The final portion of the 2021 WNBA season just kicked off, and the Indiana Fever are looking to build off of their strong run of play that took place just before the Olympic break.
The Fever entered the second half of the season owning the second longest wining streak in the league at three, and the team nearly extended that streak on Sunday — but they fell to the Los Angeles Sparks in the final seconds. Still, the Fever’s performance in LA this weekend was a clear improvement over the squad’s performances from earlier this season. They are a better team now than they were in May.
One factor in the Fever’s upgraded play in recent games has been the addition of rookie guard Aaliyah Wilson. Wilson, the 11th pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, made her pro debut six games ago for the Fever after missing time with a foot injury — and her impact was immediately felt.
In her first few appearances, Wilson established herself as a defensive presence for Indiana. She was tasked with guarding a handful of talented scorers in her early minutes, including the likes of Betnijah Laney, Crystal Bradford, and Kaila Charles. All three were given trouble by Wilson’s activity and skill on defense, she proved her worth to the Fever right away.
“Playing on both sides of the basketball is really important. All aspects of the game [are] what helps win the game,” Wilson said of locking down her matchups. “Just knowing that I can take that personally and shut somebody down, or make it more difficult, or do the slightest thing without having the ball in my hands to help my team win. I just take pride in that.”
Wilson is, in general, very passionate when she hits the court. Her intensity can be felt by fans in the seats near the court. Osmosis transfers that intensity and emotion to her teammates, and the Fever are more successful with Wilson on the court as a result.
That play style is a perfect fit within the Fever organization. In Indiana, Wilson gets to play with multiple veterans who play the same position and can teach her the ropes. She gets pointers from former All-Stars such as Danielle Robinson, Jantel Lavender, and Jessica Breland almost daily, and in between those moments, she gets to absorb information from WNBA legend Tamika Catchings, the Fever’s General Manager. The Texas A&M product is in the ideal situation to learn, and grow, early in her career.
“I feel like I’m in a pretty good position here,” Wilson said of Indiana. She also noted that she gets to develop alongside two other rookies in Chelsey Perry and Kysre Gondrezick, which makes blooming more comfortable.
That near-daily maturing and teaching has led to improved play on the court for Wilson. In her debut, she only mustered one shot attempt and two turnovers — her stat line was unimpressive. Just two appearances later, she had four points, one rebound, and one steal coming off the bench in a win over the Liberty, and Indiana outscored New York by two points in her time on the floor. It didn’t take long for the 22-year old to develop and make an impact.
“Those last few years at (Texas) A&M, [scoring] was one of my one of my strong suits, as well as defense,” Wilson said when discussing her ability to put up points at the pro level. “So [I] just remember that and just try to stick to that and just remain confident and be myself.”
It has been a crazy year for Wilson, even beyond the on-court improvement and successes. She helped lead Texas A&M to the 2021 regular season SEC championship, and subsequently was named to the Second Team All-SEC after finishing up her college career. Soon after, she declared for the WNBA draft, and she was drafted in the first round. During the Olympic break, Wilson was given a key to the city in her hometown of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and July 17th, 2021 was declared “Aaliyah Wilson Day,” in the city. At every turn, 2021 has something special for Wilson.
“Everything’s happening so quick that, when I got home (for the Olympic break), I finally got a moment to settle down and take things into consideration. It’s really been a blessing,” Wilson said of her year. “To be able to be drafted that high, and to get the key to my city, and then just be in the position that I’m in. It’s really surreal. Looking back, I don’t think as a kid I would be able to say that I actually, truly, believed that I [would] be living the moments I’m living right now.”
That year could continue to get better. As the season progresses and Wilson continues to improve, she could see more floor time for the Fever. Indiana is 4-17, any playoff aspirations the organization had for this season are likely gone by now. A shift in goals toward development is likely coming for the team.
That should benefit the 5-foot-11-inch rookie, she would be a beneficiary of playing time in such a shift from the organization, and more playing time will only speed up Wilson’s development. That’s already become evident this season as she grew in between each of her early appearances.
That said, it is clear that Wilson is still acclimating to the WNBA. She’s still learning how her game fits at the pro level, so she makes mistakes (typically as a result of being too aggressive) and hasn’t been able to knock down shots at a high level yet. The box score numbers aren’t pretty.
But the box score doesn’t tell Aaliyah Wilson’s story well. She is often able to wiggle free from defenders with a shifty move, and her handle is advanced for her age. She has an eye for the game and the details — she mentioned that she admires three-time All-Star Jewell Loyd for her ability to pay attention and be a student of the game. Wilson is a student, too, evidenced by her never-ending quest to soak up information from her teammates, and her quick understanding of lessons is reflected in her positioning, strong defense, and smooth offensive game. As a result, she has discovered how she can use some of her strengths in the WNBA — Wilson took just two total shots in her first two appearances, but she has taken nine in the three since. Thanks to her attention to detail and acquired knowledge from vets, Wilson is able to be more effective.
“This year I was really looking forward to growing, getting that experience, picking the brains of those vets around me,” Wilson said. Her mentality is ideal for a young, blooming player. “You know, watching the game, watching those Jewell Loyd’s, all those players like that.”
Just watching Wilson makes it plain to see that she is due for a breakout performance. Her ball handling, shot selection, and defense all display that she is close to figuring out the WNBA game. It’s only a matter of time before it actually happens.
And that will just be the icing on the cake for an incredible year for Aaliyah Wilson. After fighting through yet another injury — she has dealt with many in her basketball career — she has found success on and off the court, and her attitude toward the game will only accelerate her career progress. Considering that her defense might be above average in the league already, and her offense is due for a breakthrough, Wilson’s career could take off any game now.
“She’s a big guard, which is part of the reason we drafted her,” Fever head coach Marianne Stanley said of the rookie. “She’s physical, she’s big, she can guard multiple positions.”
The key, for Wilson and the Fever, is getting her playing time. She only hit the hardwood for three seconds of action on Sunday when Los Angeles took down Indiana. That number needs to be way higher — both for the young and rebuilding Fever and for Wilson, one of the more promising youngsters on the team.
But the number 11 pick was getting more playing time just before the Olympic break, so it’s plausible that Stanley will call her number more often very soon. And once that happens, don’t be surprised if Aaliyah Wilson produces an eye-popping performance.
“I think we definitely have and opportunity to finish up strong,” Wilson said of the 2021 campaign. “And I think we will, for sure.”
If Wilson’s season, and her perspective on basketball, tell us anything, it’s that she will likely be right. She will finish the season strong. It would only be fitting, after the 2021 that Wilson has already had, that her rookie campaign would end on a high note. The Fever might have something special with Aaliyah Wilson, and she has an opportunity to prove it down the stretch. Her background suggests that she will.