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Alyssa Thomas “just a normal person” running the Sun offense

Sun coach Curt Miller said his team's offense runs through Alyssa Thomas. Chris Poss photo.
Sun coach Curt Miller said his team’s offense runs through Alyssa Thomas. Chris Poss photo.

“Our offense runs through her.”

Sun coach Curt Miller is not speaking about a guard, but about power forward Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut’s most essential player.

“AT” leads the team in rebounds (8.2), is second in assists (4.1), first in minutes (30.4) and contributes 10.6 points per game. She has thrived in Miller’s up-tempo offense.

At 6-2 and 185 pounds, Thomas might lead the WNBA in strength-to-speed ratio. She is an outstanding defender, veritably unmovable once she gets set. She routinely holds taller post players in check, but in some Sun player rotations, she will defend guards on the perimeter.

What is her offensive and defensive value to the team? Connecticut is 16-6 when she is in the lineup, and was just 3-7 when she was out with a shoulder injury earlier this season. And two of those three wins were over cellar-dweller Indiana.

Thomas was drafted fourth by the New York Liberty in 2014 and sent immediately to the Sun in a trade for Tina Charles. During her college career at Maryland, Thomas was the ACC rookie of the year, then three-time ACC Player of the Year. She was twice a WBCA All-American, and an AP All-American her senior year. She grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

After a recent win over Las Vegas, Thomas talked with WomensHoopsWorld’s Jim Clark.

What has been the primary thing you’ve learned since you entered the league?

You know, it’s just kind of: you’ve got to start fresh. Everything you did in college, you kind of have to find where you fit in, and I think my first couple of years, I was just looking to see how I could fit into this league.

And then you were an all-star. Where do you fit now?

Just doing a little bit of everything. Creating for my team, rebounding and pushing tempo. That was my strength in college and I just had to wait to be put in the right situation to do that.

At your size, there’s just a couple of players who can do that, and get down the court, leading the break. Have you always been kind of a point guard in a forward’s body?

Absolutely. When I was growing up, my mom just played me at every position. You don’t really know how you’re going to turn out when you get older, if you’re going to grow, if you’re going to stay the same. So, you know, she played me one through five, and it’s just kind of been a thing I’ve done my whole career. Pushing tempo is what I do, and I love to do it, and I love just getting my teammates easy baskets.

What is it like playing in Korea for a kid from Pennsylvania?

Yeah, I mean, I love Korea. It’s a home away from home. They take really good care of you. I’ve made a lot of friends there.

Friends who are not Americans?

Yes, Koreans, yep. They look forward to when I come there, and just to experience a culture that is just so unlike ours is great. Unfortunately, I’m not going back this year, so I’m a little sad, but I definitely intend to go visit and see my friends.

Where are you going to play this year?

I’m going to Prague.

What team?

USK. [USK Praha, in the Czech League]

What’s your role in the Sun locker room?

Just being a vocal leader. You know, I’m not one that talks much, but when I am fired up and saying what’s on my mind, people listen to me and it does get us fired up and takes us into a whole ‘nother gear.

There was just recently an article about how shy you were. Is that still true, or have you overgrown that?

You know, I’ve just grown up over the years. One of the reasons I started basketball was to break me out of my shell. But my team needs me to be a vocal leader. I’ve been here in Connecticut the longest, so . . . .

Is that true? I didn’t know that.

Absolutely. This is my fifth year here. I’ve been here through the ups and the downs, so I know what it takes for us to be at our best.

Who are you closest with on the team?

I think we’re all really close. Of course, me and Jazz [Jasmine Thomas] hang out a lot, but I think we all have our different relationships, and we really are like a family.

Alyssa Thomas shoots a free throw. Chris Poss photo.

Do you still keep in touch with Coach [Brenda] Frese [of Maryland]? How much do you rely on her for advice?

Oh, all the time. You know, before I go overseas or whenever I come back from overseas, I try to make sure we can cross paths and just catch up. She’s helped me to grow into the player that I am today, and I’m so grateful to have her in my life, really.

Does she offer advice?

Not so much advice, but whenever she’s watching games, and she’s encouraging me and proud of me. I know I always have that relationship with her, and I can reach out to her and ask her anything.

