Who is Alyssa Thomas?

Uncasville, Connecticut is about as quiet and unassuming of a town for a professional basketball team as one could imagine; Slightly under an hour from the closest airport, loosely nestled between New Haven, Hartford, Providence, and the oceanfront. The town is a good few minutes’ drive south of the Mohegan Sun Resort & Casino, which is funny considering how much closer the actual casino is to Norwich.

As with many casinos in the NorthEast United States, it’s rich in boxing history. Mohegan Sun and nearby Foxwoods harbored some of the great fights of the late 90s and early 2000s, few more well known than the first of Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti’s trilogy. That fight’s immortalized in history despite not being a world title fight, which while not a total rarity, is indicative of a fight that really meant something.

Technique, skill, passion, creativity, and athleticism bleed onto the canvas figuratively and literally in the fight game. Knockouts snag headlines, but there’s much more to a ten or 12-round professional match than the final seconds. There’s an art form in footwork and rhythm. The training is rigorous. There may not be a more significant test of sheer physical and mental fortitude, a “can they really do this?” aspect. 

In the ninth round, Gatti takes a hard body shot early but returns with his own barrage to level the playing field. Both appear out on their feet at times. There’s a feeling the fight should be called for either at multiple points, but also bewilderment that either is standing. Trainer and commentator Emanuel Steward calls out that “that should be the round of the century,” as the ninth round closes, Gatti and Ward return to their corners for a final breather.

Ward vs. Gatti shed the art and style. Through and through, it was a brawl. Both men left the ring on their feet, bloodied and bruised. Ward earned a Majority Decision, but anyone who has watched that fight knows there were no losers that night. 

“I’m just fascinated by it,” says Alyssa Thomas when asked about boxing and combat sports in general. In a past interview, Thomas stated that if she could’ve gone pro in any other sport, it would be boxing or mixed martial arts. In watching her play, as well as speaking one on one, it’s easy to understand why.

Sitting across from her in one of the ref locker rooms in the depths of Mohegan Sun arena, maybe even where Ward and Gatti got their hands wrapped two decades ago, I easily envisioned Thomas doing the same.

“It’s another sport mentally, where you have to go to another level when it comes to mental toughness and just toughness in general,” says Thomas. She’s finished 12th or higher in total minutes played in the W her past three full seasons, and I get the impression that if she had been allowed to play more minutes, she would have welcomed the chance.

Ask anyone around the league who the toughest player in the league is; players, media coaches; Thomas is pretty unanimously named.

Besides her quiet demeanor, fantastic play, and toughness, as mentioned above, I didn’t feel I knew anything about AT. Whenever I prepare for an interview or have an idea of one on the horizon, I siphon through every former interview, YouTube video, podcast, and article I can find to form an understanding and establish a background.

Out of any player I voted to All-WNBA, by and large, the top ten players in the league, Thomas is the player I knew the least about. 

Who is Alyssa Thomas? What built her into the player and person she is? What matters to her on and off the court?

The first time Alyssa Thomas was signed up to play basketball when she was five by her mother, Tina, she cried.

“Threw myself all down the stairs, down the hallway,” says Thomas, reminiscing before a few seconds of laughter. 

“She just threw an absolute hissy fit,” says Tina thinking back as well. Thomas took quickly to basketball after that initial childhood tantrum, and it’s been her solace ever since.

“It was like a whole new person that came out on the court as opposed to off the court,” continues Tina.

Alyssa still considers herself pretty shy, but Tina paints the picture of young Alyssa as painfully shy, the polar opposite of Tina herself. She says Alyssa is much more like her father Bob and that Alyssa was attached to her everywhere they went as a kid.

“You couldn’t even hold her at two months old. She’s very reserved. She doesn’t like attention. If she comes to watch us play (Tina still coaches AAU), she comes in stuff that people won’t notice her in. She likes just getting to be herself and be normal, and go to the grocery store and do everything that everyone does without having to worry.”

