PJ Brown special for the Arizona Daily Star
Sam Thomas is comfortable in his new home.
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 her perfectly.
Not every rookie may be able to handle what’s in front of them, battling for a spot on a stacked Phoenix Mercury roster, but Thomas seems 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 Thursday night with a home game against the Seattle Storm.
“I said to her the other day in training, I was like, ‘Sam, I feel like you’ve been here for five years,'” Taurasi said. want to do and it is to his credit. It’s a credit to his ability to learn on the fly, to coexist with other players. And those are attributes that are almost more important than being a good basketball player. And she did all these things with the skills 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 brilliant professional career, wherever she is.
The WNBA is considered one of the toughest leagues to make. There are only 144 spots available in the league, and due to the salary cap, most teams don’t carry the full limit. Being drafted also does not guarantee a spot on the roster; 16 of the 36 players selected in last year’s draft were canceled before the start of the season. Six more were cut shortly after the end of the season.
The odds of an undrafted free agent like Thomas making the team are even higher.
Still, there are things that work in Thomas’ favor.
She played in a professional system at UA for five years. UA coach Adia Barnes said most of the Wildcats offense is “fast hitting, pick-and-rolling 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 stop people and you’re smart, you can always find the place on teams,” Barnes said. “…I think Sam has improved her learning the game, her reading and has gotten better every year. I think she’s got the hang of it. And remember, that’s not what everyone thinks. C He’s a person who feels that what you can contribute helps the team. He’s a person who believes in you.”
For Thomas, that person is Mercury’s freshman coach Vanessa Nygaard. Nygaard is looking for a defensive specialist who can shoot from 3 points; defense seems to be a much more important goal in Mercury’s new system.
Versatility is another key for Thomas. She’s played every position in Arizona and understands where everyone needs to be at both ends of the court. As glue, Thomas – five-time team captain – was the one everyone turned to.
It’s a role she can comfortably play in the pros as well.
Thomas has “a real understanding of a fit in a place doing what is necessary for a team. That combined with his high level of athleticism, basketball IQ and ability to defend. Those are really solid assets. so somebody can come in and have an impact,” Nygaard said. “Because she already knows she doesn’t have to be the star. You know, like passing the ball to Tina (Charles). It’s easy. Pass ball Sky (Skylar Diggins-Smith), pass ball to ‘D’ (Taurasi). You have nothing to do. You should do your job. I think when you come from a position where you weren’t a star, it’s a lot easier to understand for a player like Sam.”
Thomas’ drive to do whatever it takes for the team started with his parents, Julie and Derek, teaching him to treat everyone with respect. That’s why she smiled on the court and was present in the Tucson community — even showing up to watch young girls play their basketball games.
Thomas took to heart all the advice Barnes, a former WNBA player, gave him over the years.
“One of the things I learned from the pros, whatever the coach talks about they need, do it,” Barnes said. “If the coach mentions in the movie or before the game or (just) talks to the team. Let’s say they talk about rebounding. I said to Sam, ‘Take those cues and be the best rebounder, every exercise, every time If the coach says “I need communicators” and “We need this, we miss it”, be the best communicator Listen to what the coaching staff needs and respond -y.”
Thomas has prepared for this moment. Thursday night marks his first professional basketball game.
“It’s very exciting, especially that it’s my real shirt with my surname on the back my number – luckily I have to keep 14 so I’m always going to repeat that,” Thomas said. “…(My teammates) said, ‘Show what you can do and know you can lead the attack. You are a good teammate. And stay relaxed and have fun because it will be a great experience. “I’m really excited to play here in this arena.
• Thomas’s father, Derekand her older sister, Bailey, will be in the stands on Thursday. Her younger sister Jade is recovering from shoulder surgery. The whole family will be in Los Angeles on Saturday for the Mercurys’ second exhibition game against the Sparks.
• Thomas completed his final presentation for graduate studies on Tuesday. He still has one mission, a reflection of the past year.
• Thomas isn’t the only Pac-12 player on the training camp roster. Cal’s old post Kristine Anigwe and former Stanford guard Kiana Williams joined Thomas on the Mercury. Beginner Maya Doson began his career at Stanford before ending his career at Notre Dame. Everyone bonds by staying in the same hotel.
“Obviously during the national championship I wasn’t a huge Kiana fan,” Thomas said. “Now he’s just a great person. Always with a smile on his face. I always ask him what they did at Stanford. It’s great to hear his perspective. …And Kristine was a beast to Cal. … She could have been the kid from Arizona that played here (at UA) but she went to Cal. Getting to know her and just her passion for fashion. It was just nice to see her do all her little things. She has great fashion and likes to learn for her. She is honestly one of the sweetest girls I have ever met.