As one of the most decorated players in the University of Maryland women's basketball program's storied history, Alyssa Thomas came into the WNBA in 2014 with heightened expectations of which most rookies fall short.
Drafted No. 4 overall by the New York Liberty, Thomas was traded to the Connecticut Sun in a blockbuster deal with center Kelsey Bone and a 2015 first-round pick for former league MVP Tina Charles and a third-round draft pick.
Thomas was one of the Sun's few bright spots during a rebuilding year that saw the team finish with the Eastern Conference's worst record for a second consecutive season. Playing in all 34 of Connecticut's games, the 6-foot-2 forward provided a spark, finishing fourth on the team in scoring (10 points per game), tied for third in rebounding (5.1) and fourth in assists (1.5).
That experience, Thomas acknowledged, provided a foundation that has helped the 23-year-old build off a standout first year and put the Sun in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
"It was just like transitioning from high school to college," said Thomas, who was named to the 2014 WNBA All-Rookie Team. "You have to make adjustments. For me, that was just trying to find out where I was needed, which was trying to protect the basket and get rebounds. I was also just trying to bring energy to my team."
Thomas initially came off the bench for head coach Anne Donovan's squad during her first year, a role she never had in College Park, Md., after starting 135 career games for the Terps. But with some hard work and patience, Thomas eventually proved her worth and has started 37 of 43 career games for the Sun, as of July 13.
Connecticut, which has sat atop the conference standings since the regular season began June 5, has again received valuable contributions from Thomas, now in her second season. She has demonstrated her prowess on the offensive glass, in particular, corralling a team-high 34 offensive rebounds -- 17 more than the next closest Sun -- to go along with 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per outing, as of July 13.
Thomas praised Maryland head coach Brenda Frese and the rest of her staff for the structure that prepared her to make a successful jump from college to the pros.
"All the coaches at Maryland were huge, because they know what it takes to be a pro," said Thomas, a former three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. "They started early, just engraining in our minds of putting in the work ethic to be a successful player."
Thomas said several of the team's veteran players have taken her under their wing and offered guidance. Among them, Thomas noted, are two players who went to rival ACC schools, former University of North Carolina forward Camille Little and ex-Duke guard Jasmine Thomas.
"Coming in as a rookie last year, we had our veterans who helped me in Camille and Jasmine," said Thomas, who played against Jasmine Thomas during her freshman season at Maryland. "They have been around the game for a while. So whatever they see, they show [the younger players] how to work on it."
With the Sun's balanced assortment of experience and youth, Thomas believes the team has all the pieces to capture its first WNBA championship in franchise history.
"We can go as far as we want to take ourselves," Thomas said. "A lot of people were counting us out early in the season, but we've just been working really hard and have been gelling as a team. We have just been playing our hardest."
But Thomas, who led Maryland to the Final Four in 2014 for the first time since the program's lone national title eight years earlier, isn't taking anything for granted.
"We want to make the playoffs this year," Thomas said. "… It's definitely huge for us to get into the playoffs this year. I know we are all really motivated and working hard to reach that goal."