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A’ja Wilson embraces leadership role for Aces

Make no mistake about it: The Aces always have been A’ja Wilson’s team.

“Pieces come and go, but it’s A’ja’s franchise,” guard Kelsey Plum said. “Everyone knows that. If you don’t get with that, you won’t be here.”

The Aces have experienced an offseason full of change. Coach Bill Laimbeer resigned, general manager Dan Padover left for the GM’s job with the Atlanta Dream and star center Liz Cambage signed with the Los Angeles Sparks after two All-Star seasons in Las Vegas.

But Wilson stayed, signing a two-year contract extension as a restricted free agent. At 25, the forward is entering the prime of her career and has one goal for the WNBA franchise.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure we execute, and that’s to win a championship,” said Wilson, the 2020 league MVP.

Teammates have seen Wilson embrace more of a leadership role this season for the Aces, who play the Seattle Storm in their home opener at 7 p.m. Sunday at Michelob ULTRA Arena.

Leadership was a focus for the Aces in the offseason. Forward Dearica Hamby said the team was mostly led by committee last season.

Wilson, in particular, has taken the challenge to heart.

“She’s starting to understand what comes with the territory,” Hamby said. “She’s starting to embrace it.”

Hamby isn’t the only one who has noticed a change in Wilson. Guards Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams think she has matured in all facets of her game and is more comfortable speaking up.

But to wing Jackie Young, this is the Wilson she has always known.

Young was taken No. 1 in the 2019 WNBA draft by the Aces, a year after they took Wilson No. 1. Wilson, understanding the pressure and expectations of being the first pick, guided Young through her first few seasons.

Young considers Wilson one of her closest friends on the team and is amazed by how accessible and open the three-time All-Star is.

“She’s just a great person to be around,” Young said.

Wilson’s ability to connect with the younger players has continued this season. Rookie wing Kierstan Bell said Wilson has been her biggest mentor.

Bell said she thinks Wilson’s work ethic is contagious in the gym. She’s a tough critic and holds the rookies to a high standard, but she’s also supportive and takes time to explain what they need to work on.

Wilson said successful leaders demand self-accountability and respect for others. As she continues to develop, she’s seizing the leadership role that her talent has always deemed her worthy of holding.

“I love the type of woman I’m growing myself into,” she said. “Especially as a basketball player, this is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”

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

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