Alyssa Thomas personifies ‘gritty’ culture for Connecticut Sun as veteran squad chases WNBA championship (2024)

UNCASVILLE — On the morning of Game 2 in the 2023 WNBA Semifinals series between the Connecticut Sun and the New York Liberty, Breanna Stewart was crowned league MVP for the second time in her career.

Stewart learned the news at the Liberty’s pregame shootaround, embraced by her teammates as she tearfully watched a video on the Jumbotron at Barclays Center in Brooklyn chronicling her first season with New York.

There would be no such celebration for the Sun locker room when they learned Alyssa Thomas had not received the league’s highest honor despite setting a WNBA record with six triple-doubles in 2023. The superstar forward averaged 15.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists — all career highs — and became the first player in league history to log more than 600 points, 300 rebounds and 300 assists in a single season.

For Thomas, the disappointment was particularly stinging because it felt so familiar. Connecticut went on to lose 84-77 in Game 2 and was eliminated by the Liberty in a 3-1 series.

“I think I’m used to it. I think I’ve been snubbed so many times in my career that it’s a normal feeling for me,” Thomas said with a slight smile and a shake of her head after the Game 2 loss. “It is what it is. We keep going.”

Last season’s MVP race was one of the closest ever between Thomas, Stewart and Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson. Thomas didn’t even lose the award outright: She received more first-place votes (23) than either Stewart (20) or Wilson (17) but finished second in the final tally because of Stewart’s 23 second-place votes to her 12.

Wilson went on to win WNBA Finals MVP after leading the Aces to back-to-back titles, and she was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2023 for the second consecutive season. Both years, Thomas was her runner up.

Thomas has spent her entire career with the Sun since she was drafted No. 4 overall in 2014, and the team has reached at least the second round of the WNBA Playoffs every year since her first All-Star season in 2017. Through two coaching changes and a revolving door of starters over 11 years, Thomas has anchored one of the league’s most consistent teams with only a single All-WNBA first team selection to show for it.

“I think a lot of people think (2023) was a fluke. They think that it’s a season I can’t repeat or something that was lucky,” Thomas said. “But that’s been my game my whole entire life, and I plan on continuing to push the limits and do it my way.”

Connecticut’s franchise culture is personified by the chip on Thomas’s shoulder, and second-year head coach Stephanie White knows the Sun’s path to an elusive first WNBA championship runs through its unsung star.

“She’s someone who has such a high basketball IQ. She’s got a great understanding. She understands people’s tendencies and strengths and weaknesses,” White said. “Being able to bounce things off of her, being able to challenge her to help us get to another level … I think it’s now how can she elevate everybody else around her?”

Alyssa Thomas personifies ‘gritty’ culture for Connecticut Sun as veteran squad chases WNBA championship (1)

‘She just makes you want to do more’

In an era when super teams and flashy young talent are dominating the narratives in the WNBA, Connecticut has taken an opposite strategy to team construction. The Sun are entering their fifth season with the same front court core of Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones, and there won’t be a single true rookie on the initial 2024 roster. Four of the team’s five newcomers have spent at least six years in the league.

“(Veterans) that are undervalued have a chip on their shoulder. They want to win. Basketball is No. 1, outside of their families,” general manager Darius Taylor said. “We always take a look at that, because we understand we’re in a smaller market, so some of the free agents we went after get wooed away to a bigger market … I think from a culture standpoint, this a gritty team that’s always going to play hard, that teams hate playing against.”

Connecticut’s offseason additions weren’t high profile, but all aligned perfectly with the scrappiness that defines the squad. Tiffany Mitchell spent most of 2023 playing out of position for an injury-riddled Minnesota Lynx team and never hit her stride after seven previous seasons with the Indiana Fever. Rachel Banham came from the Lynx as a free agent to rejoin the team that drafted her with the No. 4 pick in 2017. Astou Ndour-Fall has been out of the WNBA since 2021 playing overseas, and Moriah Jefferson was traded by the Mercury despite rebounding from years of battling injuries with the most complete season of her career in 2023.

“They’re all players that have been underestimated in this league,” Thomas said. “I think that’s the kind of players we get in Connecticut — I don’t want to say castaways, but I don’t think people understand how to use their talents. When they come here, we bring the best out of them.”

Bringing out the best in them starts with White, who is ramping up the creativity and complexity of her position-less offense in her second season. Thomas has played a fundamental role in shaping the system as one of the most versatile, cerebral forwards in the league.

“We see things at the same level, and I think we have that capability just to bounce ideas off each other,” Thomas said. “She’ll come to me and ask like ‘We want a back door play, what are you thinking?’ I’ll process and tell her, and we’ll go with it. Her bringing in this offense has just allowed me to be me and play my game … It gives me a lot more freedom.”

Banham was drafted two years after Thomas and played the first four years of her career with the Sun. When Banham returned to Connecticut as a veteran, she said Thomas hadn’t changed a bit: The star forward is simply an elevated version of the player she has been since the beginning.

“She’s pretty much the exact same. More mature obviously because she’s older, but otherwise she’s the exact same player and exact same person,” Banham said. “She motivates you to go even harder because she’s playing so hard. She pushes the pace, she gets deflections. She just makes you want to do more.”

Alyssa Thomas personifies ‘gritty’ culture for Connecticut Sun as veteran squad chases WNBA championship (2)

‘Every year people underestimate us’

Connecticut faces an immediate referendum on its experienced construction in its season opener against the Indiana Fever and No.1 draft pick Caitlin Clark on Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena. All five of the Sun’s preseason starters have at least three seasons of experience, which stands in stark contrast to their first opponent. Headlined by the rookie Clark, Indiana’s only starter with more than two years in the league is Katie Lou Samuelson, the former UConn standout, in her first season with the franchise.

The Sun are betting favorites against the Fever at -5.5, but the pomp coming to their home court on Tuesday is largely centered around their opponent. ESPN is planning a broadcast at the same scale as the WNBA Finals to chronicle Clark’s first professional game, complete with a WNBA Countdown pregame show and streaming for the first time ever on Disney+.

The story has been the same in Connecticut for as long as White can remember over more than two decades in the league as a player, coach and broadcaster.

“It’s been since I was covering them working in television. There’s always this caution of whether this team is as legit as they were a year ago,” White said. “It was the same way back in 2004 and 2005, and I’m not sure why that is … but I think that’s what allows our team to be successful. They thrive on proving everybody wrong. The edge we play with and the competitiveness allows us to win ball games.”

While the Sun have no reason to feel like underdogs on the court against a Fever team that went 13-27 last season, Thomas has heard this story before.

“It’s Connecticut. I feel like every year people underestimate us,” Thomas said with a chuckle. “We have three All-Stars, and yet people don’t pick us to finish in the playoffs. It’s funny to me, but nothing changes for us. We keep the same mentality, and that’s to come in every day and outwork everyone.”

Alyssa Thomas personifies ‘gritty’ culture for Connecticut Sun as veteran squad chases WNBA championship (2024)
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