We live in a society that loves, and values, points. If you’re an athlete we’d like you to be either high-scoring or high-flying, but we’d prefer both. Stuff a stat sheet and we’re sure to pay attention to you.
But that was never in the cards for Anna Wilson.
Numbers from the fifth-year senior guard for the top-seeded Stanford women’s basketball team usually elicit a shrug, as Wilson averages just 4.8 points per game. But you’re probably looking at the wrong stat line, because Wilson’s value is found on the other end of the floor, where she’s blossomed into one of the nation’s best defenders.
After a college career defined mostly by injuries and frustration, Wilson has found purpose — and joy — in doing the dirty work, facilitating Stanford’s offense by first locking down on defense. She’s not known for steals but rather making opponents uncomfortable, forcing them into a bad shot or errant pass.
After playing just 12 minutes a game the last few seasons, Wilson has started every game for the Cardinal this year, pushing Stanford to the brink of its 13th Final Four. On Tuesday the Cardinal will take on Louisville, when Wilson will draw the assignment of defending two-time ACC player of the year Dana Evans. It’s a role she’s come to relish.
“Anna has basically forced my hand,” Tara VanDerveer told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t have any choice: If there’s someone that we need to lock down, she has to be out there.”
Wilson’s long, winding road to collegiate success, full of detours and heartache, isn’t lost on the Hall of Fame coach.
“I just love that in this world of instant everything — instant gratification, instant oatmeal, Instacart — you have a player like Anna who is in it for the long haul, who struggles as a freshman and sophomore, even as a junior sometimes, and now look what she’s doing,” VanDerveer says. “And I want her to come back.”
Wilson’s decision to buy into the less glamorous end of the floor deserves more attention and celebration. Her unselfishness, according to her Super Bowl-winning big brother Russell Wilson, is more proof that she’s the “ultimate teammate,” happy to forgo the individual spotlight if it means her team brings home a trophy.
Russell Wilson, an eight-time Pro Bowler with the Seattle Seahawks, knows a thing or two about dominating on offense, and society’s obsession with numbers. He also knows a good defender when he sees one. So just how good is his little sister?
“She beat me one time my third year in the league,” Russell admitted to USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t play her anymore.”
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Lockdown defender is ‘unsung hero’
The scouting report on Wilson might be that’s she a lockdown defender, but she’s been terrific on both sides of the ball in Stanford’s three NCAA Tournament games so far, averaging 10 points and shooting 85% from the field (11-of-13); she’s a perfect 6-of-6 from deep.
Wilson told reporters after Stanford’s 89-62 win over Missouri State in the Sweet 16 that she’s not trying to prove anyone wrong, but merely taking what opponents give her. Sometimes, that includes the ball itself: she’s already grabbed five steals and 13 rebounds.
Wilson was the Pac-12’s co-defensive player of the year, an honor she shared with Arizona point guard Aari McDonald. But unlike McDonald, she was not named a semifinalist for national defensive player of the year. Of the 10 players on that list, four are still playing in the NCAA Tournament, including the 2020 recipient, Baylor’s DiDi Richards.
She’s different than the other Elite Eight players who also are considered great defenders: Richards (8.7 ppg), McDonald (19.8), South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (13.9) and Connecticut’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa (12.7) all have to score for their teams to be successful. Wilson, meanwhile, has embraced an unglamorous role that’s often lost in the conversation about why Stanford (28-2) is a popular title pick.
“Anna might be an unsung hero to an outsider but anyone on the Stanford women’s team or any true fan absolutely knows and appreciates the contribution she brings,” says Ros Gold-Onwude, another former conference defensive player of the year who played at Stanford from 2005-10.
“Great, excellent defenders wear on you over the course of a game. You fatigue someone until they get frazzled and can’t make decisions as well. You suffocate the fight out of them. That mindset, which Anna has, is uber competitive. And it’s not for everyone.”
