WNBA Notebook: Healthy Alyssa Thomas leading way for well-rounded Sun

Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner (24) and forward Alyssa Thomas (25) speak during a time out in the first half during a WNBA basketball game against the New York Liberty, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

In just about a month of action the 2022 WNBA season already has had its share of surprising players, shake-ups in the standings and all-star play. And things are just getting started.

Whether it be rookies rising to the occasions, the usual suspects continuing their dominance on a quest to a title, or simply playmakers showing why they deserve a roster spot — or All-Star spot — in the league, the WNBA is heating just as the summer is.

Connecticut keeps thriving even in a loss

For a team that has two times the Thomas talent, the Sun have not had the luck to keep them both healthy the past two seasons. Alyssa Thomas missed last season recovering from an Achilles injury, returning to end the regular season and play in the playoffs, and now Jasmine Thomas will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL in her right knee.

The loss of Jasmine Thomas is not one to take lightly, as she has averaged 6.6 points and three assists per game this season starting in all five appearances for the Sun — but the impact of Alyssa Thomas is one the Sun are thankful to have back after missing her for most of 2021.

Alyssa Thomas was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month in May for the first time in her career as she averaged 15.8 points, eight rebounds, and 4.9 assists in 31.9 minutes per game, helping the Sun go 6-3 that month. The Sun have stayed hot in June as well, beating the top-ranked Las Vegas Aces in a game that featured a double-double from Thomas.

The Sun continue to have one of the most well-rounded, two-way rosters in the league with Thomas, Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner, Brionna Jones and more, and their ability to have five scorers in double digits on top of multiple players on the boards and moving the ball well is the key to their recent success.

A rebuilding Dream come true

The Atlanta Dream have faced more than their fair share of struggles the last few years, and have tried to use their draft positions and free agency to enhance their roster to return to the playoffs.

Currently sitting in fourth place, the Dream have a 6-3 record and have benefitted immensely from No. 1 overall pick Rhyne Howard, who has been nothing short of sensational in her rookie campaign.

Of course not every game has been flawless for the small forward out of Kentucky, but Howard leads the Dream with 17.4 points per game, almost seven points ahead of her next closest teammate Erica Wheeler. Howard is shooting 41 per cent from the floor including 42 per cent from beyond the three-point arc so far this season.

On top of Howard's stellar performance, last year's No. 4 overall pick Aari McDonald has been building her game as a sophomore including a 13 point, seven steal performance in a win over the Minnesota Lynx. McDonald used her speed and defensive skill to get turnovers from the Lynx — her third game scoring in double figures in a row, after a 10-point, eight-rebound performance against Phoenix.

"I feel like myself again," said McDonald after the win over the Lynx.

McDonald's first year saw the Dream struggle with drama off the court and not a ton of chemistry on it, but their cohesion has been noticeable this season. They have won four of their last six games, losing only to top teams Las Vegas and Washington.

The shake-up in the standings

While the Sun and Aces have sat atop the WNBA standings for the last couple of seasons, some teams have had less than ideal starts that could impact their position for a playoff spot, since only eight teams make it. One of those teams was last year's runner-up in the WNBA Finals.

The Phoenix Mercury have struggled and currently sit outside of the final playoff spot in 10th. Missing Brittney Griner in the center and Kia Nurse as a scoring option certainly is not helping the struggling team.

From top to bottom, the Mercury have yet to find a rhythm. Skylar Diggins-Smith, the team's current leading scorer, has missed time and the team has a much better efficiency when she was on the floor. Diana Taurasi — while still putting up numbers — is not shooting at the same rate she once was, while averaging her highest minutes per game since 2013.

With the defensive impact of Brianna Turner and the offensive drive of Diamond DeShields and Tina Charles, the Mercury do have the talent to be able to turn the season around. But they will need to find team chemistry and play with the line-up in order to make something work.

Another team who looked to have a bright future pre-season and now sit last in the standings is the Minnesota Lynx, who have fallen victim to injury and other players sitting out indefinitely that could have an impact on the hardwood.

The team was already missing Napheesa Collier after the birth of her daughter and Damiris Dantas recovering from an ankle injury. On top of that, center Natalie Achonwa and guard Moriah Jefferson both have no timeline to return this season. Achonwa remains out indefinitely with a right hamstring strain she suffered on May 8, only appearing in two games this season. Jefferson, who appeared in six games, is dealing with a left quadriceps strain but was producing at a level of 14.2 points, five assists and 2.2 rebounds per game for the Lynx.

Jefferson’s injury is having a big impact on the struggling Lynx team. Minnesota has been heavily reliant on Kayla McBride and Sylvia Fowles, who are each averaging over 15 points per game this season, but Jefferson was third on the team right behind those two.

Who is looking in All-Star form this season?

With WNBA All-Star weekend just over a month away, voting for the 2022 All-Star team has already opened up and many candidates are looking to make the team that was headlined by Arike Ogunbowale's MVP performance last year.

Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart leads the league in scoring as she continues to be one of the best in the game, but the Indiana Fever currently sit just one spot out of the playoffs thanks to stellar play from Kelsey Mitchell, who is averaging just 1.3 points less per game than Stewart.

Las Vegas also is looking at multiple all-stars, with 2020 MVP A'ja Wilson as well as Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum, who are having career years offensively.

Fowles is still playing at an elite level for the Lynx despite this being her final year in the WNBA, and nothing would be a better send-off than one last All-Star nomination, but her play speaks for itself in terms of deserving a spot in Chicago during the festivities.

While there is still lots of time for other players to make their impact before voting closes, the early leaders look like they are only on their ascendance.

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