COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A’ja Wilson is South Carolina’s most-talked about newcomer on the women’s basketball team this fall and she’s part of the country’s No. 2 signing class.
Coach Dawn Staley brought in two other McDonald’s All-Americans besides Wilson in 6-foot-4 forward Jatarie White and 5-6 guard Bianca Cuevas. Those three along with fellow freshmen in guards Kaydra Duckett and Doniyah Cliney all come in looking to make a quick and significant impact for the defending Southeastern Conference regular-season champions.
“I just see a lot of potential when I look around the room at team meetings,” said White, the country’s No. 7 best prospect according to ESPN. “I just see how we could make a difference.”
That’s the attitude Staley wants to hear. The basketball Hall-of-Famer has steadily built the Gamecocks the past six seasons into a program the country’s very best high schoolers can’t ignore. She has said there will be very difficult decisions about playing time ahead, especially if her newest players prove they belong on the court.
“Everybody wants to contribute, but our program is at a place where our depth chart is incredible,” Staley said this spring. “Our players understand that.”
South Carolina’s newest players understand that, too.
Wilson is the 6-foot-5 headliner from Columbia who picked the hometown Gamecocks over national champion Connecticut, SEC powerhouse Tennessee and dynamic North Carolina.
Wilson doesn’t think she deserves any special consideration because of high school feats - she averaged 35 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks her senior season - at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School. Still, she’s ready to battle for minutes with South Carolina’s returning standouts in 6-4 Alaina Coates, 6-foot Aleighsa Welch and 6-4 Elem Ibiam.
Coates was the SEC’s newcomer of the year after averaging 12.3 points, a team-high 8.4 rebounds, yet started just once in the Gamecocks 29-5 season.
Welch, a junior, was a second-team all-SEC who averaged 13.7 points and 7.6 rebounds while Ibiam led South Carolina with 83 blocks last season.
Sounds like a fairly stout returning front line before Wilson and White enter the mix.
“Kind of when we committed before we got to see each other, we were like, ‘Hey, we’re a good class. They’re going to be expecting a lot,’” Wilson said “I know coach Staley’s going to help us out a lot. The (returning) girls are already starting to help us out. It’s going to be fun.”
Wilson will get even more experience this summer. She’s leaving later this month as part of the USA Basketball U18 national team that’s competing in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship to be played in Colorado from Aug. 6-10.
Staley will be the team’s head coach, giving Wilson more exposure to her college coach’s exacting practice and game demands.
“I’m kind of ready for it, but I know in the end it’s going to help me out,” Wilson said.