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A’ja Wilson Was Benched In College. Now She’s An MVP.

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It took a benching to turn A’ja Wilson into the basketball player she is today.

The WNBA’s newly named Most Valuable Player was in her freshman year at South Carolina, in 2014, and her Hall of Fame coach didn’t like what she was seeing.

“Her first game, she played terribly. I didn’t feel like she was ready,” said Dawn Staley, the 2020 Naismith National Coach of the Year and, like her protege would become, a former Naismith National Player of the Year. Wilson started that first game and shot just 2-for-7, committing three turnovers in 16 minutes. “Finally I just thought, ‘Hmmm, I think she’d make a bigger impact off the bench.’”

Staley had the tough conversation with her talented forward, the former No. 1 recruit in the country.

“I just told her, ‘You’re probably going to have to trust me on this one, but I think having you come off the bench will allow you to see the game and probably take some pressure off of you,’” Staley recalled. She told Wilson she would benefit overall from being the “spark” off the bench.

To Staley’s surprise, Wilson was OK with it. “That’s how you know when you have something special. She put her trust in me. She didn’t care what anybody thought.”

In actuality, Wilson was relieved.

“If it was any other person, they’d probably be upset,” Wilson said. “‘I’m the No. 1 recruit, how you go make me come off the bench? That doesn’t make any sense.’ Well, I obviously never had that thought.

“I was like, ‘Good, with my freshman behind, I don’t know what I’m getting myself into anyways,” she recalled with a laugh. “It allowed me to understand my role as a person, as a player, and how to adjust.”

Dawn Staley, A'ja Wilson

A’ja Wilson and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley during an NCAA tournament game in 2015, Wilson’s freshman season.

Richard Shiro / AP

Wilson is grateful: She said the benching helped mold her into the player she is today.

“Who knows [what would have happened] if I never understood how roles mean so much to a team? I learned if you do your role well, you’ll be just fine.”

Wilson did more than “just fine.” Months after being benched, she was named SEC Freshman of the Year and made the All-SEC first team. A year later, she was SEC Player of the Year — the first of three such honors — and SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Another year later, in 2017, she led the Gamecocks to their first national championship. She finished her college career as South Carolina’s all-time leading scorer.

A’ja Wilson was a star in college

Career statistics for A’ja Wilson at South Carolina

Games Per game
Season TOTAL Starts FG% Pts Rebs Blks Mins
2017-18 33 29 54.2% 22.6 11.8 3.2 29.4
2016-17 35 35 58.8 17.9 7.8 2.6 28.4
2015-16 33 32 53.1 16.1 8.7 3.1 27.1
2014-15 37 1 53.8 13.1 6.6 1.8 19.8
Total 138 97 55.0 17.3 8.7 2.6 26.0

South Carolina won the national championship in 2016-17.

Source: University of South Carolina

It all started with a benching, and the rest — as they say — is history.

Now, the 24-year-old Las Vegas Aces star stands at the cusp of advancing to the finals and winning her first professional title in only her third year in the league. She has leaned on her faith and the inspirations in her life as she’s settled into her role, and she’s using her voice in new ways — both to fight injustice and to pull back the curtain on life in the league.

In 22 regular-season games inside the league’s bubble in Bradenton, Florida, Wilson averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.0 blocked shots and 1.23 steals in 31.7 minutes per contest. The 6-foot-4 forward led the WNBA in blocks, ranked second in scoring and finished seventh in rebounding. She also shot a career-high 48.0 percent from the field and 78.1 percent from the free throw line. She led the WNBA in free throws made (118) and attempted (151).

Behind Wilson, the Aces tied for the best record in the WNBA (18-4) during the regular season and earned the top seed. That feat earned them a double bye into the semifinals of the playoffs, which began Sunday against the Connecticut Sun. The Sun came out on fire and, behind Jasmine Thomas’s career-high 31 points, defeated the Aces 87-62. Despite Wilson’s 19 points, the Aces struggled against a team they beat twice in the regular season, shooting just 33.8 percent from the field.

“I think we needed to get beat. They worked 10 times harder than we did, and we needed that slap in the face,” Wilson said in her postgame comments. “We have to go back to the drawing board and see what we did wrong, what we can improve on, and go from there. The best thing about this loss is there’s a lot of things we can control, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Aces weren’t expected to finish where they did after losing starters Kelsey Plum and Liz Cambage. That disregard fuels Wilson.

“Just that feeling of being the underdog, of being counted out,” Wilson said. “I know a lot of people counted us out. We lost two starters. Every team has lost something — but that doesn’t mean you count them out.”

Wilson said she didn’t know how the season would turn out but figured if she was here, she might as well play “at a very high level for my team and let them know I’m here for them no matter what.” “That’s kind of what pushed me through; that and my parents praying every single night. I didn’t come into this bubble thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to do x, y and z.’ I just came in with an open mind with the situation.”

Wilson has already done plenty in her short career. She was the No.1 pick in the 2018 draft, the 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year and a WNBA All-Star in 2018 and 2019.

Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray, the 2017 Rookie of the Year and Wilson’s close friend and college roommate, called Wilson “just a talent.”

“The stuff she does on the court, you can’t teach,” Gray said. “She’s a team player, she wants you to do well. I remember sometimes (in college) I wouldn’t shoot the ball, and she would fuss at me. She’s an unselfish player, wants you to do well, and that’s what makes her special.”

Wilson excels at both ends of the court: This season, her individual offensive rating of 111 ranked 25th in the league,1 while her defensive rating of 94 ranked third. That elite level of play helped the Aces rank second in the WNBA in both offensive rating (107.3) and defensive rating (97.2) this season.

