How need turned Alyssa Thomas into a WNBA trendsetter — Vickie Johnson talks Dallas travails — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 18, 2022

Happy Basketball Wednesday! Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller is quite open about how he developed Alyssa Thomas into a power forward who is changing the way the position is played. It happened more or less by accident. Chiney Ogwumike, the reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2014, tore her Achilles and missed the 2015 season. The Sun, if you can believe it given how the roster looks now, was small. And a new coach needed a four.

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“She played mostly three under Anne Donovan,” Miller recalled Tuesday night in Brooklyn, ahead of his Sun’s massive win over the New York Liberty. “…People wondered if she was quite big enough to play the four. We moved here the four and nothing has been the same ever, in Connecticut, since.”

Thomas is often lumped in with Candace Parker in discussion of the modern fours, and I get that — Parker is a trendsetter in her own right, cited by many who have followed, from Breanna Stewart to Elena Delle Donne. But all three of those players operate as score-first offensive threats, and that’s not really who Alyssa Thomas is.

She’s essentially Connecticut’s point guard, but operating out of the four spot. As we know, Parker had Chelsea Gray in Los Angeles, Courtney Vandersloot in Chicago. Stewart has Sue Bird. Delle Donne has Natasha Cloud. And yes, Thomas has Jasmine Thomas, but the division of labor is different. Alyssa Thomas leads the Sun starters in assist percentage, just as she was essentially tied in the stat with Jasmine Thomas back in 2020.

“She truly is — I mean, you get to get this term all the time, a point forward, but she truly is a point forward,” Miller said. “She is essentially, at times, on purpose, our point guard without guarding point guards. We still have Jasmine Thomas or a point guard on the floor with her.”

Accordingly, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between how Miller uses Thomas, and the way Cheryl Reeve deployed Jessica Shepard early this season, as the Minnesota Lynx cycled through point guards the way U.S. Soccer used to cycle through excuses for not paying the USWNT equally to the men. (Congrats on the big win, USWNTPA!)

Washington is doing the same thing with Myisha Hines-Allen, and the result is that we now have not just Alyssa Thomas, but three legit point forwards in the top 14 in assist percentage in the league to this point. None of the three are the primary scorers on their teams, either. It’s a more pure distribution role.

And those who follow are paying careful attention, too. Lorela Cubaj’s 28.2 assist percentage her final season at Georgia Tech — born of necessity as well, she told me a few weeks ago, the Yellow Jackets were thin at traditional point guard — made the Liberty as a second round pick this year, and she sees her ability to distribute as a critical part of the skill set she brings to the position for New York.

“I definitely think that the game is evolving,” Cubaj said prior to Tuesday night’s game. “We can see how differently fives, fours are playing, compared to just like even ten years ago. “And I just feel like we’re going to be more facilitators, creating offense, taking pressure off the point guard. Different shades of different positions.”

Cubaj said she looked forward to learning from Thomas. She’s not the only one who is.

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This week in women’s basketball

Here’s Lia Assimakopoulos on how WNBA couples make it work.
Love a good Camille Buxeda cover story.
Adam Vachon’s weekly column is always worth your time.
Terrific feature on Kahleah Copper.
Rachel Galligan is right about the Lynx.

Five at The IX: Vickie Johnson, Dallas Wings

Some concerns in Big D after Tuesday night’s loss to DC.

On the takeaways from tonight…

“We need to really take pride in defending our home court. That’s the biggest thing. It’s no way we played here as we played in DC and New York. We shared the basketball, we defended at the highest level. Then we got here in front of our fans, and we became selfish. A lot of one-on-one basketball. We didn’t move the basketball and we didn’t take pride in defending our home court. And it’s unfortunate because we’re such a better team and the way we played tonight – it was bad.”

On giving up 42 points in the paint and adjustments to the rotation…

“The rotation I don’t know about. It’s the flow of the game. For their bench to come in and have 47 to our three. I don’t blame it on the bench because their bench came and played against our starters and dominated our starters. Austin came in and played amazing and her energy level was on another level. Walker came in and produced and Burton came in and produced. The majority wasn’t against our bench, it was against our starters, and we can’t have that.”

