If you ever think the Connecticut Sun will stop going in, ask Alyssa Thomas

The toughness of Alyssa Thomas helped drive the Connecticut Sun this year and it’s why their future is as bright as any team in the league.

Alyssa Thomas was already playing without shoulders. If you’ve watched a Connecticut Sun game before, then you probably know this already, because they bring it up in every broadcast: Thomas has had torn labrums in both shoulders for years. Like most players in the WNBA, she plays overseas during her nominal offseason to supplement her salary with the Sun, so she has had to put off surgery and its associated seven-month recovery period.

Still, even with two busted shoulders that make it hard for her to raise her arms above her head — much less shoot a basketball — Thomas has been someone for the Sun to lean on, playing the fifth-most minutes per game of any player this season. Then, in Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces, reinjury struck and she left with a dislocated right shoulder.

The Sun weren’t even supposed to be there, blooping out of the gate with an 0-5 start to the season before scrambling into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. Their best player, Jonquel Jones, chose to opt out of the season because of the pandemic, leaving some of the heaviest individual burdens in the league on Thomas and star offseason acquisition DeWanna Bonner (fourth in minutes per game). That they were in the semifinal at all was a shocker, much less the fact that they were competitive against the top-seeded Aces and league MVP A’ja Wilson. The Sun forced the Aces to a deciding Game 5, and fell just a few points short of making it back to the WNBA Finals for a second year in a row.

The surprise of the series, and the moment that could be an entire microcosm of the Sun season, was when Thomas came back for Game 3 and went on to drop 23 points and 12 rebounds in something that was like watching an out-of-body experience. The series, this season, has reduced Thomas’ physical condition to this, but her game proves irreducible.

The devastation in this photo is indie rock. Thomas is exhausted and so, so messed up, but she’s still pushing herself forward through day-to-day bodily struggles. Mitski has a song called “I Don’t Smoke” about putting herself through the ringer over toxic dependencies, and also about smoking cigarettes. When she said, “So if you need to be mean, be mean to me / I can take it and put it inside of me,” she was talking about the ruin of Alyssa Thomas. Thomas is playing through so much pain, for multiple years going now. She’s going to keep going.

Since she physically can’t shoot jumpers, Thomas’ signature shot is instead a standstill floater that basically looks like a shot-put. It’s a syncopated shot that pounces in the unexpected moments, and she can hit it as far out as the elbows. From that same location on the floor, she can orchestrate offense with tic-tac-toe interior passes or kick-outs to shooters, or just get her own bucket off the bounce with spin moves or shoulders in your chest. In that sense, she can finish over, around or through you; she especially delights in bum-rushing the fast break. With her strength, speed, smarts and punishing mean streak, she can guard any position in the league and quarterback any scheme. Her game is a monument to making do, but also, it’s more profound than that.

Usually, the cliche for this sort of a player is to describe them as a Swiss Army knife, but Swiss Army knives are too common in the real world for that to be a really satisfying comparison. Thomas is similar in impact to Bam Adebayo, the connective tissue that binds the identity of a team together, but she can also toggle to the go-to primacy of an alpha like Candace Parker. If you’re cool with a deep-cut comparison, she’s like a supercharged Thaddeus Young, another rugged and endlessly inventive player who makes a home lofting in junk-balls from the in-between spaces on the floor. Even without the use of functioning shoulders, Thomas is a basketball contortionist, filling gaps and running game. She’s who you want when a player like Jonquel Jones opts out because of course, an Alyssa Thomas team will pick itself up.

What’s next for Alyssa Thomas and the Connecticut Sun?

Under head coach Curt Miller, the Sun found their identity as a fierce defensive team after stumbling to start the season and scrambled into the seventh seed without looking back. Bonner, the Sun’s other tentpole and a three-level scorer with limbs for days, was in her first season as a true No. 1 option after playing most of her career as a complement to Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner with the Phoenix Mercury. She’s always had elite talent and slipped into the starring role with the ease of someone finally manifesting; only two players in the league averaged more than her 19.7 points per game. Jasmine Thomas had another strong two-way season in a career full of them, basically winning Game 1 against the Aces herself, and Brionna Jones was resolute as the replacement to Jonquel in the starting lineup.

The Cinderella run is over, but the magic is just getting started. When Jones returns next season, the Sun aren’t just getting back one of the WNBA’s best players but also one of its most miraculous: A dominant inside force on both ends with a nasty Dirk fadeaway and 3-point range to boot, somebody who can take over from any spot across 94 feet. With Bonner, Thomas and Jones, the Sun will form one of the most unique 3-4-5 frontcourts around in a minute. In different ways, each of these players is like if you were in a lab for basketball players and decided to freak it.

Next year will be their year, as it was supposed to be this year when they signed Bonner. This year, I guess, has just been a weird one. You probably would’ve never guessed that the Sun would end their season on a high note like this, but now we know that this team greets adversity by lowering broken shoulders and busting right on through.

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