Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson joked that her college coach, Dawn Staley, always needled her about defense, even though she won awards for it while starring at South Carolina. But Wilson has made that teasing a lot harder to do.
Wilson was named the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year for the second season in a row Friday. She is the eighth player in league history to win the award more than once. Wilson is a strong candidate for the league's MVP honor, which she won in 2020 and 2022.
"Now she's more like, 'All right, you got it.' And I'm like, 'Thank you, Coach Staley,'" said Wilson, the No. 1 draft pick in 2018. "I always appreciate her. She helped me. She motives me to this day.
"Winning [a defensive award] in college, I was like, 'OK, cool.' But winning at this level feels different, because these are pros, world-class elite women. I'm excited to share it with my teammates."
Wilson gave credit to Kiah Stokes, saying the Aces center deserves to have her name etched onto the award as well.
She received 32 votes from a national media panel of 60. As was the case last year, Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas was second with 24 votes. Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes was third with three votes, and New York Liberty guard/forward Betnijah Laney got one vote.
Wilson, Thomas and Sykes were named to the WNBA's all-defensive first team, joined by the Liberty's Breanna Stewart and the Los Angeles Sparks' Jordin Canada. Laney was named to the second team, joined by the Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike, the Minnesota Lynx's Napheesa Collier, the Seattle Storm's Ezi Magbegor and the Chicago Sky's Elizabeth Williams.
Wilson led the WNBA this season with a career-high 2.23 blocks per game. She ranked third in defensive rebounds per game (7.5) and was 10th in steals per game (1.4). She had at least 10 defensive rebounds in a game nine times and also had at least four blocks nine times. The Aces led the WNBA in defensive rating at 99.2.
Wilson said she thinks another sport she played when she was younger, volleyball, helped aspects of her defensive play in basketball.
"It taught me how to quick-jump and the coordination of keeping your eye on the ball at all times," she said.
The Aces start their WNBA semifinal series against the Dallas Wings on Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
The 6-foot-4 Wilson's defense is notable for how well she plays in the paint, but she also can step outside as both a primary and help-side defender when needed. In the Aces' four regular-season games against the Wings, Wilson contested shots against seven different Dallas players -- from centers to point guards -- and they shot 33% on those plays.
"It just takes a lot of pride, understanding where I am and knowing the personnel," Wilson said about her defense. "I like to take that challenge of 'Can I guard a 5? Can I guard a 1?' I try to go out there and prove it every time.
"I'm not trying to be the world's best [shot-blocker], but if I can contain to help my guards or force a missed shot, I'm happy with that. People always say defense starts with the heart. I try to have as much heart as I can."
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.