She was a staple on the Aces’ bench the past nine games, her affable demeanor on full display as she cheered her teammates to a 6-3 record in her absence.
But A’ja Wilson is far more effective on the basketball court, and she’s ready to return to the lineup.
The second-year WNBA All-Star forward sprained her left ankle July 19 and missed the past nine games, but will return Sunday when the Aces (17-9) play at the Chicago Sky (15-10). Las Vegas can clinch its first playoff berth since 2014 with a victory.
Wilson practiced without limitation Thursday and Friday, showcasing the requisite mobility and dexterity she played with before the injury.
“Knowing that you can’t do anything about slumps during the game and just being out there with the fans, of course, that had to be the hardest thing,” Wilson said of her absence. “But when you know you’re doing the hard work behind the scenes, you know it’s going to pay off, so you kind of think about those things instead of the slumps.”
Wilson sustained a similar injury during her college career at South Carolina and was prepared for the pain and recovery. She rehabilitated her ankle every day and maintained her conditioning by training on underwater and anti-gravity treadmills.
The pain slowly dissipated, and she gradually increased her on-court activity.
“I don’t have any patience at all, especially when it comes to basketball,” she said. “When it hurts, your body is going to let you know. And you’ve just got to sometimes listen to it.”
In Wilson’s absence, Dearica Hamby started and averaged 14.3 points and 9.7 rebounds. Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said he wasn’t sure if Wilson would start or come off the bench Sunday, but doesn’t foresee a minutes restriction or a disruption to the team’s rotation.
“It’s a matter of conditioning, how many minutes in a row she can play,” Laimbeer said. “She’ll be rusty at times, so we’ll have to watch that a little bit so she doesn’t get frustrated.”
Wilson, who averages 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds, will have eight games to find her footing before the playoffs.
The Aces were plenty good without Wilson.
They’re even better with her.
“She’s a big piece of who we are, but establishing that confidence while somebody is away is still going to be able to linger through this playoff push for us,” guard Kayla McBride said. “I’m just glad that it happened when it did. Everything happens for a reason. It was next man up for us. I think it proved our point of who we are, what our identity is and the toughness of this team.”
Who: Aces at Chicago Sky
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Wintrust Arena, Chicago
About the Aces (17-9): Liz Cambage is averaging 22.3 points and 11.0 rebounds in her past three games.
About the Sky (15-10): Diamond DeShields averages a team-high 14.8 points, and Courtney Vandersloot averages a WNBA-high 8.8 assists for the Sky, who edged the Aces 87-84 on Aug. 9.