When Alyssa’s teacher was sick for a day of school when she was four, she had to spend the day in her younger brother Devin’s two-year-old class because she wasn’t used to the substitute.

Tina coached Alyssa throughout her childhood and teenage years through AAU as well. Everything she taught her daughter was built on toughness, competitiveness, fundamentals, and unselfish play. 

All things were earned in the Thomas household. If you were going to win a game of Candyland, it was because you really won that game of Candyland. Both Alyssa and Tina spoke separately about Candyland, so I imagine some tense games in the past!

“We weren’t the parents that were just going to let you win,” says Tina.

“In life, you have to fight, and how are you going to fight if you don’t teach your kids to fight? So if she fell over, ‘get up, you’re alright,’ and if she didn’t get up, you knew something was wrong.”

Alyssa mentions how tough her mother was on her, but she’s grown incredibly appreciative of it as she’s gotten older. That toughness has crafted who she is on the court through and through. Tina’s always been the first person yelling at Alyssa to get up, and she still is.

“By no means was it easy, and it’s still not easy,” laughs Alyssa.

Alyssa didn’t always play on teams loaded with other high-level players, but that didn’t change the game plan in the slightest, says Tina.

“She had to pass the ball whether they were the worst player on the floor or the best player.”

Alyssa developed ambidexterity as a passer and finisher growing up due to her cousin. They’d play on a Little Tykes hoop as kids, and he was a lefty, so she emulated what he did. It seems small, but that early reinforcement shaped her play significantly and molded the game we see on the court today. 

She and her brother Devin played 2k all the time growing up, and she fell in love with the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, and her affinity for Steve Nash grew. She loved Manu Ginobili and the way he set up his teammates. Both players had unique flair and pacing to their game, and Alyssa channels some of the same principles in her game. 

She will push the ball whenever possible and try to force multiple defenders to commit to her early so she can create easy open looks. She’s not afraid to turn the ball over. Make no mistake, she hates turning it over, but to be a great passer, you must blur the line of what makes a good pass.

“It’s definitely frustrating, but I say this all the time. I probably make more mistakes than anybody on the team, but you wouldn’t know it because I just keep playing,” says Thomas.

Thomas is expressive on the court, she gets fiery, but mistakes don’t rattle her. She doesn’t internalize them; more often than not, she will get the ball back on the other end.

Try as she might to fly under the radar, Alyssa wound up the 7th-ranked player in the 2010 high school class. However, she was snubbed from the McDonald’s All-American game. The highest ranked player in the country to not be invited due to turning down to play for another AAU program during her high school career. That fueled her and motivated her to continue honing her craft. 

She missed out on the entire Sophomore summer of AAU, suffering a broken ankle and wrist a month apart, minimizing her recruiting exposure. Later that year, though, she and her team played a tournament in Maryland where University of Maryland’s head coach Brenda Frese first saw Alyssa play.

“It sent chills,” Frese says the first time she saw Alyssa play. She’d debated whether she’d go to USA Basketball overseas or stay in Maryland to catch Alyssa, who had been on Maryland’s recruiting radar. She doesn’t regret staying.

“I walked in, sat down, and then when her team came out she was in layup lines and I was like ‘Oh my goodness,’ and she did not disappoint a moment in that game. She was so talented.”

Alyssa and her parents didn’t have any expectations about her freshman season playing time. That’s not to say there wasn’t confidence in her ability, but she was a freshman walking into a Power Five conference team. Tina recalls a conversation she and Bob had, thinking Alyssa may not be a significant rotation player until her Junior season if she worked at it.

Frese had a different vision.

“I knew the minute I laid eyes on her that this kid is special and that she’s going to do some pretty incredible things. I wanted her to straight out be one of our leaders and captains from the jump. We threw a lot on her shoulders at a really young age when she first stepped through the doors because we just knew she had all of it. And then you get her here, and she’s by far one of the most competitive players I’ve ever coached, and that’s in anything, on or off the court.”

