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Aces All-Star named WNBA Defensive Player of the Year

Updated September 22, 2023 - 7:08 pm

A’ja Wilson was getting her daily physical treatment done when she received a call from WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Generally, the reigning MVP assumes the worst when she gets direct calls from the league’s top brass.

“I’m like, ‘Uh oh, what did I do?’” Wilson said.

Instead, Engelbert was calling to congratulate her for repeating as WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. The Aces forward earned 32 votes from the 60-person panel of sports writers and broadcasters from across the country. She was also named to the WNBA All-Defensive first team Friday.

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, the 2022 runner-up for the award, finished second again with 24 votes. Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes, who led the league in steals this season, had three votes, and New York Liberty guard Betnijah Laney had one.

Wilson, 27, is the eighth player in league history named defensive player of the year multiple times and the sixth player to win the award in consecutive seasons, joining Alana Beard, Tamika Catchings, Brittney Griner, Sheryl Swoopes and Teresa Weatherspoon.

Catchings won the award in back-to-back seasons twice — in 2005-06 and 2009-10 — on her way to a record five defensive player of the year awards. Lisa Leslie and Sylvia Fowles won the award multiple times but never consecutively.

“To be able to have my name on that list, alongside those greats,” Wilson said, “it’s a blessing that I’m not going to take for granted.”

The 6-foot-4-inch Wilson led the WNBA in blocked shots this season, averaging a career-best 2.23 per game. She also ranked third in defensive rebounds per game (7.3) and 10th in steals (1.40). The Aces’ 97.7 defensive rating ranked first among all WNBA teams, while their 80.3 points allowed per game was second, slightly trailing the Sun (79.0).

Wilson credits her shot-blocking prowess to her volleyball background. Wilson said it was the first sport she truly loved, and the hand-eye coordination and quick jumping volleyball teaches are skills she’s been able to translate to basketball.

Wilson’s no stranger to these awards. She was the 2016 Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, then won the award again in 2018 with former Mississippi State star and current Dallas Wings center Teaira McCowan.

However, Wilson called those wins “kind of like a fluke,” and added that South Carolina coach Dawn Staley routinely berated her for poor defense. Even now, Wilson won’t take sole credit for the Aces’ improved defense.

Wilson joked she was going to scratch starting center Kiah Stokes’ name onto the trophy ahead of hers. She also praised the defensive work of the starting perimeter players — specifically All-Star Jackie Young — for making her job easier.

Aces coach Becky Hammon said Wilson has become more comfortable within the defensive scheme. Wilson knows where to be and has a better understanding of her responsibilities as the Aces have continued to stress defense all season.

“She’s been awesome all year,” Hammon said. “And better than she was last year.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on X.

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