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Inside The W: Chelsea Gray, Jasmine Thomas Emerge

It is fair to assume that neither Chelsea Gray nor Jasmine Thomas view their “breakout” seasons in the WNBA quite the same way that most of the rest of the WNBA does.

“It doesn’t really feel that way to me,” said Thomas, the Connecticut Sun guard. “I guess if you are looking at the numbers, it looks that way on paper.”

Gray knows it’s all about role.

“I just wanted to be someone my teammates can look to and know they can count on,” Gray said. “And that’s what I’ve been focusing on becoming.”

These two players are on opposite coasts, both products of Duke, propelling two of the hottest teams in the league while positioning themselves for a more prominent spot on the marquee and perhaps even coveted spots in the WNBA All-Star Game on July 22.

Thomas is a seven-year veteran who has been on three different WNBA rosters since coming out of the Blue Devils program in 2011 and has never made an impact quite like she has been for the Sun this year.

“We are having fun, we all get along great, we are playing well and when anyone gets going we ride it as long as we can,” Thomas said of her Sun teammates, who are moving steadily up the WNBA standings with eight wins in their last 10 games after an 0-3 start.

Thomas’ scoring numbers in her seventh season are the best of her career, currently averaging 15.0 points a game. The biggest jump has come in her perimeter shooting, Thomas hitting 49.3 percent of her shots beyond the 3-point line. Thomas has hit 35 3-pointers so far this season, more than she’s hit at any point in her WNBA career in any whole season. Thomas said her 3-point shooting was the focus during her season in Israel, where she worked to shoot off the dribble and coming off screens.

“Obviously, I’m shooting the 3 and my percentage is pretty high,” said Thomas, who has put up at least 20 points in four of her last seven games. “It’s not that I’m not taking a lot of them. I’m putting them up, and I’m looking to take them and they are going in. The most noticeable thing, for us, is that I’m playing with confidence and not letting anything get to me.”

Each year, Thomas said, has presented her different challenges and an opportunity to “grow a thicker skin.”

“The bottom line is, I’m not doing anything I didn’t think I was capable of, and I think I’m at a place that comes with experience and comfort in the league and my place.”

Thomas credits her teammates for inspiring her.

“The character of this team, of wanting to win and get to the playoffs,” Thomas said. “It’s not based on outside expectations, it’s what we want for ourselves. The way we are playing now, even having some losses, we have learned to bounce back. That’s something we are trying to focus on.”

Gray stuttered into the start of her professional career after a freak knee injury prematurely ended her stellar college career at Duke. She was the 11th overall pick in the 2014 Draft, she sat out that season recovering from her injury. She played her rookie season in 2015 in Connecticut, a year of tough lessons and incremental progress.

“I felt like I was playing a little catch-up in my rookie year, but your rookie year is also the hardest,” Gray said.

This season, in her third year in the league, it’s getting easier. Gray’s scoring averaging has exploded from 5.9 points a game in 2016 to 16.2 points a game and more than 17 points a game on the road this season. She has posted four 20-point games already this season. Gray is shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and from beyond the 3-point arc. Her size makes her one of the biggest floor generals in the league, a perpetual matchup problem.

A year after she arrived in Southern California, Gray’s role is completely different. She is now the Sparks’ starting point guard after the departure of Kristi Toliver, who signed with Washington as a free agent in the offseason. Coach Brian Agler challenged Gray, who came to Los Angeles at the start of the 2016 season in a trade with Connecticut, to step up. Gray said Tolliver was a mentor to her, but she wanted to make her own way with a new opportunity.

“He gave me a lot more responsibility,” said Gray, who started one game in 2016. “I feel like I know how to put people in the right spots and what the coach expects me to do. I know what he needs from me and what he wants.”

Candace Parker said Gray’s emergence began at the end of last season, when at the team dinner celebrating the WNBA title, Gray’s teammates declared that she was about to become one of the best guards in the league.

“And this year she is,” Parker said. “I’m proud of her and how she’s handled everything,” Parker said. “She has been able to focus and stay in the moment. She can accept and take criticism. Coach was hard on her last year, and her improvement showed at the end of the year.”

Gray said she knows her “teammates have her back”, and their confidence has made her better. So has winning a championship.
“You understand how hard it is to put yourself in that position,” Gray said. “The smallest details can make a difference. The little things are the things we believe in.”