Thomas felt comfortable from the moment she stepped onto campus; she liked the coaches and how close it was to home, as it is just shy of a two-hour drive on a good day. Maryland was one of the first schools to heavily recruit her as soon as Frese saw her play in person. She visited with her father and committed the day after.

It’s been a relationship based on loyalty ever since, something you can tell means a lot to Thomas. She still goes and uses the team’s facilities in the off-season. She’ll also practice with the team and make a point to get to know new staff members. Maryland is another home; she built her own home when she became a pro halfway between Harrisburg and College park, so she was equidistant from her family and her Alma Mater.

She finished her career in College Park as the all-time leader in points and rebounds in program history. She won three straight ACC Player of the Year Awards from 2012-2014.

“I always felt I was going to be a failed coach if I didn’t get her to a Final Four given what she’d brought to our program,” says Frese.

They made the NCAA second round her freshman season, Elite Eight in her second year, and Sweet Sixteen in her third. Her senior year would have to be the one, and it was.

A star-studded rookie class flanked Thomas; Lexie Brown, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, and Brionna Jones.

“Especially in the early days at Maryland, seeing her work ethic every day, you see her working that hard, and you wanna work as hard to follow behind that,” says Jones, who plays with Thomas both with the Sun and overseas for USK Praha in the Czech Republic.

Jones experienced the receiving end of Alyssa’s competitive energy and spirit early and often when she got to Maryland. One of the best rebounders in the sport, Jones beat out Thomas during a jump-ball. If there was a jump ball at practice, you had to play for it one one one. Jones beat Thomas, but she immediately jumped back up with a sharp “get back on the ball,” and they played for it again.

“That’s just AT. If she wants it, she’s gonna go get it,” says Jones.

The Terrapins finished the season 28-7, and as they started up in the NCAA Tournament, the coaching staff would ask for the team’s phones so they could keep focused on basketball. A 76-73 victory over Louisville in the Elite Eight propelled them to the Final Four.

“We got on the plane, and every kid’s phone blew up, and she just powered hers off. She just wanted to be with her team and watch a movie, and she was not about it. It was authentic to what you saw, this kid in this moment, not worried about everyone else’s attention… it was pretty cool to be able to watch that,” regaled Frese.

Alyssa had her jersey retired late in her final season on senior night, but it was a surprise to her. Alyssa pulled off her prank on Frese a week later when she returned from a road trip.

“She was a big jokester. She loved to pull pranks,” said Frese.

Frese walked into her office packed wall to wall with at least 1,000 balloons, and Alyssa was sitting at her desk with the entire staff and managers rallied together, waiting for her.

Thomas transitioned quickly to the WNBA, drafted by the Liberty but immediately traded to the Sun. She’s been there ever since, working, grinding, and improving her craft.

She was predominantly a scorer at Maryland, but that’s not what Connecticut needed from her. She committed herself to the defensive end, recognizing that was how she could better help the team and make an immediate impact.

She doesn’t call herself underrated when we talk, but she knows she routinely gets called an underrated player in the league. Part of that is her quiet nature, but another aspect is her defensive impact. 

“I feel people just don’t understand defense as much,” Thomas says, but with a matter-of-fact tone rather than any frustration. 

“When we think about basketball, most people are talking about the offensive side… that’s what gets people’s attention. I was primarily a scorer at Maryland, but my assistant coach, Dave Atkinson, used to get on me about my defense and telling me I was a better defender than what I think.”

Thomas is one of the best athletes in the W, and that is undoubtedly part of what makes her one of the great defenders the league has seen. She’s fast, especially for her size. Her massive wingspan helps her crowd passing lanes and ball-handlers, remarkable lateral quickness and quick-twitch reactivity. Pound for pound, Thomas is one of the strongest players in the league.

