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How volleyball turned A’ja Wilson into the WNBA’s best shot blocker

For the past several years, pop culture has become obsessed with the idea of a multiverse, the hypothetical existence of innumerable universes beyond our observation.

A’ja Wilson being an Olympic-caliber athlete, however, might be the one constant that ties the multiverse together.

Wilson’s basketball exploits and accolades are extensive. She’s a two-time WNBA champion, a two-time league MVP, a Finals MVP, a three-time first-team All-WNBA selection, an NCAA national champion, a John R. Wooden Award recipient and an Olympic gold medalist.

Yet in some alternate universe out there, Wilson isn’t a world-renowned basketball player. Instead, she’s one of the greatest American volleyball players to ever take the court.

“Volleyball was my first love,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s basketball background is well known. She’s been open about her struggles as a teenager to find her place in the game and accept her talents. She had many interests outside the four lines of a basketball court — athletic and otherwise — just like she does today.

Volleyball helped cultivate her love for sports in general. It also turned her into the WNBA’s premier shot blocker and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

“I play as if there’s a net in front of me,” Wilson said.

Volleyball beginnings

Wilson participated in a number of sports growing up. Eva Wilson, the two-time MVP’s mother, said her daughter also ran track and played soccer, but first began to show interest in volleyball during middle school.

“If she had her way,” Eva Wilson said, “she would’ve done all of them.”

She attended Heathwood Hall, an Episcopal private school in Columbia, South Carolina. Eva Wilson started taking her daughter to see some of the high school volleyball games in sixth grade, and once A’ja Wilson reached seventh grade, she began to play.

Just a year later, A’ja Wilson was on the high school varsity team, as Heathwood Hall’s small student body meant eighth graders could play if they were talented enough.

She joined a team in an interesting situation.

Nancy Somera was probably overqualified to be coaching high school volleyball. She’d just spent two seasons at South Carolina before stepping down to spend more time with her family when Heathwood Hall offered her the job. She also previously coached at Oregon State and enjoyed an illustrious playing career at Southern California.

Somera said she isn’t sure whether the school even had a tryout, or if it was simply an open gym, but she remembers being “blown away” as she watched an eighth grade A’ja Wilson go through drills for the first time.

“It was just how coordinated and athletic and good she was,” said Somera, now the coach at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

The Heathwood Hall team Somera took over wasn’t great. She described their style of play when she arrived as “picnic volleyball.” The Highlanders really only had one redeeming quality: A’ja Wilson.

“I basically devised our whole system around A’ja,” Somera said.

Wilson did — quite literally — everything. She was the best passer, so when the Highlanders received the serve, she was tasked with protecting the middle of the court. She played middle blocker, and covered the entire net with ease. The offense simply consisted of setting high passes to her cannon of a left arm. Wilson made it look effortless, despite her very minimal previous volleyball training.

“It was a sport that I was like, ‘Not a lot of people are in this gym. I can have fun. I get to jump. I don’t have to do a lot of running,’ ” Wilson said. “It was just something I fell in love with.”

Wilson’s volleyball journey didn’t last much longer. Somera left after one year, and Wilson had already decided to fully focus on basketball around the same time.

Nevertheless, Somera still thinks about what Wilson might’ve become as a volleyball player. She said Wilson likely would’ve switched to being a right-sided hitter if she’d gone on to play at the next level and could’ve gone to any school.

Somera also believes Wilson could’ve been good enough to play for Team USA at the Olympics. Somera will admit, however, that Wilson probably made the right decision in the long run.

“Obviously, A’ja did not choose wrong,” Somera said with a laugh. “There’s a statue of her at South Carolina now.”

Good company

When Somera imagines what Wilson’s volleyball future might’ve looked like, she pictures Natalie Williams.

One of the greatest two-sport athletes in NCAA history, Williams lettered in volleyball and basketball at UCLA. She won two volleyball national championships with the Bruins in 1990 and 1991. A left-handed, right-sided hitter, Williams won the Honda-Broderick Award for being the nation’s best volleyball player in 1992 and 1993. She was a finalist for the basketball version of the award in 1994, losing out to Lisa Leslie.

She’s also the general manager of the Aces.

Williams has an up-close view of Wilson’s defensive prowess nightly, and personal insight into how volleyball skills can translate into basketball success. For example, Wilson credits volleyball for teaching her better hand-eye coordination, timing for her jumps and how to contest shots without fouling. Williams agreed, and expanded on some of those ideas.

“Volleyball definitely teaches you how to go up and get the ball at its highest point,” Williams said. “It’s the same with basketball.”

Wilson’s defensive footwork can also be reminiscent of a middle blocker, especially when she’s in rearview pursuit of a player driving to the rim or when she’s coming to help off the weak side of the defense.

No player has swatted more shots than Wilson since she entered the league in 2018. Her 343 regular-season blocks already rank 19th all time and second in franchise history behind the late Margo Dydek, the WNBA career leader with 877. Wilson led the league in blocks the past two seasons, averaging a career-best 2.2 this season.

She’s in good company among shot blockers who may have taken inspiration from volleyball. Along with Williams, whose 66 blocks rank 13th in Aces history, reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid has frequently said he originally planned to pursue a career in volleyball before eventually switching to basketball.

Volleyball is also a popular sport in Nigeria, home of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and NBA career blocks leader Hakeem Olajuwon. Williams said Wilson and Olajuwon — the only player in NBA history to win MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP and a league championship in a single season, a feat Wilson was just shy of accomplishing in 2022 — are certainly comparable.

“She’s so talented,” Williams said, “way better than I was.”

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

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