COLUMBIA — A’ja Wilson’s already having troubles adjusting to college – at least to when the alarm goes off.
The 6-foot-5 Wilson has had to get up before dawn for early morning workouts since the country’s top basketball prospect began classes at South Carolina earlier this month.
“The sun’s supposed to have arrived before I’m awake,” said Wilson, sounding groggy Wednesday from another early call.
There are weight sessions, classes, tests, individual workouts and studies. And, of course, there are excited students bubbling about what Wilson’s addition means for the defending Southeastern Conference champions.
Wilson smiles thinking about classmates who whisper, “That’s her. That’s the number one.”
“A couple of them finally asked me for a picture,” she said. “It’s nice.”
Wilson excelled in four prep seasons at Heathwood Hall, growing from 5-9 as a freshman to her current height while maintaining her ball-handling and passing skills. Wilson averaged 35 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks a game this past year and ended an intense recruiting battle in April by choosing the hometown Gamecocks over national champion Connecticut, Tennessee and North Carolina.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it was very tough” deciding, Wilson said. “Just really with South Carolina, everything I ever wanted was in my backyard and I didn’t see a reason to leave.”
South Carolina is coming off a landmark season. Its 29 wins were second most ever, it won its first Southeastern Conference regular-season title and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The returning roster already includes 6-4 Alaina Coates, the SEC Freshman of the Year, and 6-4 Elem Ibiam, who was second in SEC blocks last season.
Wilson said she’s not looking to be the center of attention despite what she’s accomplished.
“I think we can get a lot of things,” Wilson said. “We just have to put the work in, which is what we’re doing and will do in the future.”
Wilson heads up a strong class of newcomers, which also includes 6-4 Jatarie White and guards Bianca Cuevas, Kaydra Duckett and Doniyah Cliney.
White and Cuevas, along with Wilson, were McDonald’s All-Americans. Wilson, White and Duckett are on campus already with Cuevas and Cliney due later on.
“I just see a lot of potential when I look around the room at team meetings and I see how we can make a difference,” White said.
Wilson, at 175 pounds, knows she’ll have to get stronger to hold position in the SEC with opponents focused on shutting her down.
“There are going to be girls at my position that we play in the SEC who’ll be quicker, faster, better and stronger,” she said. “So really just having my body ready for that.”
Wilson expects to get a boost from her time this summer on USA Basketball’s under-18 women’s team taking part in the FIBA Americas championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado in August. The team is coached by Staley.
Staley has attracted top-level players like Wilson in the past but hasn’t kept them. Kelsey Bone was the SEC freshman of the year for the Gamecocks, yet left for Texas A&M soon after. Kayla Brewer was another top-10 prospect who lasted only a few games before transferring to Texas.
Wilson knows Staley’s reputation as a perfectionist on court and picked the Gamecocks because of the push she expects to get from her new coach.
“Coach Staley doesn’t really sugar-coat much so when she recruited me I knew she was going to be hard, this little Philly girl, Philly coach,” Wilson said. “‘OK, she’s not soft. She’s kind of hard core.’ It’s good.”
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