In a league ripe with supremely talented forwards, Alyssa Thomas stands out. Flip on the Connecticut Sun and you’re likely to see the versatile forward pushing the ball up the floor like she’s been shot out of a cannon. Thomas’ speed and quickness demand special attention, but her improvement in 2017 is anchored by much more than a few easy leak outs.
Chiney Ogwumike wasn’t supposed to miss a full season. Perhaps even Morgan Tuck wasn’t supposed to miss so many games with a knee contusion. The Sun weren’t supposed to look this good yet. Head Coach Curt Miller spoke earlier this season with Howard Megdal about 2018 being a targeted year for his team to take a big step forward.
Those first two events opened up this opportunity for Alyssa Thomas to see extended time as the team’s starting 4. What looks to be a career year for the Maryland alum is making that third one possible without two key players.
Of course, Thomas is not alone. Jonquel Jones has taken a massive leap in her second season in the WNBA. “I think we just play off each other well. She’s an easy target to throw to,” Thomas said of her frontcourt running mate over All-Star weekend to The Summitt. “I think our high-low and our connection on the court is really good. It’s just easy to play with her.”
Shekinna Stricklen’s rise has coincided with the move to slide Thomas to the 4. The on court relationship for Stricklen and Thomas has been beneficial to both; Stricklen has shown opponents that she can’t be left alone. And Jasmine Thomas, a 2016 2nd Team All-Defense honoree, is setting the tone on both sides of the ball with confidence.
This Connecticut team is deep with scoring threats. Alyssa Thomas sliding up a position has opened up the floor for her to attack the rim and slice up defenses as a unique playmaking point forward-type.
“I’ve always been a playmaker at the 4 position and just be able to create for people which I love to do.” Thomas said. “We’ve been winning and it just feels good so I really enjoy it.”
Let’s start with what really sets her apart. Thomas can grab it and get into the teeth of a defense quicker than just about anybody in the league, regardless of position. Should you get all the way back in time, she has the wiggle and footwork to scoot right by.
Pushing the ball up the floor whenever possible (while remaining under control) just adds a fun layer to every possession. Players will find themselves open as the defense scrambles to get set:
Thomas’ athletic ability extends far beyond straight line speed. She can catch and finish in traffic or get up for a lob in the half court. When the game slows down, her burst will still give a team fits. Not many centers can space out as well as Jonquel Jones can, which turns Thomas into a devastating roller/cutter:
Thomas sees the floor well. She is a perfect fit with Curt Miller’s staff, style and vision for Connecticut’s offense. Defenses sometimes have to shade over even earlier to cut off a potential Thomas roll. This season, she’s making great decisions on the move as the roller to find open teammates:
“A lot of the plays we draw up are for me to get downhill, but a lot of people come hard to me,” Thomas said of making plays on the move in the half court. She continued, saying, “I can pass, so if people are gonna start helping off, I’m just finding my teammates.”
Connecticut will run a ‘Horns’ pick and roll with Thomas rolling and Jones popping out beyond the arc. Even if it doesn’t lead directly to a shot, Jones can zoom right into a handoff or side pick and roll to throw the defense off-balance:
Is Thomas best as a 3 or is she a 4? Great question. She still plays some of both, even with Morgan Tuck still sidelined. Call her a point forward, a power 3, a combo forward, whatever you please. We know this much: Alyssa Thomas is a strong, athletic forward with a high skill level. She’ll even put in the work ahead of time carving out position to put a defender on her back and score down on the block.
Thomas regularly draws double teams down there, even when guarded by ‘traditional’ power forwards or centers. Her quickness advantage against most creates real problems. Thomas knows just when to snap a timely skip pass to a weak side shooter as the help is running toward her.
The Sun don’t get too cute with their set designs or favorite actions. Thomas may set a ball screen to start a possession then twist it once, twice, or even three times until Jasmine Thomas gets downhill. When Jonquel Jones sets a ball screen, defenses must bark up a different decision tree to ensure she doesn’t get off an uncontested triple.
As popular as the high ball screen is in the modern game, plain player/ball movement can still open up fissures in a defense. Run the same pick and roll enough times from one spot and a defense will load up and force you to your fourth or fifth option.
For the Sun, one swing or ball reversal can lead to an entry pass to Alyssa Thomas at one of the elbows. One dribble and she’s at the rim. Send help to try to funnel her there at your own risk: Thomas is in triple threat and can see the whole floor. Before you know it, someone is getting up another three.
Thomas is making special plays on a nightly basis this season. Credit her for the work she’s put in leading up to this season, then credit her team and the basketball environment they’ve created. Whether she’s running the break, filling a lane, rolling to the rim, slipping a screen, sizing you up from the high post, or catching in the center of a zone, she’s going to do something to get her team a good shot.
Especially now with three or four shooters around her at all times, Thomas forces you to answer a tough question: When she’s driving down the lane, how will you improvise? You want to take away the uncontested lane, take away a drop off to a big under the rim and recover to shooters. It’s possible, but easier said than done. Very few playmakers in the WNBA have the ability to live at the rim like Thomas does.
Fresh off of the announcement of Thomas being named Player of the Week, Curt Miller tossed his versatile forward’s name out there as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Equipped with the tools and profile to challenge the best 3s on the wing and battle inside with bigger players, the proposition sounds plausible. Thomas does a nice job moving with some of the game’s best in Candace Parker and Tina Charles.
Parker and Charles, with their shooting ability and ball skills, are unpredictable and always in attack mode. Thomas has been willing to get inside to box out and fight for boards away from the ball. Any player being boxed out by Thomas must be ready to press the eject button early. If Thomas pulls the board down or receives an outlet, we know who’s likely to get down the floor first:
There are still challenges for Thomas as she strives to continue to play at this high level. Her free throw shooting (career 66.7%) has dipped below 55% in 2017.
The question so often with point forwards/combo forwards is this: Yes, she/he is great…but is the outside shot going to develop?
Thomas has attempted just six three-pointers in 3+ years of WNBA experience. Bring it back to context and fit now. It would be great to think about the addition of something like that, but Thomas is a perfect fit for the role she’s been asked to fill. With at least three shooters around her at all times, Thomas has the lane to herself, save for occasional Jones post work or Courtney Williams midrange artistry.
The Sun are ready to prove that they are more than a first half wonder. Thomas was very aware of that talking point, saying, “In previous seasons we’ve only been a one-half of the year kind of team; we play bad in the first half but finish well.”
Thomas then shifted to the games to come, understanding a target would be on their backs. “[The] biggest thing is just being consistent and keeping this going. We played well in our first half, but people are going to come out harder against us. We gotta step it up and continue doing what we do.”
Alyssa Thomas is playing her best basketball, and her fingerprints are all over all that is going right in Connecticut.
Note: This was originally published June 30 and has since been updated to include quotes from an interview with Thomas at All-Star open practice in Seattle.
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