UNCASVILLE, Conn. — In theory, it should be possible to slow down or even stop Alyssa Thomas, the hybrid 6-foot-2 forward for the Connecticut Sun.
Plagued by significant injuries to both her shoulders, Thomas is unable to raise her arms above her head right now. Yet the often-overlooked Thomas is the player no one on the star-studded Los Angeles Sparks frontcourt can stop as the semifinal series shifts to Game 3 on Sunday — and the player who has posted a pair of double-doubles over the past week to lead the Sun to within one win of the W.N.B.A. finals.
Thomas draws comparisons to many of the best in the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. alike, yet she possesses a game entirely her own.
“I’ve had to change my game,” Thomas said, sitting at her locker after posting 12 points and 13 rebounds in Thursday night’s Game 2 win. “At Maryland, I was all about mid-range jumpers, doing all of that. And I know how people are going to play me. But I do have a full game, and I do attack really hard. So despite how people are playing me, I still can find my way to the rim.”
People struggle for easy analogues to Thomas. She finds open teammates, an additional playmaker on a starting five with a more traditional point guard in Jasmine Thomas and a combo guard, Courtney Williams, who reached a career-best assist percentage this year.
Miller, after Game 1, compared her to Candace Parker, another forward capable of running her team’s offense. But Parker’s array of shots, her length and her rim protection are of a fundamentally different shape than Thomas’s overall contributions.
Thomas’s college coach, Brenda Frese, compared her to LeBron James, with his ability to physically overwhelm opponents. Frese knew she had found someone special when she first saw Thomas play in high school, and skipped a U.S.A. Basketball event to go see Thomas instead at the Battle of Baltimore, a local tournament.
“I had chills,” Frese said. “I instantly knew, just watching her in the layup line warming up. I couldn’t wait for the game to start. … What separates Alyssa is her speed, power and competitiveness. You cannot stop her in the open court in transition.”
The Sparks have discovered that throughout the series. In Game 1 — while Connecticut’s two leading scorers, Jonquel Jones and Williams, struggled to find their shots early on — Thomas took on the role of primary scorer, too, putting 13 points on the board in the first quarter to keep the Sun afloat.
And she’s doing it with a combination of brute force and sleight-of-hand trickery: a tone-setting glide up the floor, followed by an inevitable drive to the rim. Less than two minutes in on Thursday night came her first such trip that concluded with a scoop shot, a concession to her physical limitations that does not include giving up scoring at will.
It is her decision to continue on past her teammates and to the basket, finishing around, over and through defenders in her way — no small feat against a Sparks team featuring Parker, a former most valuable player, and a pair of Ogwumike sisters as impediments — that has lifted her Sun to the edge of the finals.
There’s a reason the sound of a car engine revs in the Mohegan Sun Arena after every Thomas basket: The best comparison to Thomas is not another player but the popular meme of a child running someone over with a small vehicle.
“She’s really, really smart,” Miller said. “She’s our smartest Xs and Os player we have, and she can see things. And so, good things happen when we play through her and the ball is in her hands.”
Thomas’s success is also a fortuitous meeting of player skill and a larger basketball moment. She played well as a rookie for the Sun in 2014 under then-coach Anne Donovan, but Donovan plugged her into a more traditional power forward role. Only after Miller took the helm in 2016 did an offense tailored to Thomas’s facilitating skill set begin to take shape.
There’s just one outcome to expect — success — when Thomas collects the ball, as she often does, off the defensive glass, and smoothly rumbles up the court as a facilitator. But good things can also happen out of an array of outlet passes, most remarkably, the 70-foot bounce pass she has used since her high school days. No one taught her to throw those. No coach would, Frese said.
“She definitely had that mastered before coming to Maryland,” Frese said. “When I see a player that is that powerful you definitely want them to have the green light to play to their strengths. I am fortunate that I have been able to coach only a few players that do possess those talents, but it’s not something I would teach as it takes a special gift to be able to do so.”
Those gifts came in part from an upbringing by two collegiate basketball-playing parents, Tina Klotzbeecher-Thomas and Bobby Thomas, both of whom played at Division II Millersville. But Thomas said she was undersized for much of her childhood, and so her parents pushed her to acquire guard skills, just in case the expected growth spurt for the progeny of a 6-foot-4 father and 5-foot-10 mother never came to pass.
Fortunately for Maryland, and now the Sun, she grew. And the net result is a rebounder who managed to grab 13 boards on a Thursday night the Sparks totaled just 24, and 15 fast break points for a team that operates in transition more, per Synergy, than any W.N.B.A. team other than the Las Vegas Aces.
Her bravado may not be as pronounced as her teammate Williams’s, her skills as easily recognized as the 6-foot-6 center Jones. But the inevitability of Thomas’s success has never been clearer.
“I don’t care who’s in front of me, how tall you are, I will find a way,” Thomas said. “And if you block my shot, I’m coming right back at you.”