FIBA World Cup 2022 – Alyssa Thomas making most of U.S. national team debut

SYDNEY — U.S. women’s basketball coach Cheryl Reeve called Alyssa Thomas last December hoping she’d want to be part of the national team pool.

Thomas, who was overseas competing in the Czech Republic during the WNBA offseason, had long ago taken her name out of consideration. She had found that, as a longtime overseas player, national team commitments typically occurred during her only break of the year.

“I wasn’t too focused on playing for Team USA, but she called me and explained her vision and talked about the defense and the passing, and I think that’s my identity and role,” Thomas said Friday. “So for me, it was a no-brainer to give it a try.”

Reeve, who had been named USA Basketball’s head coach that same month, told Thomas she’d be frank if things weren’t going in the direction she hoped. Thomas committed on the spot to giving it a go.

Less than a year later, Thomas and the U.S. national team have been a perfect pairing in the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup. In her first major international competition with Team USA, Thomas has been “the Engine” — her nickname in the WNBA with the Connecticut Sun — of the United States’ run to the gold-medal game against China on Saturday (2 a.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+). The U.S. women seek their fourth consecutive and 11th overall gold medal in the tournament.

Reeve called Thomas because she suspected the 6-foot-2 forward “might be one of the most important people that we add to this.” A three-time WNBA All-Star and four-time pick to the all-defensive team, Thomas is known for offensive and defensive versatility that allows her to even play the 1. She’s averaging 10.6 points on 67.4% shooting, 6.7 rebounds (tied for second on the team), 4.6 assists (second) and a team-high 2.7 steals in 22.4 minutes per game in Sydney. And the stat sheet doesn’t encapsulate how her relentless energy and physicality help set the tone, whether it be in the U.S. women’s blowout wins or when they’re being tested by a gritty squad.

A’ja Wilson, the 2022 WNBA MVP whose Las Vegas Aces beat Thomas’ Sun in the Finals earlier this month, called Thomas, “the glue of this team, the X factor.” The Seattle Storm’s Jewell Loyd said Thomas is “the MVP of the tournament.”

Thomas hadn’t been involved with USA Basketball since 2013. But after years of playing against her as head coach of the Minnesota Lynx, Reeve was impressed with Thomas’ analytics — even though Thomas wasn’t recognized as a WNBA all-league pick until this season (second team). With several USA Basketball post players on the way out or retiring, Thomas had the opportunity to earn a larger role within the squad.

Thomas got her first test run in Reeve’s system during the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament in February, as the coach sought to establish an identity around defense and pushing the pace. “She obviously is both of those things,” Reeve said.

Case in point: Against Serbia in the quarterfinals, with the United States only up four early in the second quarter, Thomas recovered defensively after her player faked a shot and got into the paint. Thomas made sure she didn’t get any farther, yanking the ball out of the Serbian player’s hands before taking one dribble and launching it from the low block to the free throw line on the other end of the floor, where Sun teammate Brionna Jones collected it for a layup.

Against Canada in the semifinals, the U.S. women were able to slow down red-hot Lynx player Bridget Carleton, who was coming off four consecutive games with at least 15 points.

Their game plan? “Alyssa Thomas,” Reeve said. “We said, ‘Go get her.'”

When the USA needs a punch of physicality or a burst of energy, Thomas more often than not is the one to provide it, either as part of the starting five, where she’s been all tournament, or when she’s reinserted into the game.

Thomas’ emergence — her finesse in the lane and crashing the offensive glass, where she collects 2.7 boards per contest — has been critical to the United States dominating the paint (averaging 54.0 points per game) and scoring off turnovers (26.3). Team USA has held all but one opponent (Belgium in the opener) below 70 points, and has held four, including Canada in the semifinals and Serbia in the quarterfinals, below 60.

Reeve has discussed how having more defensive-oriented personnel has allowed Team USA to be even more dominant on that end of the floor than in recent years and that Thomas, in particular, has been “really vital to establishing that identity.”

“Her energy’s spectacular,” said Loyd, Thomas’ breakfast buddy in the mornings during the World Cup. “Her tenacity on defense, her IQ on offense. She’s always in the right spot all the time, and she doesn’t care about herself. It’s always about, ‘How can I get other people involved?’ and she’s just never tired. … It’s so fun to watch her.”

Playing for USA Basketball — or any national team — wasn’t top of mind for Thomas, a nine-year WNBA veteran, for most of her career. “I was just doing me,” she said. “I just play hard and play my style of play, whether it’s overseas [or the] WNBA, and I think I approach it the same way.”

The potential to win a gold medal would be a nice silver lining — “a great page-turner,” Thomas said — after her Sun lost in the WNBA Finals for the second time in four seasons. Thomas might instead earn a championship few American women’s basketball players have experienced, with a chance to be part of a legacy and one of the most storied dynasties in all of sports. For Thomas and Reeve, it was worth the wait.

“USA Basketball, it may not always be your time, right?” Reeve said. “For Alyssa’s earlier part of her career, go back and look at the post players during that time. It wasn’t that Alyssa wasn’t good enough. It just wasn’t her time.

“What I appreciate is that Alyssa didn’t go play for another country because she just didn’t get it when she wanted to. She hung in there. She trusted me.”

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