Michelle Smith Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Feature: Stanford's Anna Wilson
Mar 21, 2021
So many players have the benefit of the bigger picture only after their careers are over, when they can see the breadth of their experience as athletes and get the perspective they missed while they were in the middle of it.
Anna Wilson, however, has the gift of the bigger picture while she is still playing.
Her experience as a student-athlete has run the gamut from injured, to bench support, to role player, to starter. She faced the end of her career before it barely started with a near-career-ending concussion, and faced it again last year when the NCAA initially refused to grant her a fifth season.
She has experienced the frustration of watching her team move forward without her as she wondered if her headaches, fatigue and memory struggles would ever clear, to watching from the sidelines and waiting for her name to be called for limited playing time, to becoming a leader and a tone-setter.
Wilson has also had the benefit and the burden of her family’s athletic legacy, referred to as “the sister of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson” probably more times than she even realizes.
“I’ve been on a roller coaster my whole career,” Anna Wilson said. “I know what all the emotions are like, I know about a sense of urgency. I’ve been on great teams. I was on a Final Four team and I didn’t get to play because of my injury. Having all of those experiences has helped me to prepare for this. It’s where my focus comes.”
As Stanford prepares to open the NCAA Tournament on Sunday against Utah Valley State as the No. 1 overall seed, Wilson has cemented her role as one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders. The Pac-12’s co-defensive player of the year, Wilson will undoubtedly be called upon to defend some of the best players in the country over these next three weeks, provided the Cardinal can put together the kind of run that most people expect.
She’s ready. She’s always been ready.
“When the word 'perseverance' comes to mind, Anna is the first person I think of,” said Russell Wilson. “She has persevered through so much, from being young when our dad passed away, to juggling so many different things, to being a McDonald’s All-American and then getting a concussion and not being able to play. It was really tough on her, physically, emotionally and spiritually. But she is a winner by nature. It’s in the bloodline.”
Anna had lingering symptoms from a concussion that kept her off the court as a freshman. Her brother connected her with a doctor in Florida who assisted with her care. Once she was cleared to play later in the season, she admitted she “was trying to be the fittest on the team” and struggling to make an impression. She ran herself into a stress reaction in her foot, playing in just six games and sat on the bench as the Cardinal played in the 2017 Final Four in Dallas.
She made just five starts over the next three seasons, averaging less than 15 minutes a game and coming into the game often as a defensive stopper.
Last season, as the Cardinal welcomed the top recruiting class in the nation, Anna became a team leader and assumed a vital role on the floor. She wanted another season, and Tara VanDerveer wanted her back.
“When I think of the best defensive players we’ve ever had, I think of Kate Paye and Susan King and Ros (Gold-Onwude) and now Anna,” VanDerveer said. “That is an exclusive club. Anna is all about playing defense.”
Anna stood in the tunnel at Arizona State just off the court last year with her big brother after she had gotten word that the NCAA denied her initial request to come back for a fifth season.
“They thought it might be one of my last games, so both my mom and my brother came to see me play,” Anna Wilson said.
Anna said she was feeling very “whatever happens, happens” about the prospect of an appeal to the NCAA decision.
And her brother brought her to a different place. He reminded her that she had more to give and that it wasn’t all about basketball, that he saw her desire to keep playing and she needed to put everything on the table.
“I definitely wouldn’t be here for my fifth year if it wasn’t for my brother,” Anna said.
Wilson appealed the decision, wrote a letter to the NCAA. While she waited, the season ended abruptly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and she went back to San Diego to live with Russell. She had time on her hands. She worked out with her brother, ran end-zone patterns while he threw her passes.
She trained as if she was coming back. Weeks later, she would receive her response. She was granted another season, more importantly, another chance to make up for lost time.
“To have another opportunity to have a shot at playing again was everything,” Wilson said. “I knew I had to get mentally ready to go through another season and that there would be a lot of uncertainty.”
What was certain was the role that Wilson had carved out in the Stanford program. She knew that she had a chance to play a significant role.
“I tried to take the approach that I would need to figure out what was going to separate me from other people. My defense, my quickness, my experience. I understand defenses and scouting reports,” Anna said. “All of that was going to benefit me. And I know that I needed to have a sense of urgency.”
Russell Wilson said his sister is a testament to the adage that hard work pays off.
“The cool thing is that the whole time she’s been an amazing servant to so many people, including her teammates,” said Russell, a regular fixture at Stanford games during Anna’s career. “In addition to her winning habits, she is a person of true faith and belief. She’s been told no, several times and she keeps fighting.
“I’ve sat there during pregame warmups and seen how she sweats and how she works and how her mindset is in the right place. My favorite part of the game is always the fourth quarter when she matches up against the other team’s best player and she locks them down. Those are the people you want on your team and she is one of those people.”
Anna said she feels grateful she was able to “come out on the other side” of her collegiate career in a way that feels satisfying and complete.
“It obviously hasn’t been easy,” she said. “But I’ve always accepted the challenge and I know that everything that basketball has offered me is a lesson, a way of figuring out how this is going to make me a better person.”
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