of talented Wave FC center-back Naomi Girma to finish things off at 1-1.

As for the Golden Boot leaderboard, only Temwa Chawinga managed to make a move on the leaderboard, with a goal against Chicago tying her with Orlando’s Barbra Banda for second.

Tobin Heath Details Injury Recovery Journey, Hints at Possible Return

Tobin Heath on the field for the USWNT in October 2021
Tobin Heath last played for the USWNT in October 2021. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

On the latest episode of the RE-CAP Show, USWNT star Tobin Heath revealed that she underwent a second knee surgery in her quest to return to the pitch. 

Heath hasn’t played since the 2022 NWSL season, when her tenure with then-OL Reign was cut short due to a knee surgery. A two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Champion, she hasn't addressed her playing career much over the last two years. 

In the latest RE-CAP Show episode, Heath revealed that she had to receive a cartilage transplant in her knee.

"I think it was public when I got my first knee surgery, which was actually just kind of a clean-out of the knee," Heath said. "I ended up trying to rehab back for about a year and got pretty close. I thought about signing for a team. At that time I didn’t think I was there enough with the knee to be able to commit fully to a team, because the way I play football is I’m all in — like I play to be at the highest level, I play to be winning World Cups, Olympics, club championships.

"And then obviously with that first surgery not helping, I got a second pretty big surgery with my knee that then put me in the category of like, 'Will I ever play professionally again?'"

Initially, Heath says she wasn’t aware of the gravity of the second surgery. But an examination of her knee revealed that she needed a more intensive repair than previously thought.

"When I got there, I thought I was going to be getting kind of like a smaller version of a surgery, and right before I got into surgery, there was kind of a big revelation about the current state of my knee that put me in the category to get a serious knee surgery. It was a cartilage transplant," Heath said.

While Heath said she hasn’t exactly closed the door on a potential return, she's currently focusing intently on rehab — with the future remaining unclear.

"I kind of just pray to God and say like, 'Whatever your will is for my career, that’s what it’s going to be,'" she added. "And I’ll just work my ass off and see where that gets."

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