Alyssa Thomas is ready for her first Olympic team

The selection of Connecticut Sun star Alyssa Thomas came as no surprise. Thomas, who was the runner-up in WNBA MVP voting last year, has put together another dominant performance so far this season, averaging nearly a triple-double again — 12.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 8.1 assists — all while leading the league's best defense en route to the league's best record.

What may be surprising, however, is that the 32-year-old, who has been named an All-Star four times in the league, has never been on an Olympic team before.

“It took a couple of years,” Thomas told The Next. That's partly because for a long time, Thomas felt her style of play didn't fit with that of the U.S. team.

“I don't think the U.S. has really suited my style of play in the past, just looking at the type of players that have played,” Thomas said. “And I didn't think it was my turn yet. There are so many players that don't make the team that are better than you at that position. So I'm 32 and I'm getting my first chance. A lot of it is just being patient and waiting for your chance.”

A change in leadership meant that Thomas renewed his interest in Olympic basketball

In 2021, the national team got a new head coach. Cheryl Reeve, a former WNBA player and coach with an illustrious career of her own, took the helm. Reeve, who also currently serves as head coach and general manager of the Minnesota Lynx, spoke with Thomas about a tryout for the FIBA ​​team ahead of the 2022 World Cup and stressed that defense would be the core of the team's work.

“She kind of explained to me what the focus would be defensively and she thought I would be a great addition,” Thomas said. “And I still had my reservations, but she stayed honest with me and said, 'If it didn't work out, I would be honest with you from the beginning.' And I respected that and just tried it out and had a lot of fun at the world championships. For me, it was a process that took several years.”

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Thomas ended up being a key member of the 2022 FIBA ​​World Cup gold-winning team. She was named the tournament's best defensive player and led the team in rebounds (7) and assists (4.3). The U.S. dominated the international competition, beating Canada by 40 points in the semifinals and outscoring China by 22 points in the finals. The tournament began just days after the Sun lost to the Aces in the league finals, and Thomas teamed up with several of the players they had just defeated.

“It was a whirlwind,” said Thomas. “I mean, I lost in the final, was on a plane to Australia the next morning and had to play three matches in four days. It was a tough decision to even go there after losing and not being able to close the chapter. But in the end I had a lot of fun as it was one of my first experiences as a player. It was the moment I needed after losing in the final and it was a great experience overall.”

Alyssa Thomas' ability to be a mediator makes her the perfect fit

For Stephanie White, head coach of the Connecticut Sun, adding Thomas to the squad makes perfect sense.

“She does all the little things,” White told The Next. “The obvious things are what show up in the stat sheet. But her skill, her basketball IQ is unmatched.”

Thomas' nearly triple average speaks for itself, but there are a number of other things White said she does

“Her ability to move the ball on offense, her ability on defense to play key one-on-ones, be in the right place at the right time and help. Getting rebounds on both ends of the court, pushing the tempo, using her versatility to play multiple positions, initiating the offense and playing without the ball,” White said, rattling off a seemingly endless list of intangible skills at which Thomas excels with a smile.

“She's also a really good blocker. She's just one of those plug-and-play players who can play multiple lineups. Those types of players are incredibly valuable.”

That versatility will prove valuable given the wealth of talent on the roster; Napheesa Collier, Kahleah Copper, Chelsea Gray, Brittney Griner, Sabrina Ionescu, Jewell Lloyd, Kelsey Plum, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, A'ja Wilson and Jackie Young round out the star-studded cast.

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The games will take place in Paris between July 28 and August 11, during a break in the WNBA season. There is no training camp or warm-up period. Players leave their professional teams in pursuit of gold and quickly return to competition when the ultimate prize is on the line.

“Other teams are probably just getting ready — they've had months to prepare,” Thomas said. “Luckily, we've all played each other for so long, so we know each other's games. But it's an adjustment, and I think everyone makes sacrifices in those moments. We all go out there to achieve a bigger goal. We all try to contribute in any way we can.”

For Thomas, the chance to fight for an Olympic medal is still unrealistic.

“This is something I grew up watching — it was a big thing in my family,” Thomas said. “I get the opportunity to go out there and be around the best athletes in the world. I get to share this with my family — they get the opportunity to be there instead of watching on TV. I'm just excited to be able to share this moment with so many people. And I mean, to be an Olympian and win a gold medal — it's kind of unheard of. I'm just excited.”

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Anna Harden

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