Jasmine Thomas has been Alyssa’s teammate in Connecticut since she was traded to the Sun in 2015. She’s a stalwart defender herself, claiming five All-Defensive team nominations, and has seen the work Alyssa has put in to become one of the best defenders in the league.

“She worked on her strength, especially through her injuries when she couldn’t be too mobile, she was still killing it in the weight room. That’s a huge part of her durability and being versatile. Honestly, she’s always been a good defender; I think people are just finally starting to pay attention,” says Jasmine Thomas on Alyssa’s development as a defender.

The diverse positionality that makes her a unique offensive player translates remarkably to the defensive end, particularly in a league so rich in scheme versatility. Where she makes her mark is in her meticulous preparation.

Thomas constantly thinks through the game and watches the rest of the league when she’s not playing or practicing. She pores over the team scouts of opposition and adds in her own work outside of it, noting down late game tendencies, and studying personnel to be able to bend the game in her favor.

She had to scrap for bragging rights in Candyland before Kindergarten. Of course, she will bring that same mentality when stunting at the nail.

“I’m just trying to keep those little little tidbits in my head. Because when we think about defense as a whole, it’s good to know the plays, but our job is to break down their plays. So when the play’s broken down and the shot clock is winding down, what is their tendency? What are they gonna go to? That’s what I try to focus on,” says Thomas.

Thomas is adept as a help defender, particularly on aggressive stunts or switches on ball screens. Her blend of near-perfect timing and aggression is difficult to manifest routinely; too aggressive and you foul, not aggressive enough and you leave open pockets the offense can manipulate, but Thomas bridges that gap seamlessly.

“I love when I switch out or have the opportunity to cause havoc or trap people. When I hear ball-handlers telling screeners to go away because they see me coming, that makes me happy. My main goal is to help my teammate cause indecision as to whether the offense should pass or come off the screen. So I try to mess them up as hard as I can in hopes to get a steal or break down the play,” says Thomas.

That meticulousness in her preparation comes through off the court as well. Thomas is very organized; she doesn’t like being messy.

She originally started playing soccer as a kid before taking up basketball, and she really enjoyed it… until she played in the mud and slid for the first time. That was also the last time she played soccer.

She thinks she would’ve become a dentist if she weren’t a professional athlete. “Since I was a kid, I loved going to the dentist. I just was fascinated with teeth and still am. I’m passionate about that whole process of cleaning.”

She owns a Mercedes and loves detailing it and had just described her girlfriend and teammate DeWanna Bonner’s car the day before we met. 

“If she doesn’t like one thing and then she washes it, you can’t touch the car,” laughs Bonner.

“Maybe one day she’ll start a business detailing cars. I think that’s something she kind of dreams of, so maybe one day you’ll see that after basketball.”

Thomas has her system down to a t, including her own set of detailing brushes to get the deepest cleaning possible. Her dad used to wash cars on weekends and she used to help him.

“I just feel it’s really relaxing and soothing for me, hours by myself listening to music, just being able to decompress and focus,” says Thomas.

I picture each detailing brush as a scouting report, a written note on shooting percentages from an area of the floor, or a tell in an offensive player’s signature move. Whether it’s dental hygiene, her Mercedes, or in the defensive half-court, Thomas is detail-driven.

“I’m not sure there’s a more competitive person in the league,” says Curt Miller, who has coached Thomas since he took over the Sun Head Coaching and General Manager job in 2016. Miller is confident she’ll be a coach whenever she unlaces her Nikes for the last time.

“She’s an elite basketball mind. It probably doesn’t get talked about enough that she’s elite with X’s and Os.”

Miller relies heavily on scouting opposition, and the Sun put together thorough and highly detailed scouts in preparation for each game, the “number one pillar” in Uncasville. 

“It’s also a challenge. It’s not all rosy all the time between us, and she would tell you that because she will hold everybody accountable to be the best that they need to be each and every day,” says Miller.

