Why WNBA player Alyssa Thomas is competing through two torn labrums

Connecticut Sun's Alyssa Thomas smiles after a basket during the second half of a WNBA basketball playoff game against the Los Angeles Sparks, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut Sun's Alyssa Thomas is playing with two labral tears in her shoulders. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Alyssa Thomas is known as the Connecticut Sun’s engine. And it was humming nicely in a Game 1 semifinal victory over the Los Angeles Sparks at Mohegan Sun Arena on Tuesday.

Thomas’ production (22 points, 10 assists, five assists and four steals in a full 40 minutes) was made all the more impressive when ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe shared she can barely lift her hands above her head.

The sixth-year veteran and two-time All-Star has been playing with labral tears in each of her shoulders for years and has put off surgery.

How did Thomas injure both shoulders?

The 6-foot-2 Thomas first injured her right shoulder during her second season on Aug. 12, 2015, and missed 10 games. Less than two years later, ahead of the 2017 WNBA season, Thomas injured her left shoulder while with Samsung Life Blue Minx.

The discomfort began to impact her shooting motion and she told the New Hampshire Register she works through it.

“It is a constant thing, it is something that will always be there so I just have to stay on top of it. No surgery. (Samsung) they have one of the top rehab facilities in all of South Korea. They have been great, I talk to them when I need whatever so I have no worries.”

She went on to a career year and her first All-Star selection, averaging 14.8 points on 50.9 percent shooting. Her second All-Star season was this year in which she played all 34 games and averaged 11.6 points.

Thomas had more issues in June 2018 when her right shoulder popped while guarding Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne. She wore a sling and missed a month, including the All-Star break.

Thomas switches shooting hands

Thomas, 27, has been playing through injuries to a critical body component for more than four full years now. And it has taken a toll on the style of play for Maryland’s all-time leading scorer (men’s or women’s).

Her game is largely within 12 feet — she’s 2-of-11 in her entire WNBA career behind the 3-point line — so the injuries have impacted those lengthier mid-range shots. It’s especially hit her free throw shooting.

She was an 80 percent free throw shooter at Maryland and shot 76 percent her rookie year. But it dropped precipitously since: .692, .634, .567, .547 and .496 (60 of 121) this season.

The injuries, she told the Register in June 2018, limited the range of motion in her left, but not her right. So she switched shooting hands in South Korea in 2018 since the injury “prevented me from shooting the way I want to shoot” and she was “leaving points at the free throw line.”

Thomas told WNBA.com she does most things right-handed, despite shooting lefty since childhood, so it was an “easy transition.” It hasn’t impacted her ability to get to the rim or play suffocating defense, both reasons she has continued to perform so well for the No. 2 Sun.

Why won’t Thomas have surgery?

In August 2018, the famously quiet Thomas did an interview with Women’s Hoops World and said surgery is “definitely” in the future somewhere. Just not now.

“Not planned, but it’s definitely something that needs to happen. Most people wouldn’t be able to play with this type of injury, the way your shoulder is. But I’m fortunate to have a lot of muscle that helps with the stability. But at some point I need to stop putting it off and get it fixed.”

The main reason, ESPN’s Rowe reported during Game 1, was that recovery time is seven months. That would impact her season with an overseas team, where she makes the majority of her income.

Thomas played for USK Praha in Prague last year and is listed on the team’s 2019-20 roster. She’s played during every WNBA offseason, a reality for players to make a better living.

Why not skip a WNBA season then? There’s a lot of reasons, but a key one is this year the Sun had built a core group to finally win it all. Connecticut last made the semifinals in 2012 and the finals in 2005.

Championship windows can be small. The Sun want to overcome two consecutive second-round postseason losses and has the talent, chemistry, comfort and core to win it all. If Alyssa Thomas can still be of value on the court — which she clearly is — it’s fair she wants to help the team she’s spent her entire young adult life with win its first championship.

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