September 15, 2021 

‘We’re very optimistic’: Alyssa Thomas ‘probable’ to make season debut

What AT's early return will look like

UNCASVILLE, CT — Alyssa Thomas appears ready to return to WNBA action for the first time in nearly a year – giving the Sun its engine just in time for the playoffs.

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Making a miraculous return from injury at a crucial time is nothing new for Thomas. She left Game 2 of the 2020 semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces with a dislocated shoulder just five minutes into the game. Just two days later, she played through the pain to get the Sun a single win away from a second straight finals appearance. Her stat line? 23 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals in almost 39 minutes. 

Now, returning to the WNBA floor for the first time since falling to the Aces in that series, Thomas joins a Sun team that has been unstoppable on a 12-game winning streak and has locked up the top seed in the playoffs. She’ll bolster an already-dominant defense, give the Sun another dimension on offense, and bring the ferocity that has made her a force in the playoffs.

After undergoing surgery for a ruptured achilles tendon sustained overseas in January, Thomas is poised to return to the court for the first time in about nine months. She’s officially listed as probable on the injury report for the Sun’s penultimate regular season home game against the New York Liberty on Wednesday night. 

In practice on Tuesday, Thomas was participating in drills with the team and didn’t appear to have any problems running, defending, or taking the ball up the court. Head coach Curt Miller said after practice that Thomas is “day-to-day” and the staff is evaluating each and every moment. 

“She had a good practice again today, so we’re very optimistic. I’ll put it that way,” Miller said. 

Thomas has been with the team the entire season, traveling to away games and staying active on the bench – looking at times like another coach. Her injury status was upgraded to ‘doubtful’ on Sept. 6 ahead of a three-game road stretch so she could warm up with the team.

“Having her back was great, it was as if she was never gone,” Beatrice Mompremier said after practice on Tuesday.  “Now she’s getting her reps and I cant wait to see her play.” 

Thomas fits right in with the Sun’s philosophy this year. Connecticut is already the most dominant rebounding team in the league, and Thomas has been in the top 15 in the league in total rebounds each of the past four seasons she played.

The Sun also add a player who Miller has called “the best defender in the world” to what is already the best defense in the league – currently holding opponents to 70.1 points per game. 

They have held opposing teams to 70 points or fewer in 16 games (the next highest team is Los Angeles with eight games) and haven’t given up more than 75 points since July 1 against the Indiana Fever.

As strong as Thomas is as a rebounder and defender, she is sure to have an immediate and noticeable impact on the Sun’s offense.

Aside from point guard Jasmine Thomas, Alyssa Thomas was the primary ball-handler in 2020 and led the team with 4.8 assists a game, while also leading the league in steals. 

The Sun’s offense has slowed down without AT, playing more methodically and grinding down opponents with their post play and defense. Her ability to bulldoze her way into the paint and use her power to push people around will make the Sun even more exhausting to defend — and it’s something she’s never let pain change about her game. 

“She’s a trooper. We’ve seen her play with her shoulder messed up — both of her shoulders messed up — in the game, and in the bubble, I think she had something torn. And she went hard as hell in that game,” Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner told The Next. “Everybody was so shocked by how she was hitting the floor, hitting people. On the first play, she hit somebody. She’s a trooper. If anybody can do it, she can do it. I’ve never seen somebody that strong.” 

Miller has said all season the Sun play slow for a reason, but they will still capitalize when there are opportunities to run the fast break. Thomas creates those opportunities. She’s able to strip ball handlers and charge to the rim, sling half-court passes to cutting teammates, and find lanes to get herself open. 

It’s exciting to envision AT intercepting a pass and launching a pass to Kaila Charles, wide open and speeding to the basket – but the core of the Sun offense will still be getting the ball to Bri and Jonquel Jones in the paint. That’s going to be more difficult for opposing teams to stop with Thomas’ ability to create off the bounce and passing instinct. 

The major question with Thomas is who heads to the bench when she is playing. Before this season, sliding Jonquel Jones to center and moving Bri Jones to the bench seemed like a no-brainer to fit Thomas back into the lineup. But Bri Jones has taken a huge step forward the past two seasons with expanded opportunities, and has cemented herself as one of the top frontcourt players in the league.

Because of how versatile Thomas, Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner are, the Sun have some options here. They could look to start the long-awaited Big Three together in the biggest “small ball” lineup in the league, with Jonquel Jones sliding over to center and Thomas and Bonner on the wing.

Thomas could come off the bench as a super sub, especially early on if Miller looks to ease her back in.  But it’s hard to picture AT on the bench. It wasn’t that long ago that she was on the floor for all but about four minutes of the Sun’s five-game Finals loss to the Washington Mystics in 2019. 

The Sun’s aggressive frontcourt players also have a tendency to find themselves in foul trouble, so having Thomas gives them more flexibility when JJ or Bri Jones is playing with three fouls early in a game. 

After Tuesday’s practice, Bri Jones didn’t show any concerns about team chemistry, or playing with both Jonquel and AT at the same time, and said that Thomas will fit in “seamlessly.”

“Having another weapon out there on the court is just gonna make us better. I think we’ve done a good job all season of playing within ourselves and playing within our roles on the team, and just adding another piece to that is going to make us better,” Jones said. ”We can rely on each other even more. It’s not gonna change too much of the way that we’ve been playing.”

Despite all the changes over the past three years with stars leaving, arriving, and missing time to injury, the Sun have been able to adapt and remain one of the top teams in the league. They talk about their “next person up” mentality and knowing their roles. There’s no reason to expect they can’t now adapt to bringing back Thomas, who has stuck close to the team all season.

“This team has a chemistry and a belief and a care for each other. They don’t care who gets the credit,” Miller said. “Jasmine Thomas and Bri January have sacrificed some individual shine to play a style that doesn’t bring them as much status, but a style that we believe that we can win with, and believe that we can put ourselves in a position to win a championship with.”

“It just goes to show that that locker room does not care about individual glory,” Miller said. 

The Sun care about winning the franchise’s first-ever WNBA Championship — something that’s been a goal all season — because they believe they have the right philosophy and players in place. And now they have Alyssa Thomas (probably).

(Alex Simon contributed reporting to this story.)

(The author works for Mohegan Sun, but not for the Connecticut Sun.)

Written by Jacqueline LeBlanc

Jacqueline LeBlanc is the Connecticut Sun beat reporter for The Next. Prior to The Next, Jacqueline has written for Her Hoop Stats and Sports Illustrated.

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