If coverage is blown defensively, Thomas will let you know about it. It’s not coming from a place of arrogance but from that same meticulousness in her preparation. When trying to win a championship, you can’t blow rotations tagging the roller or be slow on an X-out.

Defense, almost more so than offense, is about routine and controlling what you can control, considering how much of a possession is dictated by the offense. Thomas is undoubtedly a creature of habit.

That summer when she broke her wrist and ankle, she’d been drinking orange Gatorade each day when the injuries had happened. Tina recalled that Alyssa didn’t touch orange Gatorade for years after that.

“Where she gets frustrated, and you’ll see it sometimes in-game, and you have to pull her aside sometimes and say ‘you know hey, they’re a rookie, you have to take them under your wing,’ and you have to kind of talk her into that sort of thing. That’s just who she is. She expects everyone to have that same mentality, and not everyone does,” says Tina.

That’s not an indictment of Thomas or her teammates, just a truth. One of the questions I was most eager to ask Thomas was what her cardio and endurance training was like. There isn’t a noticeable fall-off in her game, even if she’s played 38 of a possible 40 minutes. When she told me she didn’t have one, I was stunned. I’d always understood where her nickname The Engine comes from, but that cemented it for me without question.

She works out and keeps in shape year round, playing pretty constantly throughout the year, as any pro in women’s basketball. She knows her body well enough to take time off and rest when she needs it, but when she’s on, she’s locked in and fully invested in her craft. Like her car detailing, basketball is her outlet, and she will be fully present when she’s putting in work.

The Sun are 140-86 since Curt Miller took over in 2016, winning 20 or more games yearly except his first and the bubble. They made the WNBA Finals in 2019 and were a few possessions away from winning it outright in Game Five.

Last season, the Sun had their greatest regular season in franchise history and were largely considered a title favorite before falling to the Chicago Sky. But, Thomas played just six games total, including the playoffs.

Just when it appeared that the Sun might have a fully healthy roster and shot to put it all together in 2021, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon in overseas play with Praha.

“You don’t realize how quick it can be over. I was just running, playing defense, changed directions, and my Achilles popped,” said Thomas.

Due to the pandemic, Tina and Bob were both working remotely at the time. Tina, a teacher, was on a zoom call teaching when she got the call from Alyssa.

“I took the phone call because she normally doesn’t call during the day, and she said “Mom, I tore my Achilles,”… and she’s like, I’m coming home tomorrow they’re flying me back, and I said okay don’t worry about it, we’ll figure it out.”

Bob and Tina moved down to Alyssa’s house, and Bob went with her to Green Bay for the surgery. Alyssa’s home had a shower she’d be able to sit in and it was more accommodating to keep her off her feet and stairwells.

“When I had my surgery, I didn’t leave my room for a good week or so,” says Alyssa.

“I don’t think you don’t realize how sad you are until somebody points it out to you.”

She had it pointed out when Bonner was able to come to see her after a week of her being home. There might not be two more different personalities than Thomas and Bonner. Bonner is bubbly and extroverted, which may have been precisely what Thomas needed to snap out of her funk.

“DeWanna came, and (Alyssa) was all of the sudden like a new person,” says Tina.

Everything became a competition in the Thomas household. Painting competitions with people voting on Facebook. Card games throughout the day. Anything that kept Alyssa engaged and her mind off of her injury. 

She got her mind right and back to being herself quickly. DeWanna motivated her to push through and focus on rehab and getting better. It forced Alyssa to rest, something she hadn’t really done since she got to the league in 2014, going from season to season, cycle to cycle each year. It was the first time she’d had downtime with her family that wasn’t on a set schedule in a long time.

An Achilles injury prognosis is much more optimistic now than a decade ago, but to fully return to the court in just nine months was a surprise to many.

“Being there with her through rehab and seeing her where she is now, I’m in awe. I think she’s back even better than she was before. To see the work that she put in behind the scenes like people don’t know about that. Alyssa made herself her own little gym at home when she was in the cast… and now it’s all paid off. I’m just so happy and so proud of her,” says Bonner.

