Sunny D: Alyssa Thomas’s Return Lights Up Connecticut’s Bright Defense

On September 15, 2021, less than nine months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, Alyssa Thomas returned to the court. This remarkable recovery—alongside her infamous torn labrums echoing through the broadcast each time she attempts a push shot floater in the lane or her uniquely styled free throw—has reinforced what we all knew already: Thomas is one of the toughest players to ever lace ‘em up on a basketball court. Her first score, an athletic drive-and-spin on the New York Liberty’s Michaela Onyenwere, showcased her ability (and willingness) to initiate contact and get to the rim.

 

When AT went down in January, it appeared fans would be robbed—for the second straight season—of seeing the tantalizing big three of Thomas, Jonquel Jones, and DeWanna Bonner play together. It’s difficult to look back on this now, but we at Winsidr put the Sun seventh in our preseason Power Rankings, and we take full responsibility for the disrespeCT put onto Connecticut’s name. 

How were the Sun able to hurdle to the top of the standings without AT, the team’s ostensive leader on the court? First off, the play of Jonquel Jones, who compiled a consistent season on both ends of the floor, while drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant with her smooth, unguardable baseline fadeaway. JJ is your 2021 Most Valuable Player and is on the shortlist for Defensive Player of the Year. Next, the continued evolution—and continued breakout!—of Brionna Jones, who made her first All-Star game enroute to being named the 2021 Most Improved Player. That pair, taking the court alongside three veterans in Bonner, Briann January, and Jasmine Thomas made this five the most dominant unit in the W. In fact, all but Bonner (a disappointing omission, if you look to the advanced metrics) were named to WNBA All-Defense: J. Jones and January to first team, B. Jones and J. Thomas to second team. Their performances, coupled with a methodical pacing that allowed the Sun’s suffocating defense to dictate games on a nightly basis, have Connecticut sitting on 14 straight regular season wins heading into the playoffs.

 

So, if you’re a newcomer to the Connecticut Sun bandwagon, you might wonder: What exactly does Alyssa Thomas bring to this team that already looks to be firing on all cylinders?

 

How Thomas Adds to the Offense

Aside from being a team’s leader, which can be tougher to measure objectively, you can take a look at AT’s career stats. She’s got career averages of 11.6 points per game (PPG), 6.8 rebounds per game (RPG), and 3.0 assists per game (APG) in the conventional categories. Her 47.7 career shooting percentage, especially with her limited range, is an impressive mark. She’s dented the franchise marks with her play, sitting fifth in Sun history in both scoring (2,363 points) and dishing (612 assists). 

Thomas is a two-time WNBA All-Star, and she takes her game to another level in the postseason. In 17 career playoff games, Thomas is averaging 17.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, and 5.0 APG. Last year, she set the tone in Connecticut’s first single-elimination matchup against the Chicago Sky, this year’s semifinal opponent. In that game, Thomas pulled down 10(!) offensive rebounds, en route to a 13/13/8 line in which she hit 10-of-19 shots.

 

 

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Thomas brings an efficient scoring option with her bruising style of play, and her ability to cut and finish with either hand will keep defenses honest where they might otherwise bring doubles to JJ when she catches a deep postup. Adding a scoring threat that doesn’t demand a high usage rate is always a net positive, though it’s likely Coach Curt Miller keeps Thomas coming off the bench to maintain the continuity of the current starters. 

 

Another Gear

Thomas’ ability to operate as a point-forward also allows the Sun to upgrade their league-slowest pace, if desired. Connecticut hasn’t needed to up the tempo, because they haven’t often found themselves playing from behind. AT’s return mitigates two of the major reasons for the measured pace: the lack of a break-starter whose ability to rebound and run leads to odd-man transition opportunities, and the league-high minutes played by starters. Connecticut’s opening five, who missed just 10 games combined, averaged 30.8 minutes per game (MPG). They played 4,622 of a possible 6,450 minutes, north of 60 percent of the team’s totals. Only two reserves saw significant run: Natisha Hiedeman (20.1 MPG) and Kaila Charles (16.3 MPG). In her two games back, AT averaged 17.4 MPG. Adding reliable depth will allow Miller to spell his starters, while also bringing much needed experience to the youth-heavy bench. The ages of the five players that have primarily comprised the second unit—DiJonai Carrington (23), Charles (23), Hiedeman (24), Stephanie Jones (23), Beatrice Mompremier (25)—are a large part of why the starters have shouldered such a workload. “They call her ‘The Engine’ because she gets us going,” Charles said. “To have her back gets us veteran experience and leadership.”

Thomas, even in 15-20 minutes a night, could be a huge help in absorbing some of the intense playoff courttime. “AT understands that she’s not back fully, and that we do have something very special right now,” Miller said. “She understands that she can really contribute and help us, but that may be a different role than she’s been the last few seasons for us.”

 

AT’s D

Whenever she sees the court, Thomas brings a dynamic energy as a two-way player. Returning Thomas to this defense, which surrendered south of 70 PPG this season, is unfair to opponents. Last season, according to Synergy, AT finished in the 96th percentile of all defenders, surrendering just 104 points on 164 defensive possessions (a point-per-possession rate of 0.63), while holding defenders to 29.1 percent shooting.

She’s not only a menace as an on-ball defender, but in generating turnovers, as well. According to Across the Timeline, Thomas’ 1.46 steals per game rank 21st all-time. She’s finished top-10 in steals in four of the past six seasons. 

The Sun are about to face off against the Sky, who ranked eighth in turnovers this season with 14.5 giveaways per game. They’ll look to up the tempo on Connecticut, after finishing third this season in pace behind the Las Vegas Aces and Liberty. Thus far in the playoffs, the Sky have been successful by getting out in transition, averaging 16 points off turnovers on a league-best 85 PPG in their two season-prolonging victories. Connecticut will need to maintain their physical, stifling defense if they’re to slow down the high-powered Chicago offense, and having Thomas back to absorb some high leverage minutes is a boost at the perfect time.

“AT is a huge part of our team,” Jonquel Jones said. “Her value can’t be measured.”

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