A'ja Wilson Says Facing Phoenix Mercury in WNBA Playoffs Will 'Be Tough' Without 'Sister' Brittney Griner

·3 min read
'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces poses for a portrait during 2021 WNBA Media Day at the Michelob Ultra Arena on May 2, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces poses for a portrait during 2021 WNBA Media Day at the Michelob Ultra Arena on May 2, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty

As A'ja Wilson and her Las Vegas Aces start the WNBA playoffs, the all-star athlete says facing a Brittney Griner-less Phoenix Mercury team will "be tough," emotionally and physically.

"Our league doesn't even feel the same without her," Wilson tells PEOPLE of Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February 17 and was recently sentenced to nine years in prison.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about BG," says MVP contender Wilson.

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With her Aces facing off against Griner's team in the first round, Wilson says it'll be an emotional series.

"It's going to be tough playing against the Mercury as itself with, and without her. But at the end of the day, I know I'm playing for her," says Wilson. "I know she's here with us somewhere and we're going to continue to pray and hope that everyone's doing what they need to do to make sure that she gets home safely."

A'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces looks on against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on July 14, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Las Vegas Aces defeated the New York Liberty 108-74.
A'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces looks on against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on July 14, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Las Vegas Aces defeated the New York Liberty 108-74.

Mitchell Leff/Getty

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Along with Griner, the Mercury is also without star Skylar Diggins-Smith who will miss the remainder of the season due to "personal reasons." But even without two of its' stars, Wilson knows this resilient Mercury squad is "a team that does not get overlooked at all."

"They wouldn't be in this situation if they were not a good team," Wilson says. "So yes, it's always and forever going to be in our hearts. And it's like, we're going to continue to think about it. But at the same time, we're going to do what BG wants us to do. And that's hoop at the end of the day."

Wilson broke down in tears during a postgame press conference in June, after seeing photos of Griner in Russian court. "That's our sister and I can't imagine what she's going through," she said at the time.

Wilson tells PEOPLE that Griner is "constantly in our heart, no matter what," as the WNBA star continues to fight for her freedom. Wilson continues, "She's our sister. She is a pretty much our whole heart at this point because we feel for her. We think about her every single day. So it's going to be a different approach of course, but at the same time, just the competitor in us. I think it's going to be a good matchup."

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In addition to maintaining MVP-worthy stats on the court and preparing for a tough title run with her team, Wilson just announced her recent partnership with Ruffles, a historic move for the chip company as she becomes the first female athlete on the company's roster. The honor of representing the iconic snack brand isn't lost on Wilson, especially during a season so heavy with emotion.

WNBA star A'ja Wilson becomes first female athlete to land Ruffles deal
WNBA star A'ja Wilson becomes first female athlete to land Ruffles deal

Frito-Lay North America: Ruffles A'ja Wilson for Ruffles

"It's a blessing, it really is," Wilson says of her reaction to support from fans and colleagues who want to see her win this season's MVP award.

As part of Wilson's partnership with Ruffles, she was able to create her own signature flavor of chips available for purchase nationwide. Wilson's creation, Ruffle Ridge Twists Smoky BBQ, was inspired by her home in South Carolina.

"I never forget where I'm from, South Carolina through and through. When it comes to the south and South Carolina, I would always love barbecue. So smoky barbecue was a pretty easy choice for me. It made me have that connection to back home. And I just loved it," Wilson says.