On the presence of the interior and McCowan’s low minutes…

Teaira (McCowan) hasn’t had practice with us yet. We try to throw her in and get quality minutes. Defensively, she’s still trying to figure things out. We can sneak in two or three minutes at a time. We need to get her some practice time; you know we play every other day. I thought she did well. We need to do a better job of putting the ball on the block to her more. They rotate (Shakira) Austin, Hines-Allen, (Tianna) Hawkins and Delle Donne and they move like guards. So, it’s a little difficult to bring our fives in to be able to keep up with them especially in transition when they leak out. And especially when they have guards running the court like (Ariel) Atkins and Cloud and (Alysha) Clark. It’s a little difficult, but I expect Teaira to be Teaira and fill in. Right now, we don’t have practice time.”

On playing selfishly…

“We didn’t move the basketball. If you watched the previous Washington and New York game, we moved the basketball and got to spots. We made shots because we got wide-open shots. We dribbled tonight too much and we didn’t move the basketball. And we kept the ball on one side of the court. We just need to do a better job.”

On how to unroot the selfishness…

“One person sees it, then the next person. And not saying anything about Izzy (Harrison), but Izzy hasn’t taken a three all year. Well, it was a long two, but that’s not her game. But because everyone else was doing something, it felt like the Atlanta game in a sense where we didn’t move the basketball. When it was kind of a one-pass, shot and trying to do it ourselves. We’re not going to beat Washington like that. They’re too good. We don’t move them, we don’t move the defense, it’s hard to break them down one-on-one. Because Atkins and Cloud are good defenders. And Clark as well on the perimeter. So, we have to move the ball and attack their closeouts and put a foot in the paint.”

On her message to the team during the first timeout early in the third quarter…

“I can’t repeat that.”

On Arike Ogunbowale’s performance getting her to be consistent…

“We’re just trying to get her to play at a high level because when she’s out of control, the team is out of control. When she’s in control, the team’s in control. That’s just what it is and usually that’s how teams are. When their leaders are under control, they’re under control. I felt like she was pressing a little too much about scoring the basketball. But, Rik [Arike Ogunbowale] is a great player and I’m sure in Phoenix, she’ll come out. In Minnesota, we have to do the same thing.”

On the plan to work in Satou Sabally

“She’s not getting in until the next home game. She’ll be here and she’s not traveling with us.”

On Marina Mabrey’s performance and her transition to point guard…

“It’s okay. She’s loving it. One thing I tell (Marina) Mabrey is that when you’re at the one position, it’s not about you anymore. You have to move the basketball at the beginning of the game just for the flow of everything. That’s kind of different for her but I think overall she did a good job tonight.”

On keeping Marina Mabrey out of the majority of the third quarter…

“Foul trouble. And we were down, so I wanted to play on the defensive side. And that’s when Ty (Harris) and V [Veronica Burton] came in with (Allisha) Gray. So I wanted to make a change defensively to put a little more pressure. That way we could cut it down, but it didn’t happen.”

On the effect of Washington’s time to prep for tonight…

“That had nothing to do with Washington. Washington played well and they shot the ball well. But it had nothing to do with Washington. It was us and we controlled our own destiny. We didn’t play together, we didn’t move the basketball, and we didn’t take pride. At the beginning of the game, it was a totally different team than you saw. I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe we got a little too relaxed – I don’t know. It would be too early to get relaxed against that team. Washington is a great team. They’re a vet team and we need to be more disciplined and consistent for a long period of time. We need to do what got us the lead and continue to move the basketball, defend and rebound. We stopped doing that and we started taking them one on one and dribbling too much and taking quick shots.”

On Awak Kuier’s in-game injury…

“It affected us a lot because she was that rotating four with Izzy (Harrison) and KT [Kayla Thornton]. It was difficult at that time, but she’s fine. She got elbowed in the eye and the doctor looked at her. I don’t know exactly what’s going on with her, but I know she has a black eye.”

On rebounding and adjustments for Phoenix…

“We have to do a better job of rebounding the basketball. We play too much four around one and that’s not our offense. Our fours are drifting to the three and that’s not a good position to be in to rebound. I like to leave that other post in the low post to be able to rebound the basketball. The biggest thing I will address will be our defense and also sharing the basketball.”

On Washington’s defense…

“They hedged, but we still could’ve gotten to our spots on the court. I think we settled for jump shots more than anything. We didn’t put a foot in the paint.”

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.