Las Vegas Aces v Connecticut Sun - Game Three

Heading into the 2016 WNBA draft, newly installed Sun head coach Curt Miller, working with then-GM Chris Sienko, had a decision to make.

They had targeted a pair of players, Rachel Banham and Morgan Tuck, with their picks at Nos. 3 and 4. But sitting there at No. 6 was a big from George Washington they coveted, Jonquel Jones. To get that pick from Los Angeles would cost a significant return: The Sparks’ ask was young guard Chelsea Gray, who has gone on to win a championship and play at a top level in Los Angeles.

On Monday, ahead of Tuesday’s Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces, Miller said the decision came down to a simple question about who would fill Gray’s shoes. “That conversation all revolved around: Could Jasmine Thomas lead a team to a WNBA title?”

The answer remains technically unresolved — Thomas and the Sun fell a game short last year, losing in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals to the Washington Mystics. But few wonder whether the point guard, who turns 31 on Wednesday, is capable. From 2017-20, Thomas has started 154 of a possible 158 regular-season games and every playoff game, over four seasons that ended with postseason play for the Sun. Indeed, a significant and underappreciated amount of the success the Sun have enjoyed in the last few seasons, regularly advancing to and then in the WNBA playoffs, comes from the varied, steady work Thomas has provided her team after Miller inherited her, then built around her.

“A huge piece of that, early in my tenure, before ever coaching her for a second, was the belief that Jasmine Thomas could blossom into someone that you could play in WNBA championship games with,” Miller said.

The correct call is obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t clear from Thomas’s career numbers at that time. After the Seattle Storm selected her with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, they traded her to Washington in a three-team deal for Katie Smith. Thomas had played two years in D.C., two in Atlanta and 2015 in Connecticut under Miller’s predecessor, Anne Donovan, never shooting more than 38 percent in any of those seasons. Her defense and intelligence could only carry her so far.

In 2016, she shot 40.8 percent from the field, and by 2017, she’d turned 3-point shooting into a dangerous skill — hitting 40.3 percent of her shots from deep after four years of sinking less than 30 percent. Those 2017 Suns barreled into the playoffs with a 21-13 mark, while Thomas was named an All-Star.

Notably, though, that’s been her only All-Star honor during the Sun’s four straight playoff seasons, even as she continues her elite playing level. But Miller and the Sun understand just how important she is to them.

“First and foremost, we feed off of her energy,” Miller said of Thomas. “Certainly, you take what the defense gives, and she understands that. But she’s got to control our offensive tempo.”

To watch Thomas operate is like seeing a skilled driver handle a precision automobile, knowing when to push forward, when to hold back. She sets the pace not only for her team but for the Sun’s opponents. The Aces, for instance, pushed the ball all season, leading the WNBA in pace at 99.08; Connecticut was ninth at 95.81. However, Las Vegas’ pace is down to 94.5 in this series with the Sun.

What makes Thomas so vital to the team? “Her ability to remain calm and poised when you get into these later rounds of the playoffs,” fellow Sun guard Essence Carson said. “… When you have things on the line like a championship, you have things that tend to raise the tension level. And she’s done a good job of remaining poised and calm through it all.”

Thomas also raises her game, as a matter of pure production, when the playoffs arrive. She averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 assists per game in the 2019 regular season on 39.2 percent shooting from the field but lifted those totals to 12.8, 5.6 and 43.5 percent in the playoffs. The same phenomenon has held this year, with Thomas’s regular-season marks at 10.2 points and 4.0 assists on 40.4 percent shooting from the field. Thomas in the 2020 playoffs is at 15.7 points and 4.7 assists per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field.

And she’s doing it all through plantar fasciitis. Even in this way, she is overshadowed, as teammate Alyssa Thomas continues to play at an elite level despite a dislocated shoulder and two torn labrums.

But Jasmine Thomas’s greatness is not lost on her teammates. Brionna Jones — who in an expanded role this season has taken a dramatic leap forward in efficiency, shooting 60.5 percent from the field compared to 46.7 in 2019 — knows who is getting her the ball where she needs it.

“We have that connection,” Jones said of Thomas. “She can find me out of the rolls, out of the pops. And then I know she’s going to knock down shots. That creates more space for me.”

Another way to think about how steady Thomas’s greatness is: Brionna Jones is an utterly different kind of primary center than Jonquel Jones was for the Sun in 2019 — Bri Jones is a rim-oriented finisher, Jonquel Jones a wanderer who gets plenty of her points from beyond the three-point arc.

What remains constant is that the Sun are far better when Thomas is on the floor with them or anyone else. Connecticut’s net rating with Thomas was 7.8 last season, with only Jonquel Jones and Shekinna Stricklen ahead of her, and most of their minutes coming with Thomas. In 2020, among the regulars, Thomas led the team in net rating, at 7.0.

Whether Connecticut wins the WNBA title this season or not, Miller has his answer.

“When Jasz plays well, we’re tough to beat,” Miller said. “She doesn’t get some of the accolades our other players [have] the last two years. But we wouldn’t be in the semifinals, Game 5, and we wouldn’t have been in that Finals series Game 5 [last year] without Jasmine Thomas.”

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