Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Sun On the Rise

Alyssa Thomas got drafted by the Connecticut Sun in 2014. She’s played every one of her four WNBA seasons in Connecticut. And she hasn’t played in a single postseason game.

“I’m getting sick of not making the playoffs,” Thomas said. “A lot of the people who have been here for a while are sick of not making the playoffs.”

Connecticut last tasted the postseason in 2012, and since that season there has been two coaching changes and a whole lot of player movement. The team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2014, Chiney Ogwumike, has missed the better part of two of the last three seasons with injuries. She is out this year healing an Achilles injury. The roster has turned over and back again.

And Thomas, who was part of that 2014 draft class, has been here through it all.

“We are trying to get over the hump,” Thomas said.

And the Sun might be ready to make that move. With their win over the Liberty at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Connecticut has won five straight to recover from an 0-4 start and a stretch that included three losses of two points or less. And last Saturday, the Sun made a serious statement with a victory over the undefeated Lynx on Minnesota’s home floor in St. Paul.

“That one felt good,” said Sun coach Curt Miller. “We haven’t had good health on our side, for sure. But I’m proud of these players and proud of the run we’ve made.”

Unlike the Lynx, who are loaded with four Olympians, there are no Olympians on the Sun roster. One of the team’s best young players – Morgan Tuck – has missed six games with a knee injury.

Veteran forward Lynetta Kizer is out currently with a back injury, while guard Alex Bentley has been gone playing for Belarus in the EuroBasket Tournament.

So the Sun have been riding a young, under-the-radar crew of talented players, including Thomas, second-year center Jonquel Jones – who leads the league in rebounding and was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week this past week – and guards Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams.

Alyssa Thomas, who is putting up a career-high scoring average, was named the Associated Press WNBA Player of the Week after notching 20 points with eight rebounds and eight assists against the Lynx. And she is playing like she has something to prove.

“We are young and super talented, and I like that people don’t think we are capable of beating a team like Minnesota,” Thomas said. “We are confident and we feed off each other. The past three games, all of our starters are in double figures. That makes it really hard for people to guard us. We are a dangerous team because we are so willing to share the ball.”

Miller calls it “hunting shots.” And the more hunting, the better.

“Our team has had the attitude of ‘next player up,’” Miller said. “It was a devastating blow for us to lose Chiney in the offseason. Then Morgan Tuck, our leading scorer who was having a breakthrough season, gets hurt and she is out. Add into that losing Alex for a while, and we’ve had some challenges. But we haven’t felt sorry for ourselves.”

Miller said the injuries have had “unintended consequences” for his young team. Almost all of them good. The injuries in the frontcourt to Ogwumike, Tuck and Kizer have forced the Sun into playing Thomas at the ‘4’ spot rather than small forward.

“That has given us an attacking, downhill forward,” Miller said. “We are definitely a different team with Alyssa at the 4. It opens up the court for us. She is playing at a more natural position and it really benefits us.”

Miller compared Thomas to Candace Parker.

“With the exception of Candace, Alyssa has the most assists in the league from the forward spot,” Miller noted. “It’s not dissimilar to how Golden State uses Draymond Green. And it’s allowed us to find a style that really works for us.”

Thomas is satisfied as well.

“I think we are all really focused on the details, paying attention to the scout, knowing what we are doing on defense,” she said. “It’s the little things that get you into the playoffs. Not getting a stop or a turnover when you need one. Getting wins in close games. We do have that flow going right now.”

Miller said his team wasn’t discouraged by the early-season losses, which included two-point defeats at the hands of Indiana, Minnesota and Washington before the winning streak began.

“They could have been, but they have really fought through it and won games,” Miller said. “Our strength is our versatility. We don’t really play through one person, so we’ve been able to ride the coattails of different people, whether it’s the hot hand or the best matchup.”

Because the Sun have so many options at this point, Miller said his team is still trying to figure out who will be the go-to player down the stretch of games.

“We are a sum-of-our-parts team,” Miller said. “Even if we are completely healthy, we don’t have an Olympian on our team. This is a young team that’s really built for the future. I knew as Minnesota and L.A. got older, we would be poised to build with youth. We always looked down the road, but we are poised to be in position to be a contender for years to come. We want to win now.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2017 season.

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