Some athletes prefer to let actions do the talking instead of words. Kayla Thornton is one such competitor.
Thornton is among a crop of young prodigies for the Dallas Wings, whose team includes five rookies and two second-year players. Averaging 7.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game at the All-Star break, the 24-year-old is thriving in her second go-round as a WNBA professional.
“She’s just a tough kid. She works really hard for everything she has,” Wings assistant coach Taj McWilliams-Franklin told The Summitt. “That kind of energy, on a team with young players…helps us immensely, especially coming off the bench.”
Thornton’s energy was first cultivated at Texas-El Paso, where she had a history of being first. In her senior year, she became the first player in school history to average a double-double. When her college career was done, she held school records in points, rebounds and double-doubles.
However, Thornton’s success at a mid-major program didn’t instantly translate with WNBA scouts. She went undrafted in 2014 and wouldn’t get her first shot with a team until the following year, when the Washington Mystics gave her a try. Thornton scored a total of 22 points in 10 games before she was released by the team.
“Getting cut, I think that’s what kept me going. When I have my mind set to something, I stay with it,” Thornton said. “It’s not the school, but it’s the person that you bring.”
And the person Thornton brings is a resilient one. Following her cut from Washington, she put in work to develop an outside shot, but she had to wait until this year to find another WNBA team. When the Wings hosted a free agent workout earlier this year, Thornton was among the first to attend. As a result, she was the first to make an impression with McWilliams-Franklin.
“A lot of people think, because they were great in college, that they’re automatically going to be great in the pros and they don’t have to work for playing time. Her attitude is the opposite of that,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “What impressed me most about her was one: she’s very humble, but also, she just works.”
Thornton’s relentless work ethic is reflected in her stat line, making improvements in nearly every category. As a result, the 6-1 forward has the eighth highest offensive rating in the league (117.2) and is the only bench player in the league’s top 10.
“She brought in that skill set,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “I just help keep her focused, because she does, as many post players that are small, have a tendency to float outside the key instead of getting in…she’s got to get more used to posting up smaller forwards that guard her.”
Experience, or lack thereof, was a question surrounding Dallas prior to the 2017 season. Their leadership faced a major test when their most tenured player, Courtney Paris, missed over a month of games due to injury. There was a stretch in June where they lost six of seven games, but they responded by winning the next four. Potential exists for the Wings and their high-flying offense as they battle to make the playoff bubble. Should they scrape through, attribution will belong to disciples like Thornton.
“We definitely have a mindset of a veteran team. When we come, the rookie stuff goes out the door,” she said. “On this team, you can be a leader in so many different ways.”
Thornton isn’t the first WNBA athlete from a mid-major school, and she isn’t the first to re-enter the league after being cut. She’s certainly not the first who would tell you about the benefits of persistence, but she can tell you what will stay with her as her career evolves.
“Keep the love that I have and the fire when I left Washington,” she said.