A’ja Wilson knew she’d gotten away with something. It was Game 1 of the 2020 WNBA Finals, and the Las Vegas Aces star had just fouled the Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart coming off a screen.
“Wooo … I tagged her, and they didn’t call it,” Wilson recalled, laughing. “And she was like, ‘You definitely fouled me.’ I said, ‘I know, Stewie, my bad. I’m pretty sure they’re going to let you get one, too, so we’ll be good.'”
Not exactly the kind of heated banter some might expect from the top two players in the WNBA’s bubble last year.
“I don’t think that we are much of the trash-talking type,” Stewart said. “We let our games speak for ourselves. I don’t have to say anything, you know? I just show it to you.”
There’s no drama between the league’s two biggest superstars under age 30. They are both 6-foot-4 forwards who celebrate August birthdays. Stewart (19.9 PPG, 8.7 RPG in her WNBA career) is entering her fifth season in the league, and Wilson (19.3 PPG, 7.6 RPG) her fourth.
As the WNBA’s 25th anniversary season opens Friday, they are again favorites for the WNBA’s MVP award, which Wilson won last year and Stewart won in 2018. Their teams met for last year’s championship, which the Storm won in a sweep, with Stewart earning WNBA Finals MVP. It seems likely they will compete for more titles down the road.
Yet they genuinely like each other, respect each other’s games and admire the off-court stands each has taken for causes important to her. They both feel a deep sense of responsibility to the WNBA, to USA Basketball, to the progress of women’s sports.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t get amped up to face each other. Seattle and Las Vegas play twice in first five days of the 2021 season, first on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, ABC) in the season opener for both teams, and in Tuesday’s quick rematch (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
“Those are super important games,” said Stewart, who announced Tuesday she was getting a signature shoe from Puma. “Looking forward to seeing what pieces A’ja has added to her repertoire for this season.”
Anyone talking about the WNBA is bound to discuss Wilson, 24, and Stewart, 26. But what does A’ja think of Stewie, and Stewie think of A’ja? We asked them.
What do you admire most about her game?
Wilson: “How smooth it is. Stewie’s game doesn’t seem like it has one kink in it. I’ve got to give her flowers; I’m not gonna sit here and be a hater. It’s just that smooth, and that’s what makes it so hard to guard.”
Stewart: “When she gets in her spots, it’s like automatic. With the midpost, with the one-dribble pull-up, going to the left. It’s so difficult to defend. And as she’s continued into the league, it’s seeing her leadership and her growth on and off the court.”
What is the most difficult part of facing her?
Stewart: “It’s really hard for me to contest her shot. I feel like I have a hand in her face and kind of where she’s going to shoot, but she can still make it. Anytime you’re guarding these types of players where you have to give up something, it’s just making her do something hard. Making her make really tough shots. And she does.”
Wilson: “Stewie’s length. She is long, and she can block shots when you think she’s out of the play, but she’s still in it. Defensively, my biggest thing is just making sure that I’m there on the catch, making sure she sees something, at least a hand. She can still make it … that’s what good players do.”
What’s your takeaway after the WNBA Finals matchup?
Wilson: “It was the sense of ‘Stewie’s been here before.’ The way the Seattle Storm just rocked and rolled, it was like, ‘We’ve done this before.’
“For us, that was our first rodeo. I hate that we got swept, absolutely cannot stand it. I never want to get swept again. But I think it was a good lesson. It was tough, but when it came to Stewie, it was, ‘Hey, she’s on a roll.’ Once you get a great player in that mode … it’s unguardable.”
Stewart: “Developing the 3 is what really makes the position ‘positionless.’ Because you’re able to do so many things. People have to guard me at the 3-point line. I saw some videos that A’ja is extending her range. If she can continue to add tools to her toolbox, it’s going to be even harder to guard her. It’s encouraging seeing what people of our position can do, and how we’re continuing to defy the odds on what posts can do in a game, what female athletes can do.”
What part of her game do you most want to emulate?
Stewart: “Just being the aggressor on offense and, really, on defense, too. When you see someone that you’re matching up with being at such a high level and playing at her best, it makes me want to be better. It goes without saying, we both want to be the best. For A’ja and I, it’s really cool to be pushing each other to be better. And I think it’s awesome that she has a statue right in front of [South Carolina’s] arena. Well-deserved.”
Wilson: “Her footwork. No matter where Stewie is, she gets those two feet set and she’s ready. That’s the sign of a great shooter, and it’s very, very tough to do. Because no matter if you’re coming off screens, if you’re distressed, if things aren’t going your way, you’re still ready. Your feet are still there. Dang, that’s pretty nice to have.”
You’re both advocates about deeply personal issues. How important is your ability to have so much impact off the court?
Stewart: “A’ja and I were able to be vulnerable. That’s the hardest thing, letting the rest of the world see you. It’s not to have the attention on ourselves, but to continue to help other people that are struggling. To help kids. To make sure that if anyone is going through the situations that we’ve gone through, they can look and see, ‘Well, A’ja Wilson has gotten through some mental health struggles. And Stewie has gotten through sexual abuse.’ Because we’re not in a perfect world, and we see every day that there’s things going on that shouldn’t be happening, but unfortunately they are. If we can continue to kind of be the light in some people’s lives, then that’s why we do it.”
Wilson: “I think we are just so confident in who we are as women, and we want to be able to continue to share our voices. Especially with the platforms that we have. Stewie has a huge following from UConn and Seattle. I have a huge following from South Carolina and Vegas. We want to reach out to our communities the best way we can.
“I think it’s hard to do in the beginning because you’re like, ‘Oh, how are people going to take it?’ But at the same time, you understand that you are a young player with that big voice, with that big platform that you can use to reach out to so many different people. I think that’s why it makes us comfortable enough to share our stories with everyone.”
How similar are your personalities?
Stewart: “I think we both can keep things kind of light. We know we’re playing in big games, and there are big moments. It’s like, we’re in the Finals, every possession matters … and something bubble-related comes into our minds, and we just say it to each other.”
Wilson: “We have a nice friendship. Stewie’s just a good person to be around, her attitude is always positive. I rarely see Stewie get mad. I’m pretty sure that’s where our personalities differ; I snap on the court.
“Especially someone of her caliber, you might think she would have the big head or be conceited. But she’s really just who she is. That’s what I love about her. Because it’s just like, ‘We’re both good at what we do … and we have fun while doing it.’ So I can greatly appreciate the years of playing alongside Stewie and also playing against her.”
You’re both expected to be on the upcoming U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo. What’s it like to be USA Basketball teammates?
Wilson: “Oh, it’s so dope because I’m just like, ‘I don’t have to guard her!’ I’ve spent all these years guarding her. Now, finally, we’re teammates. Now, my life can be a lot easier. It’s always fun when you get to play with greats in general, but especially with Stewie because we’ve been battling this thing out since college.”
Stewart: “Team USA is super important to us. Going to her first Olympics, it’s going to be exciting moments for A’ja. And I hope we continue to have these opportunities, because we’re trying to bring that spotlight on the WNBA and Team USA. Hopefully we’re both going to be there for the next however many Olympics, and continue to win gold medals.”