Bringing a WNBA title to Connecticut fueled Alyssa Thomas’ incredible return

In early July, Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller was watching Alyssa Thomas moving and cutting in ways you’d never expect someone six months post-Achilles tear to operate.

Thomas, the “Engine” of the Sun and their longest tenured player, had been crushing rehab. But so much so that she could return to the court in time for the WNBA playoffs?

“That was the ‘Aha’ moment,” Miller said, “that things were really trending in the right direction.”

Miller didn’t try to get his hopes up. After all, plateaus and setbacks are typical when rehabbing from an injury as serious as an Achilles tear. But fueled by the motivation to help the top-ranked Sun win the franchise’s first title, Thomas continued to progress ahead of schedule. And then on Wednesday, she did what no one could have imagined back in January: She played 17 minutes in her first appearance of the 2021 WNBA season, roughly eight months after her injury.

“We’ve been right there, been knocking on the door,” Thomas said Saturday. “Now we’re sitting right where we want to be and it’s time to bring a championship to Connecticut. I think that was just extra motivation for me. I just wanted to be a part of a year that’s been so special. We have so much work we have to do to win a championship and I just want to help in any way that I can.”

Thomas has long been known for her superhuman strength and toughness, both in her physical style of play and in how she’s responded to previous injuries. She’s played for years with torn labra in her shoulders, and just last season returned to finish the Sun’s five-game semifinal series against the Las Vegas Aces despite dislocating her shoulder in Game 2.

An Achilles tear, though, was a different animal.

“An Achilles injury is no joke,” Thomas said. “I think anybody that’s been through this just knows the ups and downs and the good and bad days. Definitely one of the toughest things that I’ve ever been through. I’m so used to having an injury and just popping back up and getting back out there, but this was a slow process, which was hard.”

Thomas had no idea what her recovery timetable would be when she arrived in Connecticut before the season but was “nowhere near close to playing.” Luckily, Thomas didn’t have to look far to find success stories of WNBA players returning to the same or even better form post-Achilles tear. Thomas spoke with Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum and Chiney Ogwumike, who all missed entire WNBA seasons with the injury, about their own journeys.

“Everybody’s experience is different, but they all said the same thing: It’s tough, it is a slow process and you have to be patient,” Thomas said. “Just hearing that reassures you. For me, watching how they’ve been performing gives you hope and pushes you even harder to know that you can get back there. It’s just a really slow recovery.”

As Thomas rehabbed, her teammates did their part to make her 2021 comeback possible. Behind their current 13-regular season game win streak, they’ve had the best record in the league for most of the second half of the season and secured a double-bye into the semifinals. Along the way, Thomas’ frontcourt teammate Jonquel Jones asserted herself as the MVP frontrunner, and, stepping up for the injured Thomas, Brionna Jones has a strong case for Most Improved Player.

“Early on in the season, I said I think we are one of the best teams in the league,” Thomas said. “If we come out and play our best game each and every night that we are 20 points better than teams.”

As Thomas’ rehab and the WNBA season progressed, Thomas wasn’t about to let the injury, within the realm of reason, keep her away from helping the Sun win a championship. The former Maryland Terp was drafted by the franchise in 2014, two years before Miller took over, and Connecticut didn’t qualify for the playoffs during her first three seasons. In the last three years the team came within minutes of winning a WNBA title in 2019, lost by three in Game 5 of the 2020 semifinals and this year secured the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

“AT has so much pride about being the OG [original] right now,” Miller said. “She’s really helped us since 2017 become the most consistent team in terms of regular-season wins in the league, and maybe only behind Washington in playoff wins. All that’s fantastic, but it’s about championships at the pro level. She really takes pride in being a person that’s been here the longest and helping trying to bring the first championship to Connecticut.

“There’s motivation, with a lot of caveats, for AT to be back and help us, because we all realize, we’re all mature enough to talk about it, that we’re in a window right now [to win a title].”

Wednesday was a huge step in that direction, even though Miller and Thomas described her performance as rusty (six points, three rebounds in 17 minutes). But Thomas will benefit by having two regular-season games under her belt, including Sunday’s finale against the Atlanta Dream, before the stakes are raised in the postseason and a championship is on the line.

“Now it’s just about me getting out there,” Thomas said. “I found myself a step slower or behind something, but it’s to be expected. I haven’t played basketball since January. So every day that I’m practicing and working with the team, I feel it coming back. I feel I’m in a good place and I’m happy that we have practice leading up into the playoffs.”

Thomas believes the Sun are ready for it, and that she can help them cross the finish line.

“I think at this point in the season, it’s going to come down to us,” Thomas said. “We’ve just got to continue controlling what we can control, and that’s us, and getting better each and every day. I’m just happy that I’m back and I can be a part of it and just continue to add to what they’ve already done this season.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at