Stay out of A’ja Wilson’s landing zone

Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson didn’t need much time to get comfortable. 

The 2018 No. 1 overall pick poured in 24.3 points per 36 minutes, trailing only Liz Cambage, Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi. More importantly, the way she went about it elevated her into elite historical company and sparked a conversation we rarely have about post players.

Without even attempting a single 3-pointer, no player this side of Taurasi is more equipped to introduce the complicated (and sometimes messy) landing zone conversation to the WNBA—if opposing players can even get that far without fouling her first. 

Wilson posted a free throw attempt rate of .468 last season per Basketball-Reference, meaning on average, she had a free throw to field goal attempt ratio of nearly 1:2—the league’s second-highest such mark. 

That’s the 12th-highest such mark in WNBA history among players that played at least 500 minutes in an individual season with usage rates of 15.0 or higher. Names included in that list: Cynthia Cooper (1997, 1998, 1999), Cambage (2011, 2018), Lisa Leslie (2000, 2006), Brittney Griner (2017), Katie Smith (2001), Angel McCoughtry (2011) and Taurasi (2013). 

In simpler terms, Wilson attempted 8.8 free throws per 36 minutes last season, tops in the league. 

So, how’d she get there so often? 

One thing jumps right off the screen. Her shooting mechanics—the high release and that left elbow in particular—make it all but impossible to tightly contest her jumpers without fouling. 

“I think I just have the beauty of being a southpaw,” Wilson told BBall Index after a recent practice. “Normally, people will defend your right-hand side because that’s where it all is. But now when they defend the right hand, I can still get my shot off. I really don’t go to get fouled. I just get it up. Sometimes it puts the defense in a position where they have to foul. And they don’t mean to. It just happens. That’s something special. I always just focus on finishing the shot.”

Wilson attributes the high release to her father, long before she grew to 6’4”. 

“My shot was still up above me, and as I got taller, it just worked in my favor because it’s hard to get to,” she said. “That’s always a good thing when people can’t really get to your shot. My dad really helped me get my shot up.” 

Now, can some data actually point to the fouls on jump shots as something beyond an anecdote and maybe even go so far as to quantify its impact? 

Wilson attempted 248 free throws last season. Drawing from the pool of drawn fouls by Wilson tagged by Synergy Sports, 119 of them were shooting fouls. Sorting those fouls into two buckets—drives and attempts in or around the restricted area and jump shots—produced an interesting result. 

45 of those fouls (nearly 38 percent) occurred on jump shots. 

No public resource makes tracks the nature of the shooting fouls drawn of every WNBA player. These results can’t be compared to those of other players without going through and counting them up manually. 

But we do know that one of the league’s top foul drawers—a post player that doesn’t operate much beyond the 3-point line, at that—achieved that status largely because defenders couldn’t stop fouling her on two-point jump shots. 

All things considered, aren’t those the shots defenses are supposed to be more willing to concede? 

Midrange attempts accounted for 45.3 percent of Wilson’s 2018 field goal attempts. She shot 45 percent, nearly six points above the league average, from that range on more attempts (240) than any player in the league. 

She also led the league in non-restricted area paint attempts (198) and shot 41.4 percent, just a hair below the league average of 41.8. That shooting touch immediately made the scouting report at the pro level. Wilson didn’t mind. 

“It’s a good thing for me because it allows me other ways to get open,” she said. “It allows me to find other ways to find my rhythm and just get my shot up. It’s also a lot of fun when people play you close because it allows you to attack, but they’ve gotta guard the attack.” 

“Then they have to get off you, and that opens up a shot. Just having that balance and all those tools in your toolbox—weapons that you can use to create a shot—is something special. And it shows that’s who I am as a professional basketball player, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.” 

Wilson’s 2018 shot chart via WNBA.com

When you watch her high release, consider how much attention she draws every time down the floor and digest the level of proficiency seen in her rookie season, a standard contest even on a semi-open look won’t make much of an impact. 

Defenders would probably be better off attempting to bother Wilson’s shots only with a left-hand contest, hoping to at least obstruct her view of the basket Shane Battier-style, to avoid her shooting elbow altogether. Given the rare chance to load up and jump as high as possible, even the most capable opponents like Griner and Stewart would struggle mightily to block Wilson’s shot. 

People still haven’t stopped trying, producing some of the more humorous post-foul reactions.

Players rarely think they’ve committed a foul. Just ask their in-game reactions. 

There’s no hiding a slap of Wilson’s elbow. 

We haven’t really gotten far enough into Wilson’s career yet to know too much. There’s always the possibility for some shooting regression, which would embolden players to sag off her. Some of the more avoidable shooting fouls would disappear. 

But Wilson’s whopping one-year sample of 438 attempts can’t be easily dismissed. WNBA small sample size theater usually centers around players that have a career year shooting 40-some percent from deep on a mere one or two attempts per game. 

Through 17 games this season, Wilson shot 27-of-58 (46.6 percent) from midrange and 29-of-83 (34.9 percent) on non-restricted area paint attempts. 

She’s only scratching the surface of what she can become as a driver and playmaker, punishing defenses with pinpoint kick-out passes to dime teammates up for open 3-pointers. 

Not happy with the Aces ranking dead last to date in 3-point attempts per game? There’s a likely source—along with the addition of more shooting and development of Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby as spot-up threats—to generate more of them sooner rather than later. 

