September 8, 2023
2023 WNBA MVP race: The case for the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas
'You take AT off her team, I don't even know if they’re in the playoffs'
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – If Alyssa Thomas’ case for Most Valuable Player wasn’t already clear, she made a convincing closing argument with 27 points, 12 rebounds, 14 assists, and six steals in a 90-76 win over the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday.
It’s a statline that’s never been seen before in WNBA history. The first 25/10/10/5 game — really the first 10/10/10/5 game — and as close to a quadruple double as the league has seen.
But as historic as the performance was, it wasn’t far off from what Thomas brings to the table every night. And despite DiJonai Carrington warning reporters early in the season not to let her performances feel normal, she’s consistently dominated in all aspects of the game to the point where it’s more of a surprise when Thomas doesn’t do something unheard of.
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As the sideline reporter and commentator for Sun broadcasts, Terrika Foster-Brasby has had a front-row seat for Thomas’ unprecedented season. What’s stood out to her is the mark Thomas is leaving on WNBA history.
“And I think that’s the one thing that she has over anybody else, the stuff that she’s doing, it’s stuff that literally has never been done before in WNBA history,” Foster-Brasby told The Next. “So regardless of who your favorite player is, or what era of WNBA you enjoy, she’s doing something that none of them have ever done.”
Tuesday’s performance was Thomas’ sixth triple double and 27th double double of the season – both league records.
And she broke Courtney Vandersloot’s record for assists in a season, ending the night with 304 in 38 games.
The one-of-one point-center makes this kind of performance look easy. Averaging 15.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 8.0 assists a game, triple double watch starts as soon as she steps on the floor every night.
“You have to intentionally tell yourself to not take these moments for granted,” White told reporters after Tuesday’s win “It just seems so routine that Alyssa Thomas gets a triple double, or close to a triple double, or a double double. It seems so routine. It’s not. It’s not routine. It’s exceptional.”
Thomas, now in her 10th season in Connecticut, has long been the Sun’s engine. But this year, she was finally given the keys.
After losing in the Finals, losing head coach Curt Miller, 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones, and captain Jasmine Thomas, there was talk about the Sun falling off from the consistent contenders they’ve been for years — even rebuilding.
But Thomas saw the change as an opportunity. She saw the vision for how she could thrive in new head coach Stephanie White’s offense. And she has thrived. Even after All Star center Brionna Jones was injured after just 13 games, Thomas still drove the Sun to a strong third place — now six games ahead of the fourth-place Dallas Wings.
“You take AT off her team, I don’t even know if they’re in the playoffs,” Washington Mystics forward and two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne told reporters on Thursday. “She’s had one hell of a season.”
And Thomas has led the Sun, and the league, in almost every facet of the game. She leads the league in rebounds, has traded back and forth with Vandersloot for the lead in assists, and now ranks third in steals.
With 15.9 points per game, Thomas isn’t putting up the points of the other leading MVP candidates. New York Liberty’s Breanna Stewart is second in the league with 23.3 ppg, and Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson third with 22.3 ppg. But White said the MVP isn’t a scoring award.
If you define “Most Valuable Player” as the player who contributes the most towards their team’s success, Alyssa Thomas is hard to ignore. The way she leads the Sun every play, on both ends of the floor, for nearly 40 minutes a game is unprecedented in the history of the league.
Value to team of Alyssa Thomas
Thomas will say that she’s doing what she always has. And she has always been versatile, and a unique playmaker as a forward who earned her nickname “The Engine” for pushing the Sun with her versatility and her intensity and effort
But now thrust into the unquestioned leading role, Thomas has shown what she’s really capable of. The triple doubles grab attention, but she’s taken on a leading role on offense while still continuing to be the menace on defense that has made Connecticut a leading defense for years.
White told The Next that what gets lost in the MVP conversation is the totality of Thomas’ game and how she should also be getting more recognition for what she does on the defensive side of the ball.
Thomas is the best defender on a team that leads the league in scoring defense, holding opponents to an average of 78.9 points per game, and third in defensive rating. And she is one of very few players who can truly guard all five positions, White said. She’s had to do that a lot to make up for losing Jones’ presence in the paint.