If you could tell a younger you something, what would you tell that person? It doesn’t have to be basketball, it could be anything?

Just talk about where I am today. I’ve always played basketball and had a lot of fun doing it, but, you know, I never would have expected it to take me to this point in my life, where, you know, it’s a job. And I’ve been fortunate to travel the world because of it. And I’m just so grateful and looking forward to what else it will bring.

Where does your passion for the game come from?

I’m a competitor. I hate to lose, in anything really. But I just love basketball, you know. I love the friends I’ve made through basketball and all the people I get to meet.

What are your interests outside of the game?

I would say if I wasn’t playing basketball, I would be a dentist. So I’ve been looking into how I could get that into my fitness schedule. You know it’s hard, so I’m just trying to figure that out.

Is that what you think your career will be 15 years from now when basketball is over?

It’s never too early to plan. I’ve thought about coaching as well, but right now I’m trying to figure it out and see what interests me most.

What do you want your hoops legacy to be?

Just someone who went out there and gave 110 percent every game and did really what’s best for her team. I just try to give it my all every game.

While you were injured, the team went 3-7. First of all, how did it feel sitting on the bench watching that collapse in the middle of the season?

It was hard. The way we started to the way we were, we just weren’t playing our basketball. Of course, anybody that’s hurt wants to be out there, know that you can contribute. And I think the biggest thing for me was getting back and just being that person to make easy shots for her teammates.

You have torn the labrum in both shoulders. Is there surgery that can fix that, and is that in the future somewhere?

Definitely.

Is that planned already?

Not planned, but it’s definitely something that needs to happen. Most people wouldn’t be able to play with this type of injury, the way your shoulder is. But I’m fortunate to have a lot of muscle that helps with the stability. But at some point I need to stop putting it off and get it fixed.

Your offensive game is largely inside 12 feet. Are you working on extending that?

Not really. It’s never really been my thing. Regardless if people go under, or sag in on me, I’m still able to do other things: rebound, and still get into the paint and create for my teammates. So, um, you know it’s really not about the offense for me, it’s really about creating and getting the easy shot.

Talk about your defense approach, philosophy. You’re often guarding much taller players, and my observation is you’re one of the best defensive players in the league, even if you don’t get the credit. You’ve got to see you every day to see how much difference you make. What are you doing out there?

Like you said, most people are really taller than me. I just try to get them off the block and maybe more short corner, wing. I think I have a better advantage when I’m able to get them out there. I can play them more one-on-one. They’re not able to get past me as easily. I have the advantage. I really do take pride in my defense. It burns me up when people are able to score on me easily, so I just try to be that annoying defender that’s just always there regardless of who the player is.

Who is the hardest player to guard who you regularly have as an assignment?

 I would say Tina [Charles]. You know, she has that shot that’s really behind her head, so it’s really hard, for me at least, to contest that shot. She’s really strong, too. I’m definitely always trying to battle her and just make it as hard as I possibly can for her.

You’re going to have more than 1,600 points and 900 rebounds pretty soon, and your rebounds have increased dramatically this year. Is that just experience, or have you done something specific to become one of the WNBA leaders in rebounding?  

I think the more you play the same people, the more you learn where their shots come off. Dennis Rodman used to shoot with different teammates and watch where their ball went off. So when my teammates shoot I tend to just study where their shots come off the rim and try to focus on that in the game, and try to anticipate where the ball will be.

What would you do if you had an entirely free day and no monetary limitations? A single day?

 Probably just sit on my couch, watch movies, keep my feet up and just relax. Especially the way this schedule is this year.

Tell me something about yourself that isn’t well known, but you think is a fun thing. 

 Oh, man!

This is the thing you want your fans to know.

I don’t know, there’s not really much to me. I’m just a big family person. Whenever I can I just try to be with my family, whether it’s going to my sister’s AAU tournament, and just being a normal person, you know. So many people think that we’re so different because of being a WNBA player, but I just like people to know I’m just a normal person. I watch basketball, I do the same things that everyone else does, you know. I think that’s my biggest thing.

Is home still in Pennsylvania where you grew up?

Harrisburg? My mom’s side is Harrisburg but my dad’s side is Chicago. So whenever we go to Chicago I have a lot of family there.

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