SYDNEY — US women’s basketball coach Cheryl Reeve called Alyssa Thomas last December hoping she would like to be part of the national team’s pool.
Thomas, who competed abroad in the Czech Republic during the WNBA offseason, had long ago discounted her name. As a long-time player abroad, she had found that national team commitments usually took place during her only break of the year.
“I wasn’t very focused on playing for Team USA but she called me and explained her vision and talked about defense and passing and I think that’s my identity and role,” Thomas said Friday. “So it was a no-brainer for me to try.”
Reeve, who was named USA Basketball’s head coach that same month, told Thomas she would have an open mind if things didn’t go the way she hoped. Thomas immediately agreed to try.
Less than a year later, Thomas and the US National Team were a perfect match at the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Championship. In her first major international competition with Team USA, Thomas was “the engine” — her nickname in the WNBA with the Connecticut Sun — of the United States’ run to the gold medal game against China on Saturday (2 p.m. ET , ESPN/ESPN+). The US women is seeking their fourth straight gold medal and eleventh overall gold medal at the tournament.
Reeve called Thomas because she suspected the 6ft-2 forward “might be one of the most important people we’re adding.” A three-time WNBA All-Star and four-time All-Defensive Team pick, Thomas is known for her offensive and defensive versatility, which allows her to play even the 1st as a team runner-up), 4.6 assists ( runner-up) and a team-high 2.7 steals in 22.4 minutes per game in Sydney. And the stat sheet fails to sum up how their unrelenting energy and physicality help set the tone, whether in US Women’s blowout victories or when tested by a dismal squad.
2022 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, whose Las Vegas Aces defeated Thomas’ Sun in the Finals earlier this month, called Thomas “the glue of this team, the X Factor.” Seattle Storm’s Jewell Loyd said Thomas was “the MVP of the tournament.”
Thomas has not been involved with USA Basketball since 2013. But after playing against them for years as head coach of the Minnesota Lynx, Reeve was impressed by Thomas’ analysis — though Thomas wasn’t recognized as a WNBA All-League pick until this season (second-team). With several US basketball post players on the way out or retiring, Thomas had an opportunity to earn a bigger role within the roster.
Thomas completed her first test run in Reeves’ system during the FIBA World Cup qualifier tournament in February as the coach attempted to establish an identity in terms of defense and up the tempo. “She’s obviously both,” Reeve said.
Case in point: Against Serbia in the quarterfinals, while the United States had just a four lead early in the second quarter, Thomas recovered defensively after her player faked a shot and went on the paint. Thomas kept her stuck, snatching the ball out of the Serbian player’s hands before dribbling and hurling it from the low block to the free-throw line at the far end of the floor, where Sun’s teammate Brionna Jones caught it for a layup.
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In the semifinals against Canada, the US women thwarted the red-hot Lynx player Bridget Carleton, who had at least 15 points from four games in a row.
your game plan? “Alyssa Thomas,” Reeve said. “We said, ‘Go get her.'”
When USA needs a dose of physicality or a boost of energy, Thomas is usually the one to provide it, either as part of the starting five, where she has been throughout the tournament, or when she comes back into the game.
Thomas’ rise – her finesse on the lane and bouncing off the offensive glass, where she amasses 2.7 boards per bout – was instrumental in the United States dominating the paint (54.0 points per game average) and scoring turnovers (26th ,3). Team USA has kept all but one opponent (Belgium in the opening game) under 70 points and four, including Canada in the semifinals and Serbia in the quarterfinals, under 60.
Reeve has spoken about how having more defensively-oriented personnel has allowed Team USA to be even more dominant at this end of the court than they have been in recent years, and that Thomas in particular was “really instrumental in establishing that identity.”
“Their energy is spectacular,” said Loyd, Thomas’ morning breakfast buddy during the World Cup. “Her tenacity on defense, her IQ on offense. She’s always in the right spot and doesn’t take care of herself. It’s always, ‘How can I get other people involved?’ and she just never gets tired…. It’s so much fun to watch.”
For Thomas, a nine-year WNBA veteran, playing for USA basketball—or any other national team—wasn’t particularly important to Thomas, a nine-year WNBA veteran, for most of her career. “I just did it to myself,” she said. “I just play hard and play my style of play, whether it’s abroad [or the] WNBA, and I think I’ll do the same.”
The potential to win a gold medal would be a nice silver lining — “a great side turner,” Thomas said — after her Sun lost in the WNBA Finals for the second time in four seasons. Thomas could instead win a championship few American basketball players have experienced with a chance to be part of a legacy and one of the most celebrated dynasties in all of sports. For Thomas and Reeve, the wait was worth it.
“USA Basketball, it may not always be your time, is it?” said Reev. “For Alyssa’s earlier part of her career, go back and look at the post players during that time. It wasn’t that Alyssa wasn’t good enough. It just wasn’t her time.
“What I appreciate is that Alyssa didn’t play for another country because she just didn’t get it when she wanted it. She persevered. She trusted me.”
https://www.espn.com/olympics/story/_/id/34696652/fiba-world-cup-2022-alyssa-thomas-making-most-us-national-team-debut FIBA World Cup 2022 – Alyssa Thomas making most of U.S. national team debut