Early in her Stanford career, Wilson could never get comfortable. Knocked in the head by a teammate’s elbow during practice for the 2016 McDonald’s All-American game, she sustained a significant concussion. Debilitating headaches and focus problems lingered for months. Doctors suggested she quit playing.
Through Russell, she connected with a neurorehabilitation facility in Orlando. (The irony is not lost on Anna that while it’s her brother who’s regularly tackled by 300-pound lineman, she’s the one with a concussion specialist.) She returned to the court, but continued to have problems.
At a tournament in Hawaii her sophomore year, she fell awkwardly and hurt her neck, further worrying medical staff about the possibility of long-term concussion issues. It got so precarious that VanDerveer used to scold her if she’d try to take charges in practice. Stress fractures in Wilson’s feet forced her to the bench, too. Her freshman year, she played only six games.
Because of injuries and a lack of reps, Wilson played sporadically, struggling to find a rhythm offensively and taking herself out of position too much on defense. She got beat backdoor constantly. She often drew the ire of Cardinal assistant Kate Paye. “Stop gambling!” Paye would yell, harping on Wilson that if she’d just trust her quickness and keep opponents in front of her, she’d play plenty of minutes.
Paye, a former Cardinal defensive standout who helped Stanford to the 1992 title as a freshman, worked closely with Wilson to break down Stanford’s defensive philosophy and pore over scouting reports. Wilson becomebecame the ultimate basketball nerd, studying when pros pick up full court or why they guard a pick-and-roll a certain way. Wilson isn’t big (5-foot-9) and doesn’t have a long wingspan, but she excels because she understands angles at an elite level. Quickly changing the way her feet are positioned, for example, can have a huge impact on whoever she’s guarding. But that took time to learn.
“At Stanford we have about a billion ways to guard a ball screen,” Wilson says. “When I was a freshman I was like, ‘What? In high school we had one way and it was, they don’t score.’ But at this level, that doesn’t work.
“In the past I’d get frustrated too easily like, ‘Dang, they scored on me.’ Now I understand if I can force them to take less efficient shots and put them in situations where they’re uncomfortable, we’re gonna be fine.”
Part of Wilson’s evolution also involves being in terrific shape — mentally and physically.
“Being a great defender takes incredible concentration,” Gold-Onwude says. “It also takes great conditioning. To take on the best player on the other team time and time again, that takes tremendous mental endurance. Because the second you let up, that’s when a star is going to burn you and you want to avoid them catching fire.”
‘Make your teammates better’
Because of her circuitous route to success, Wilson can relate to every player on Stanford’s roster. She says it’s made her a better leader.
“I’ve been on the roller coaster of not playing a lot, then playing two minutes, 20 minutes, 37 minutes,” Wilson says. “I know what it’s like to sit on the bench and I also know what it’s like to play really well and start. If anyone in the locker room needs to talk about something, I get it.”
She’s embraced that leadership role on the floor, too. She’ll often pull freshman sensation Cameron Brink aside during a dead ball to explain exactly how Brink needs to position her body to make a great defensive play. Wilson’s more than happy to let Brink shine and pile up blocks (she has a team-best 70), even if Wilson’s often the reason she’s in the right spot. Wilson frequently refers to a goal she wrote down her freshman year, which she keeps in her locker: “Make your teammates better every day. That means good defense in practice.”
That she tries to serve others first is no surprise to those closest to her. But it is inspiring. VanDerveer is ecstatic for Wilson’s success this season. Gold-Onwude says she finds Wilson’s journey “very moving.” And Russell, who Anna describes as her best friend, has learned plenty from little sister — including how tough she is, on and off the floor.
“We all go through ebbs and flows, in life and in athletics, go through great moments and tough moments as well. She’s been unbelievably, remarkably strong,” Russell says. “And she’s never stopped dreaming.”
He’s right. And because Anna embraced a different dream than most — stopping another team from scoring — she’s closer to every player’s ultimate dream: cutting down nets at the national championship.
Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell