LAS VEGAS — In Aliyah Boston’s first game at South Carolina, she became the first player in Division I history to secure a triple-double in a collegiate debut. It was the seventh in school history, putting her in rare air that didn’t include predecessor and 2017 South Carolina national champion A’ja Wilson. It only elevated the comparisons between the two, and heightened the expectations of Boston.
Boston, much like Wilson, continues to live up to them even after leaving the Columbia campus. Less than four years later — and with a second South Carolina natty on the shelf from Boston’s tenure — the duo will start the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game together as two of the most well-known and high-caliber players in the league. Team Wilson, which features Boston, will face Breanna Stewart’s squad at Michelob Ultra Arena on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Wilson has often shied away from comparing Boston’s talents to hers, instead wanting the younger player to have her own spotlight and be celebrated for her own skills, style and success. But their bond has always been there, from Wilson celebrating on the court with the 2021 national championship team to drafting Boston at No. 5 overall in the All-Star Draft this month.
“Gamecocks, we’re going to hold it down, always, forever to be,” Wilson said when announcing her pick on the All-Star Draft broadcast. “I don’t have to get her prepared, because you know Dawn Staley has already prepared us for these moments, so she’s going to shine bright under those big lights, and I’m excited.”
It’s another way they’ll forever be linked, and a nod to the powerhouse built by Staley, the Gamecocks head coach, that extends beyond winning college basketball games. Much like UConn before it, South Carolina wants to successfully prepare players for their dreams at the next level.
“Coach Staley does a great job of preparing our minds — and our bodies, obviously — but our minds of just being a pro at whatever you do. Being disciplined and staying into that,” Wilson said during a video call with reporters last month. “When I transitioned over into the league, I already had a mindset. I already knew how I could move, I already knew who I wanted in my circle on and off the court. The whole nine.
“I think Coach has done a great job of helping us navigate that at a pro level.”
The program had one All-Star alumna, Shannon Johnson, in its history before Wilson was named one months after going No. 1 in the 2018 WNBA Draft. Now a two-time MVP, she is making her fifth All-Star appearance in as many opportunities (the 2020 game was not played because of COVID-19).
It’s her third time as captain, and second consecutive year as the top fan vote-earner. Wilson is averaging 19.7 points (sixth), 9.3 rebounds (fifth) and 2.1 blocks (first) for the league-leading Aces (19-2) at the break. She ranks first in win shares (5.9), per Her Hoops Stats.
Boston is the eighth rookie in league history to earn the honor of All-Star starter and the first since 2014. She ranked fourth in the fan vote and has already proven herself a franchise-changing player for the Indiana Fever two months into the season.
“My biggest goal was being able to adjust quickly,” Boston said. “And I think that as time has gone on, games have passed, I’ve been able to do that, especially as we’ve played a couple teams for more than one time.”
She said last month being named an All-Star wasn’t on the list of things she thought about or wrote down as a goal and she was surprised to hear the news. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert called to tell her as the Fever touched down in Vegas for a set of games against Wilson and the Aces.
“I was in the airport trying not to react on the phone,” she said. “I was like, stay calm, stay calm. And then I texted my family group chat, I was like, ‘Guys, guess what?’”
Boston is averaging 15.4 points (20th), 8.4 rebounds (eighth) and 1.3 blocks (10th) for a Fever (5-15) squad that has lost 12 of its 15 games by single digits. It includes an overtime loss to New York heading into the break. She’s hitting 61% of her shots, a highly efficient clip that is the best of any player attempting at least three shots a game. And she ranked sixth in the player vote for frontcourt players, a clear indication her presence on the team is deserved.
Wilson also drafted Atlanta Dream guard and first-time All-Star Allisha Gray, a member of the 2017 title team and close friend, to a roster that is mainly her Las Vegas Aces teammates and Gamecocks connections. (Stewart went full-on New York Liberty and former Seattle Storm teammates.) They are three of eight South Carolina players in the league currently, one of the higher alumna ranks in the nation.
South Carolina is tied with Notre Dame (Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young, Jewell Loyd) for most players in this All-Star Game. It is also the only program of the past four champions to have an All-Star in the 2023 game.
Connecticut, the historic powerhouse that has sent dozens of alumni to the pros and many as top picks, has Stewart and Napheesa Collier in the game. Oregon also has two with Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally, who went Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2020 draft.