On the eve of her first exhibition game as a WNBA rookie, even Thomas’ jersey — with the same number 14 she wore at UA for five years — fits perfectly.
Not all rookies might be able to handle what’s in front of them, fighting for a roster spot on a stacked Phoenix Mercury roster, but Thomas appears to be doing just fine.
Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, one of the best to ever play the game, was among the first to notice her new teammate’s comfort level in the pros. The Mercury will open their preseason schedule on Thursday night with a home game against the Seattle Storm.
“I told her the other day in practice, I was like, ‘Sam, it feels like you’ve been here for five years,’” Taurasi said. “She’s just fit in seamlessly with the things that we want to do and that’s a credit to her. That’s a credit to her ability to learn on the fly, to coexist among other players. And those are attributes that are almost more important than actually being a good basketball player. And she’s done all those things with the skill set that she has.
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“I think she’s going to be in this league for a long time. I think she has a bright professional career, wherever it is.”
The WNBA is considered one of the hardest leagues to make. There are only 144 roster spots available in the league, and because of the salary cap, most teams don’t carry the full limit. Being drafted doesn’t guarantee a roster spot, either; 16 of the 36 players taken in last year’s draft were waived before the season started. Six more were cut soon after the season began.
The odds of an undrafted free agent like Thomas making the team are even longer.
Yet there are things working in Thomas’ favor.
She played in a pro system at UA for five years. UA coach Adia Barnes said most of the Wildcats’ offense is “quick-hitters, pick-and-rolls and reading. That’s what the pros do.”
Another is Thomas’ hard-won reputation as a defensive specialist.
“I think defensively when you can defend and you can shut people down and you’re smart, you can always find the place on teams,” Barnes said. “…I think Sam improved learning the game, reading the game and just improved every year. I think she has a shot. And remember, it’s not about what everybody thinks. It’s one person feeling that what you can bring helps the team. It’s one person believing in you.”
For Thomas, that person is first-year Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard. Nygaard is looking for a defensive specialist who can shoot 3-pointers; defense appears to be a much bigger focus in the Mercury’s new system.
Versatility is another key for Thomas.She played every position at Arizona and understands where everyone needs to be on both ends of the court. As the glue, Thomas — a five-time team captain — was the one everyone looked to.
It’s a role she can comfortably play in the pros, too.
Thomas has “a real understanding of a fitting into a spot doing what’s needed for a team. That combined with her high level of athleticism, her basketball IQ and her ability to defend. Those are really strong assets for somebody to be able to come in and have an impact,” Nygaard said. “Because she already knows she doesn’t have to be the star. You know, like pass the ball to Tina (Charles). It’s easy. Pass the ball Sky (Skylar Diggins-Smith), pass the ball to ‘D’ (Taurasi). You don’t have to do anything. You’d have to do your job. I think when you when you come from a position where you weren’t a star, that’s a lot easier to understand for a player like Sam.”
Thomas’ willingness to do whatever it takes for the team started with her parents, Julie and Derek, teaching her to treat everyone with respect. That’s why she smiles on the court and was a presence in the Tucson community — even showing up to watch younger girls play their basketball games.
Thomas has taken to heart all the advice Barnes, a former WNBA player, has given her over the years.
“One of the things I learned in the pros, whatever the coach is talking about that they need, do it,” Barnes said. “If the coach is mentioning in film or pregame or (just) talking to the team. Let’s say she is mentioning rebounding. I told Sam, ‘Take those cues and be the best darn rebounder, every single drill, every single time.’ If the coach is saying ‘I need communicators’ and ‘we need this, we’re missing this,’ be the best darn communicator. Listen to what the coaching team needs and fulfill that.”
Thomas has prepared for this moment. Thursday night marks her first professional basketball game.
“It’s very exciting, especially to have this be my actual jersey with my last name on the back my number — luckily, I got to keep 14, so I’ll still be repping that,” Thomas said. “ … (My teammates) have been saying, ‘Showcase what you can do and know that you can run the offense. You’re a good teammate. And stay relaxed and have fun because it’s going to be a great experience.’ I’m really excited just to play here in this arena.”
Thomas’ dad, Derek, and older sister, Bailey, will be in the stands Thursday. Her younger sister Jade is recovering from shoulder surgery. The entire family will be in Los Angeles Saturday for the Mercury’s second exhibition game against the Sparks.
Thomas finished up her final presentation for grad school on Tuesday. She has one assignment left — a reflection of this past year.
Thomas isn’t the only Pac-12 player on the training camp roster. Former Cal post Kristine Anigwe and former Stanford guard Kiana Williams have joined Thomas on the Mercury. Rookie Maya Dodson started her career at Stanford before finishing her career at Notre Dame. Everyone is bonding staying at the same hotel.
“Obviously, during the national championship, I wasn’t a big fan of Kiana,” Thomas said. “Now, she’s just a great person. Always with a smile on her face. I’m always asking her about what they did at Stanford. It’s great to hear her perspective. … And Kristine was a beast at Cal. … She could have been the Arizona local kid playing here (at UA) but she went to Cal. Getting to know her and just her passion for fashion. It’s just been nice to see her do all her little things. She has great fashion and love learning for her. She’s honestly one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met.”
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