Wilson does spend time sharpening her face-up game, including her 3-point stroke. But will it even be necessary? 

“Of course I would love to expand my game, but I’m not gonna fix something that’s not broken,” Wilson said. “If all my shots are inside the arc, then okay. I’m good for it. If it’s needed and the time’s right, I would definitely knock [a 3-pointer] down if I need to. I still work on it and get it up in practice. It’s not like it’s a distant memory. 

“In the league we’re in, they’re playing me a certain way so I’m not gonna go away from it because I’m trying to show people, ‘Okay, yeah, she has a 3-ball,’ because it’s not really important and not a factor in my game right now.”

She’s still a threat to score holding the ball out there without looking to take the open 3-pointers. Switching defenses can wall off her teammates from turning the corner in pick and roll. No matter. Throw it out to Wilson, who can drive right by smaller players or slam on the breaks to shoot right over them and possibly draw yet another trip to the foul line in doing so.

The Aces really rely on entering the ball to their bigs at the elbows to initiate. Wilson getting pushed out doesn’t set them back. That can quickly turn into an iso on one side of the floor with the entire defense in front of her, making it easier to see what the other four defenders are doing. 

Help needs to slide over early if it’s coming. She’s also big and strong enough once she gets going to run right through contact en route to a finish with either hand. 

What does all of this have to do with the landing zone, though? 

In a sense, Wilson’s game already extends beyond it. 

Last season’s monster free throw attempt rate was made possible in large part because of the enormous pressure she puts on people to crowd a scorer that does most of her damage 11-to-21 feet from the rim and continually bang their head against the wall attempting the impossible—actually coming close enough to blocking some of those shots for the risk to be worth the reward. 

Who else in basketball, at any level, can make a similar claim?  

She may not ever stretch her game all the way out to the 3-point line. But she’s got the step-back jumper down, seen in the rare instances where she gets some time to face up and work one-on-one. 

Some superstar players on the NBA side get some flak for their foul-drawing ways. Wilson just wants to be as effective as possible in helping her team win games. If landing zone fouls become a more pressing issue, this Aces’ star isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. 

“You have to let the player land no matter what,” she said. “If you’re kinda playing me kinda close, you give me no choice but to land on you, which is a foul. So if it’s creating something, either if it’s a bucket or a foul, that’s something that I like because it’s giving my team points. And that’s what we need to win basketball games.”

We’re still waiting to see how quickly opponents will react to the first obstacle. That step back is just one of many tools in the toolbox ready to be unleashed and generate more scoring opportunities if defenders flash more discipline with the standard turnarounds and one-dribble pull-up jumpers. 

More might be on the way. Wilson does see some differences in how defenses are guarding her in year two.

“They’re playing more into my body this year than they did last year,” she said. “They’re kinda like, ‘Okay, if we get close to her, she can’t really move.’ 

“They are playing me a lot more physical, a lot more body-to-body, kinda not letting me rise up. But if they do, they’re gonna clip that elbow every time and hopefully the referee will call it. But if not, you’ve got to continue to play through it.” 

Wilson forces opposing defenders into a true dilemma lacking a perfect answer: Are you going to get physical, risk fouling her on more jump shots and open yourself up to getting burned on drives? Or, you could simply hang back and hope the 45 percent shooting will be the exception, not the rule. 

We may not see Wilson match 2018’s volume anytime soon, complicating any attempt to answer some of these questions, but for good reason. 

In case you didn’t already know, Cambage was the only 2018 player with a free throw rate higher (.485) than Wilson’s. The Aces acquired Cambage prior to the start of the season, rounding out one of the league’s most fearsome triumvirates alongside Wilson and Kayla McBride. These stars will naturally sacrifice some shot attempts for the sake of winning. 

Wilson’s current per-36 scoring average sits at 20.0 (seventh). Her 25.4 usage rate ranks 13th, down from 29.2 (third) last season. The free throw rate is down to .392. She’s attempting 6.6 free throws per 36. That’s a marked step down from 8.8 but ranks second. 

No team is better equipped to suck the air out of opposing arenas and break up runs by the opponent this postseason than the Aces’ All-Star duo parading to the foul line. 

Overall offense and free throw attempts may be down league-wide. Cambage and Wilson don’t just pummel teams with their scoring in the paint. The force they play with paired with the size and skill level to score over anyone nearly makes it impossible to truly take the ball out of their hands. 

They’ve also come through in the clutch in the first half of the season, leading the league in made field goals and total points scored in the final five minutes of games with a margin of five points or fewer. Both rank in the top-10 in attempts with Wilson shooting 14-of-19 (and 8-of-11 at the foul line) and Cambage shooting 14-of-22 (8-of-8 on free throws). 

“You definitely like just having that in your back pocket knowing that you have the ability to knock down shots in a very tense moment,” Wilson said. “That’s when I really get into focus and dial down. I give it all to my mental focus in that moment of the game.”

Wilson entered the league immediately shouldered with the burden of being the best player for a franchise in its first season in a new city. They’re building in Las Vegas for the long haul. 

Last season, we saw Seattle make the leap from eighth to first. The Aces currently boast the league’s top-ranked defense and have the individual star power to accomplish something similar.

Well ahead of schedule, one could argue. 

Just like Wilson. 

All stats obtained via WNBA.com and are current as of July 31 unless otherwise noted. 

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