May 24, 2022 

Defining that Sam Thomas energy for Phoenix

How the undrafted Mercury forward has endeared herself to her team

PHOENIX — “I love that Sam Thomas energy,” Phoenix Mercury Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard said pre-game against the Dallas Wings last week.

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What exactly is that Sam Thomas energy?

Her teammates and coaches define it as a player with a great attitude, mentality and work ethic. All of which describe Thomas. Following a loss to the Las Vegas Aces, teammate Shey Peddy praised how Thomas hasn’t lost sight of who she is. “Sam is a great rookie,” Peddy said. She comes in, she works hard day in and day out and she’s her own person.”

After spending five seasons at the University of Arizona, she declared for the 2022 WNBA Draft. She holds numerous accolades for the program, including most amount of games and minutes. Still, Thomas went undrafted, in a league where even draft picks struggle to make opening rosters. All she had was a training camp invite to Phoenix.

That was all it took. The Mercury saw not only her skill set, but how she is as a teammate. Skylar Diggins-Smith was one of the first to recognize Thomas’s ability during the camp. “She’s been great all camp,” Diggins-Smith said. “She’s low maintenance and is a great teammate on the floor.”

Statistics don’t tell the whole story

Thomas is a player who knows her role, and picks up lessons from those around her. She paid close attention to what teammates Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles could impart.

“They’ve been teaching me so much, just like little things in basketball that you never really thought about,” Thomas said.

The impact went both ways. When Thomas made the team, Charles even posted that on her Instagram story. While there was excitement and pure joy, Nygaard noted Thomas’ composure during preseason game against the Seattle Storm. “She’s so calm,” Nygaard said post-game. “It was my first game, so I’m trying to stay calm, because I don’t want the players to freak out. But she calms me.”

In that game against the Storm, Thomas showed why she made the team. Before the game started though, she had some jitters but received a pep talk from her teammate, Taurasi. According to Thomas, Taurasi had some words of encouragement. “It was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been since the 2021 national championship game,” Thomas said. “All you have to do is the little things and that will take your nerves into that. So that’s just what I tried to do.”

Throughout the offseason, key players were absent from training camp. Brittney Griner, Diamond DeShields and Brianna Turner were all out, which rang the bell for Thomas to take in the opportunity. It heightened the nerves of Thomas initially.

“I was expecting to maybe watch the first couple minutes and watch the stars,” Thomas said. After getting thrown into the starting lineup, she responded by scoring nine points, grabbing one rebound and going 3/3 from three point range. Her final three came with a minute left in the fourth quarter to tie the game.

Thomas also guarded MVP and three-time all-star Breanna Stewart. Even though it was a preseason game, according to Thomas, it was a great experience. “I got the star (Stewart) so it was very nerve-wracking, but it was fun,” Thomas said. “I got to take my nerves out in the first minutes and then settle in a little bit.”

Once on the team, she soaked in the information from some of the best players in the league. The regular season started and the team had a lackluster performance, losing to the Aces, 106-88 on May 6. Thomas played eight minutes and had a rebound and an assist in the loss. After the game, she got an assist from the vets on how to play when you’re down. “After seeing what did happen in the first half, maybe it was painful,” she said that night. “The rookies would have let down but the vets were giving positive words of encouragement. They kept fighting.”

Encouragement from her teammates allowed the rookie to open up more. “When she found out she made the team, she was able to let her guard down and be herself,” Peddy said. “You can’t say anything bad about Sam.”

The end of training camp opened up the doors to be comfortable around her teammates. At the conclusion of their first regular-season game, Diggins-Smith told Thomas how she’s playing against some of the most seasoned veterans to ever play. During that conversation, she sees a big future ahead for her rookie.

“Her future is bright in this league. I’ve got her back,” Diggins-Smith said.

And while many of the drafted rookies are no longer on rosters, Thomas played five minutes on Saturday against the Aces, even with many of the Mercury mainstays back stateside. Nygaard, it seems, isn’t willing to play a game without that Sam Thomas energy.

Written by Hayden Cilley

Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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