As the 2023 WNBA regular season winds down to a close, the MVP race remains hotly contested between the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas, former UConn star Breanna Stewart of the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson.
Stewart and Wilson tend to take up the league spotlight. They’re in much bigger media markets on what have been pegged as ‘super teams’, but Thomas makes quite the case to take home the prestigious award this year.
“No one in this league does what she does. And to me, that’s what an MVP is,” Sun head coach Stephanie White said of Thomas. “No one does what she does; no one’s putting up the amount of numbers that she’s putting up across the board and doing what she does on the defensive end of the floor. It’s exceptional.”
Thomas is averaging 15.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 8.0 assists and 1.9 steals per game this season. She leads the league in total assists and total rebounds, something no other player has done in the history of the WNBA. And her 304 assists broke a league record for the most in a single season in league history.
Then there’s the matter of why Thomas has been pegged the ‘Triple Double Queen’ by those around Uncasville, and seemingly now around the league as well. As is clear by her statline, Thomas flirts with a triple-double on a nightly basis. But Thomas has also made even more history by recording six triple-doubles this season, which is the most by any WNBA player in a single season — no player even has more than three in their entire career in the regular season. And Thomas’ 27 double-doubles on the season are also a league record.
“She’s the MVP of this season,” Sun forward DeWanna Bonner said. “You look at our team and love my teammates, I think they’re the best in the world to me, you know, but if you look at these other teams, they got All-Stars, they got freakin’ USA players, we don’t have the one. We got another All-Star, but we only have one national team player. We only have one big talk and that’s her.
“And it’s just impressive how she leads us night in and night out, every single night. These stat lines are insane, you haven’t seen it in WNBA history, so she is the freakin’ MVP.”
The Aces and Liberty were expected to be the top two teams in the WNBA this season. Las Vegas also features All-Stars Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum. New York has All-Stars Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu, as well as former MVP Jonquel Jones.
Meanwhile, many counted the Sun out as contenders before the start of the season after a lot of offseason moves. And once two-time All-Star Brionna Jones tore her Achilles tendon on June 20, it was unclear how Connecticut would respond. Thomas took it on her shoulders — both with torn labrums, mind you — to make sure the team didn’t drop off, stepping her game up to another level to secure the Sun the third seed in the playoffs.
Stewart and Wilson have more eye-popping scoring totals, with the former averaging 23.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game, and the latter putting up 22.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 steals a night. But Thomas’ impact goes well beyond her own points. Thomas uses her unique court vision to get everyone else on her team involved, but she takes over the game to get it done herself when the game calls for it, too.
That’s shown through NET rating. Through games as of Aug. 27, the Sun’s NET rating was nearly 30 points (28.6 to be exact) better when Thomas was on the court versus when she was sitting on the bench. That’s compared to 14.6 for Stewart and 14.8 for Wilson.
“Facilitating, she’s getting her teammates the ball in positions that make them successful,” White said. “Rebounding, particularly with no Breezy on the floor, she’s had to take a little bit more ownership of rebounding on both ends of the floor, and she finds ways to get it done. Her instincts are impeccable; she’s got a nose for the ball. She understands offensively when to attack and when to facilitate; she’s got an incredible basketball IQ.”
White said one thing that might not be as obvious to people that aren’t players or coaches is what Thomas does on the defensive end of the floor. The 6-foot-2 forward can guard any position on a given night and plays an essential role in all of the Sun’s defensive schemes.
“I think it’s just that she holds everyone to a certain standard and she gets you up to her level,” Sun guard Rebecca Allen said of Thomas’ defensive leadership. “And I think that’s also stuff through communication being the biggest thing. You can always hear her voice on the defensive end, and when you’re like that you’re on a string.”
Thomas’ leadership extends beyond the defense as well. If the Sun have come out slow in the first quarter or just gave up a big run, she can often be heard yelling something in a huddle to get everyone’s energy back up. But as Allen pointed out, Thomas chooses her moments sparingly as opposed to overusing her voice, making the weight of her words felt even more.
Simply put, there isn’t an area of this team where Thomas’ impact isn’t felt. Sun players and coaches alike know they wouldn’t be sitting in third place in the WNBA standings despite losing their other franchise cornerstone in Jones if it weren’t for her historic play this season.
“AT should be the MVP,” Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman said. “She leads so many categories. Look at how she plays. She drives our team. She’s really the engine of our team, so it goes hand in hand. But at the end of the day, regardless what happens, we know how good we are as a team and we know AT is our MVP.”