“All of that is just par for the course. This is what she does,” Staley said of her former player who has become a friend. “That’s A’ja Wilson. She’s worked on her game. She’s wanted this. She’s a franchise player. She’s a program changer, and when you put the ball in her hands, she is going to be efficient with it.”

After a stellar rookie season, Wilson endured a sophomore slump in 2019. Her scoring and rebounding numbers dipped with the acquisition of Cambage in a preseason trade with the Dallas Wings.

The Aces finished the 2019 season with a 21-13 record, second in the Western Conference and fourth overall. They made it to the playoffs but lost in the semifinals 3-1 to the eventual champions, the Washington Mystics. Wilson finished the season ranked seventh in the league in scoring, 18th in rebounding and fourth in blocked shots.

She’s a star in the WNBA, too

Career regular-season statistics for A’ja Wilson with the Las Vegas Aces

Games Per game
Season TOTAL Starts FG% Pts Rebs Blks Mins
2020 22 22 48.0% 20.5 8.5 2.0 31.7
2019 26 25 47.9 16.5 6.5 1.7 28.5
2018 33 33 46.2 20.7 8.0 1.7 30.6
Total 81 80 47.2 19.3 7.7 1.8 30.2

Wilson is the 2020 WNBA MVP.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

What Wilson has meant for the Aces this season can’t be underestimated, said head coach Bill Laimbeer. “I’ve not had a player with individual performance who’s carried a team like A’ja has this year. It’s great for her, great for our players, great for our franchise.

“Her MVP is well-deserved. She’s grown up. Every year you’ll see more and more of her ability and who she is as a person and as a basketball player — and there’s still more there. She knows it, and we all know it.”

That growth is apparent off the court, as well. She penned a stirring letter in The Players’ Tribune, encouraging young Black girls and building their self-esteem. “I just want especially young Black girls to understand that they are needed and cared about in this world by other Black women,” she said.

Wilson is also an inaugural member of the league’s Social Justice Council, spearheading efforts on behalf of the WNBA to raise awareness for social justice issues. She’s passionate about those causes after her own experience growing up in the South.

“Going to a private school for 12 years where there were only maybe 10 percent Black kids and 2 percent Black women, it was tough because you’re trying to find yourself, trying to find your way,” Wilson recalled. “And then I was grateful to go to South Carolina where I was coached by Dawn Staley — and that is one powerful Black woman.

“She really kind of paved the way for me and helped me find my voice and realize who I am. She showed me, ‘Hey, you can shatter through those (glass) ceilings, you can crack them for the next generation,’ and that’s how I’ve been living my adult life.”

The WNBA’s collective stance on social justice this season has been empowering for Wilson and something she is proud to be a part of.

“I know there is strength in numbers, so for us to stand together and be down for the cause, it’s something that is so powerful behind that. I love being a part of something like this,” she said. “You can act like you don’t hear me. You can act like you’re not listening to me, but I’m going to get my point across to someone.

“I’m all for it. I love it.”

Staley said Wilson’s off-court leadership isn’t surprising. “She’s believable — she has conviction behind what she says. It’s really a beautiful thing to see.

“She’s young but just so aware. She’s conscious. She’s woke. She’s in a position where people are listening. They believe in her — fans, the WNBA, everybody. She’s a new-age ambassador for the league.”

Washington Mystics v Las Vegas Aces - Game Four

A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces during the semifinals of the WNBA playoffs last season against the Washington Mystics.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Gray also sees Wilson as an off-court leader. “That’s been A’ja. It’s just great she is speaking up for what needs to be changed in this world and bringing a lot of attention to things, but that’s nothing new. That spotlight she has is not easy, and the way she manages it is just great. It just shows what type of person she is.”

It hasn’t always been easy for Wilson to balance being an athlete and activist, but she has found her own way. “I learned how to focus on one thing at a time and not try to take on everything. Just go with the flow,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy. I’ve been emotionally and mentally fatigued (at times), but at the same time, I knew I had to perform for my teammates. I just pray about it and go on with my life.”

While she’s been serious about her basketball and the league’s social justice work, Wilson has also found time for some lighthearted moments in the bubble. She started a podcast with Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx titled “Tea With A & Phee.” The two dish out news and their opinions, along with interview guest stars including Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard.

“We probably have more fun than people even have listening to us,” Collier said. “It’s like tea time for us when we get together and interview people and talk about what’s going on in our lives in the bubble.”

“Everyone loves some good tea,” Wilson said.

“Tea With A & Phee” has become popular enough that the podcast has its own apparel. The women plan to continue the show after they leave the bubble.

In the meantime, Wilson has her sights set on advancing in the playoffs and bringing home a championship, and she’ll be leaning every step of the way on her faith and her late maternal grandmother — Hattie Rakes — who died in 2016.

“She was 95 years old, and she lived a blessed life,” Wilson said. “She was someone that taught me how to be a woman, taught me how to care for other people, and just let A’ja be A’ja.”

Her grandmother attended only one game of Wilson’s entire collegiate career, but she was “constantly there” for Wilson. “Always letting me be a girl, not just an athlete. She taught me to do puzzles to get things off my mind, little things like that.”

“My grandmother is someone who fueled me every single day in life. Yeah, I play for her,” Wilson said as her voice trailed off. “She will always live within me. I speak to her a lot during the games. I pray. She keeps me going.”

As for her faith, it’s what propels Wilson and her positive outlook.

“I don’t fear a lot of things but God. If I’ve done what He put me on this earth to do, then I am satisfied.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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