Sophomore A'ja Wilson right on track for top-seeded South Carolina

South Carolina rolls onto Sweet 16 (1:02)

Tiffany Mitchell scores 20 points and South Carolina handles Kansas State 73-47 to advance to the Sweet 16. (1:02)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Earlier this season, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and her sophomore, A'ja Wilson, were texting about a couple of new plays the Gamecocks were going to run. But it wasn't completely making sense to Wilson.

So Staley drew it up on the board in her office, took some pictures and sent them to Wilson.

"Then she was like, 'Oh, now I get it!'" Staley said. "A'ja usually has to see it; she's a very visual learner.

"Of course, I tell her that as you get older, basketball gets faster. You have to process information in other ways. People are not always going to take the time to draw it all up for you."

Then Staley laughed and said of Wilson's future professional coaches, "Well, actually, they might. Because she's that special a player."

The 6-foot-5 Wilson is blossoming before our eyes, and it's exactly what Staley was hoping to see when she won the recruiting battle to keep the hometown Wilson in Columbia, South Carolina.

Wilson grew up and went to school (K through 12) at Heathwood Hall, just minutes from Colonial Life Arena, where she has starred the past two seasons for the Gamecocks. She had a combined 23 points and 16 rebounds in South Carolina's two NCAA early-round victories there last weekend.

Now the No. 1 seed Gamecocks will face Syracuse in the Sioux Falls regional semifinals in South Dakota on Friday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), and Wilson will be a primary concern of the Orange. Just as she has been for all of South Carolina's foes this season.

Wilson has made the transition from a very promising freshman figuring it out to a standout sophomore who is one of the nation's best, just as Staley would have drawn it up for her.

Odds are, Wilson -- who is averaging 16.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots this season -- will get better and better at absorbing and understanding everything she needs to, regardless of whether it comes with visual aids. That's just the way she's wired. Once she puts her mind to something, that mind stays put until it's finished.

"She is very goal-oriented," her mother, Eva Wilson, said. "She writes things down and checks them off as she achieves them. And she always has been that way."

But like most other kids, Wilson didn't know exactly what she might want to focus on. Her father, Roscoe Wilson, had played professional basketball for a decade overseas, but he and Eva certainly didn't push little A'ja into the game. They tried plenty of other things.

"We got involved in ballet, piano -- we ran the whole gamut of activities," Roscoe said. "She didn't really like a lot of it.

"Then she started coming home from school with her clothes all dirty. We'd say, 'What happened?' and she'd say, "I'm playing soccer with the boys.' So then we got her into club soccer, and we could see she was an athlete -- she could move; she wasn't afraid of contact. Then she wanted to play volleyball, and she was good at that."

Basketball became inevitable, though early on as a kid, Wilson sat on the bench for her AAU team, happy to fetch water and clap for her teammates. You can already guess that didn't last very long. Workouts with her father made her stronger, and one of the first skills she was able to show off in games actually was her 3-point shooting. She was the tall, skinny kid who could launch it from the outside.

John O'Cain, who would eventually coach Wilson in high school at Heathwood Hall, noticed her athletic ability while she was still in elementary school there.

"You could just tell something was there," he said. "The potential for greatness."

By the time Wilson was a prep freshman at Heathwood, O'Cain was ready to make her the team's focal point.

"I kept telling her, 'Look, I know you're the youngest, but I need you to be the leader,'" said O'Cain, who recently left Heathwood but won a state championship there with Wilson. "And she was kind of hesitant.

"It was between ninth grade and her sophomore year, I think, that she got the attitude that she really had a chance to be something special."

The next step

A similar thing has played out for Wilson in her first two years at South Carolina, in fact.

"I think freshman year, I was on the outside looking in," Wilson said, though she still averaged 13.1 PPG and 6.6 RPG last season. "And I didn't really know what I was getting into. I was trying to just be a sponge.

"I'll give a lot of credit to USA Basketball as far as prepping me for this year. I had to take on a whole other role there, and it really helped me understand basketball more and my place on the team."