“She’s fearless and she’s a student of the game. Anybody that she matches up against, she’s going to know their strengths and weaknesses and is going to execute that,” Sun assistant coach Briann January told The Next on Tuesday. “When you look across the league, there’s very few players showing up every night where you’re like ‘dang, we have to play against her on the defensive end.’ … she’s one of those for sure.”
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Thomas doesn’t have a jump shot, but she can use her vision, speed and physicality to make plays when the defense backs off. And she’ll make defenders regret giving her any room to make reads with the ball in her hands.
A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart are top three in scoring and are both more efficient than Thomas, but where Thomas lacks in points scored, she more than makes up for the points she helps create for her team with assists.
|Points scored||Points assisted||Points produced||Games||Team points|
Thomas averaged 15.9 points per game and produced an average of 18.6 points on assists to her teammates across the first 38 games of the season.
What does this usually look like for the Sun when the offense is flowing? It could be a lead pass to Tiffany Hayes or Rebecca Allen cutting to the hoop. A handoff for a DeWanna Bonner three at the top of the arc. A full court touchdown pass to DiJonai Carrington. A kick out to a Ty Harris three. A high-low pass to Olivia Nelson-Ododa when she seals her defender.
“She does all the hard work and I just got to cut,” Bonner laughed. “I’m impressed with her vision, her knowledge of basketball. She knows where everyone is on the court. She gets everyone easy shots. …. It’s like a privilege that we kind of take for granted playing with her every night.”
Characterized in recent years for a grinding, methodical offense, the Sun’s new philosophy frees up Thomas to do what she does best – make plays. Thomas understands her teammates and opponents tendencies, and she picks apart defenses as thoroughly as anyone.
Averaging 37 minutes a game, she rarely comes off the court for a reason. The Sun have a +6.9 net rating with Thomas on the court, and are -22.3 without her — the biggest difference in the league.
“If you take her off our team, we’re not even close to the same,” White told The Next. “There are a lot of varying opinions on MVP being the best player on the best team and being this (scoring champion). The MVP is not a scoring champion …. The MVP is someone who is the most valuable player in everything that encompasses.”
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Establishing her place in league history
Alyssa Thomas’s value to the Sun is undeniable, but the mark she’s leaving on league history should also make her MVP case strong. After this year, her name will be all over the league record books.
Thomas won’t end the season averaging a triple double, but she’ll be as close as anyone has been by a wide margin.
She has a real chance at being the first player to finish the season leading the league in rebounds and assists — and will be as close as anyone ever has even if she doesn’t.
She’s had six triple-doubles on the season, while the most anyone else has had in their career is Sabrina Ionescu’s four. That includes the first 20-20 triple double in league history, and the first triple double with five or more steals in league history.
“I don’t think you can look at a stat sheet and see these stats from anybody in the league right now,” Bonner said. “It’s just impressive what she does night in and night out.”
And it’s not just triple-doubles, she broke Tina Charles’ league record set in 2011 on August 24 with her 24th double double in 34 games, extending that record to 27 double doubles with two games left in the regular season.
“If you’re someone who doesn’t study this game and watch this game and all you’re doing is basing it on the numbers, you’re probably not going to vote for Alyssa Thomas,” White said. “I think that does every player in this league a disservice. Just watch the nuances of what she does and the position that she’s doing it from.”
When she took the Sun job, White said Thomas’ will to win reminded her of Tamika Catchings. Former Sun head coach and current Sparks head coach Curt Miller has frequently compared Thomas’ ability to facilitate as a forward to Candace Parker.
But with the season she’s having, the only comparison for Thomas, is Thomas.
She’s a 6’2 undersized power forward, who spent the majority of the season playing center, averaging virtually 10 rebounds a game, while also recording 8 assists per game. The only other players who have ever averaged 8 or more assists in a season are Vandersloot and Ticha Penichiero.
“The fact that she impacts the game in a variety of ways. For the last few years, we’ve called Alyssa the best facilitating forward in the league,” Miller said. “But I think you can drop forward. She’s just one of the elite facilitators in the league.”
For White, the argument is clear. There is only one Alyssa Thomas.
“Nobody does what she does, and really that’s all that needs to be said,” White said.