Alyssa says their relationship wasn’t something she expected. They became friends at first overseas, but they really connected in the bubble. Thomas is comfortable isolating herself; she needs her space. She’s in her zone, scrolling through Netflix for an hour or just listening to Khalid, Miguel, Jorja Smith, or other R&B artists while she details her shoes or car. But she let Bonner in, and in turn, she’s come out of her shell more.

“She just gets my personality and how I am…for me to let somebody in is a huge deal and definitely means a lot to me. She’s definitely my person,” says Thomas.

Their relationship has permeated into her on-court demeanor as well. While Thomas holds the team and staff accountable, Bonner says she holds her accountable equally.

“Alyssa’s the ultimate competitor, she’s been here so long, and she works so hard, so she’s going to hold everyone accountable, which is pretty cool. But, sometimes I remind her that sometimes you need to show a little emotion and pat someone on the back just as much as you hold them accountable.”

Off the court, Bonner points out how compassionate Alyssa is. She’s always looking for ways to make things easier for Bonner or her children. Every day, she seeks new opportunities to add some randomness to a day and improve it. She’s detailed and organized but not overbearing.

“She balances it to a point to where it’s not complete chaos,” laughs Bonner, as she is the polar opposite of Alyssa regarding organization.

“That’s what I love about her most. She’s just so attentive to other people’s needs.”

Thomas is extremely laid back off the court, in some ways showing a distinct polarity to who she is on it. She loves R&B and states that she doesn’t really like rap. She’d rather listen to Miguel, although Khalid has recently started to take over as her favorite artist, but she’ll listen to most anything that’s relaxed. She really wants Khalid to book tour dates at Mohegan.

“Anytime that I’m involved with all the things I’m doing off the court, they’re usually the first people to support me,” Says Jasmine Thomas of Alyssa and DeWanna.

“I think that speaks volumes about them as people. They’re extremely caring, giving, supportive, and generous people, and I think that shows up on and off the court.”

The Achilles injury was a reflective moment for Alyssa. She took stock and realized how precious her time playing basketball was. In tune with her relationship, it’s pushed her to become more open and expressive of who she is to the world at large, not just those closest to her. Tina feels DeWanna has pushed Alyssa out of her shell more. 

The couple came to one of Tina’s AAU games, and both cheered loudly throughout the game. After Tina’s team won, they both came over and talked to and high-fived all of her players, something Tina doesn’t think Alyssa would’ve done a few years back.

“I think she’s just been taking every opportunity after her injury. She doesn’t want to take anything for granted, she’s really hungry, and I feel like that’s pushed her to come out of her bubble,” says Bri Jones.

As brutal as her injury and missing an entire season was, it’s pushed Thomas to new heights. She flourished as a passer and playmaker to her fullest potential this season, partially due to necessity with Jasmine Thomas out for the season. She’s quite literally been the engine of the team. She took home Eastern Conference Player of the Month twice this season and had multiple triple-doubles; she’d done neither of those previously in the W.

A shoo-in for All-Defense this year, a three-time recipient of that award already, and a contender for Defensive Player of the Year, Thomas doesn’t really care if she wins an award. She appreciates the sentiment to be sure but cares a heck of a lot more about winning games.

I ask Thomas bluntly, “Do you like winning or hate losing more?” and she smiles before nodding her head and siding with the latter option. It’s palpable watching her play.

She’d humbly celebrate any awards she receives. She’s always known she put in her best work and feels anything that comes with that is part of the game.

But, what she really wants is to win and win in Connecticut.

“It’s kind of uncharted territory for someone to stay in Connecticut this long,” says Thomas.

“They took a chance on me. I’m the type of person that has to see something through, and I want to win a championship, the first championship here. So for me, I can’t walk away from it until we win. I’ve been pushing myself each and every year, and we’ve been close, but it’s time, it’s definitely time for us to get one.”

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.