Wilson's time last summer playing in in the U19 world championship really was the perfect conduit for the transition she has made at South Carolina. Staley coached the gold-winning U.S. team, and Wilson was named the MVP.

"I got to form a different bond with Coach Staley there, and it's really helped me out," Wilson said. "It put me in more of a leadership position."

Wilson still does not have to be the sole emotional and verbal leader for the Gamecocks. Senior guards Tiffany Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier all are doing their share of that. And she doesn't have to carry all the load inside, either; 6-4 junior Alaina Coates has had another terrific season, too.

But Wilson has had to embrace being the Gamecocks' primary threat and prepare to take over as a true leader in every sense next season when these seniors are gone. That's coming, so Staley wants Wilson to be ready for it.

"I want her to be an Olympian ... she's that good. But I want her to be prepared for it. Some people get those opportunities, and they can't deliver because they haven't gotten the knowledge to excel at that level." Dawn Staley on A'ja Wilson

So all this season, Staley has pushed and prodded Wilson. She has asked for more. Actually, she has demanded it.

"She's kicked me off the court at practice; she's said I've been 'average.' She's really gotten under my skin at times," Wilson said, though she smiled about it because she knows that it works. "That's something that I appreciate, because it's helped me realize I can't slack off about anything."

Staley was a great college guard at Virginia, twice being named the consensus national player of the year, so this is a road she traveled herself. Staley is very much a pragmatist: She insists on more from Wilson because she knows Wilson has more to give.

"Here's an example: Until we challenged her to become the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, A'ja didn't give a hoot about defense," Staley said. "She didn't care about her responsibility on the help side, it didn't bother her that much when people scored on her. Now she's had some success with it, so she's started thinking ahead. She's asking about other players: 'How do I defend her?'

"We can show her various techniques, and that's important. But I told her that ultimately, you defend less with technique and more from here," Staley said, pointing to her heart.

And this season, Wilson was both the SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

This all lines up with what Roscoe told his daughter when he was helping her through AAU and high school, that his tough critiques and strict expectations were not about breaking her down, but lifting her up. And getting her steeled for what a college coach would be like.

"I've always said, 'You know the good stuff that you do. But it's the stuff you need to work on that you need to think about more,'" Roscoe said.

The path forward

Wilson's personality is generally very sunny; Staley says almost ruefully that Wilson is "the nicest player in the world." So there has been a process for Wilson of making herself a little edgier, if you will, and a bit fiercer on the court.

And that's not necessarily something that Staley or Roscoe and Eva, or anyone, really, can draw up and show to Wilson. She's doing that for herself.

Wilson will say now that when she was 10 or 11, she thought she would be "just a very normal kid" and had no aspirations of becoming outstanding at anything. But around age 12, something kicked in. She began to dream about big things that could become real.

"I remember her saying then, 'Daddy, I want to be the best player in the country, and I want to win gold medals,'" Roscoe said. "Well, she has some gold medals already with USA Basketball. And to be best, she knows she has to keep working."

"I'll give a lot of credit to USA Basketball as far as prepping me for this year. I had to take on a whole other role there, and it really helped me understand basketball more and my place on the team." A'ja Wilson

Staley is excited about everything Wilson can do, and she'll keep encouraging her to push the gas pedal.

"She's just such a solid kid," Staley said. "She's got parents who are disciplinarians, so she doesn't stray. She's a pleaser, and she doesn't want to rock the boat. Although that's one of things that might hold her back a little.

"I tell her, 'You can't just drive your car down the middle of the road all the time. Sometimes you've got to drive past some people. Sometimes you have to slow down and get in the right-hand lane and navigate things.'"

The bottom line is, the keys are in Wilson's hands, the gas tank is full, and there is so much road ahead of her.

"I want to get the most out of the experience for her and for me," Staley said of coaching Wilson. "I want her to be an Olympian someday and to experience everything in basketball, because she's that good. But I want her to be prepared for it. Some people get those opportunities, and they can't deliver because they haven't gotten the knowledge to excel at that level. I want her to have that."