Sam Thomas experienced numerous memories through her five seasons at Arizona, but one specific memory to her present situation as she aims for a roster spot with the Phoenix Mercury at training camp.
During Thomas’ freshman year, Diana Taurasi came to watch one of Arizona’s games to support her former UConn teammate and then Arizona assistant coach Morgan Valley.
“She came to one of our games and sat courtside and I was so starstruck. I was like, Wow, she’s amazing,” Thomas said. “Who knew five years from now I’d be on the same team as her. It’s just crazy how life works,”
Thomas received the basketball equivalent to a glowing letter of recommendation when Taurasi thought highly of signing the Arizona product to a training camp contract.
“Diana’s the smartest basketball person I know. She can see things I definitely can’t see. She’s a huge fan of the game, she’s constantly watching. She was familiar with Sam and she’s right,” Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said.
Thomas, a five-year captain at Arizona, jumped out to Nygaard for her leadership qualities among her many praises from Arizona coach Adia Barnes. Barnes and Nygaard have a previous relationship that dates to their high school days playing against each other.
But a player like Thomas flew under the radar. Thomas devoted most of her time to academics and wanted to get as far as she could in education and took advantage of her fifth year of eligibility to work on her master’s degree. Thomas earned the ultimate honor from the Pac-12 when she named as the conference’s scholar-athlete of the year in 2021.
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The shift in plans to continue her playing career only came during Thomas’ junior. Thomas started viewing basketball differently from when she was younger and grew a deeper relationship.
“Once I got the training camp invite and with me being a super senior and (my college career) ending, I was like, I don’t want to stop playing basketball. After getting this, I thought this could be a serious career choice for me and I’ve been loving every second of it here. I definitely want to stay as long as possible and continue my basketball career,” Thomas said.
Thomas spent her high school years ingrained in a winning culture at Centennial High School in Las Vegas where she was named the USA Today Player of the Year in 2016. Her first season at Arizona in 2017-18 wasn’t the same deal. The Wildcats went 2-16 in the Pac-12 and finished second-to-last in the conference. As different from an adjustment as it was for Thomas, it shaped her views on basketball and separating from making winning her identity.
“Coming in my freshman year and not winning a lot, I was like, do I really want to focus on wins and losses for the rest of my life?” Thomas said. “I think through college, I developed more and got more confident and developed more experience through basketball. It’s not just about wins and losses, you meet lifelong friends, you’re getting smarter, and you get to meet so many people. It’s really taking everything that basketball has with it and using that.”
Thomas averaged averaging 8.97 points with 4.09 rebounds over five seasons, while adding 266 career assists and 264 steals.
The days of losing early in her career at Arizona fell behind as Thomas became one of the veterans leading Arizona to the national championship game in 2021. Thomas shared the team lead in rebounding with seven and logged 37 minutes in the 54-53 loss to Stanford .
“She’s very even keeled. She plays hard consistently, but without highs and lows. That impresses me from a young player. She’s an outstanding 3-point shooter, I think that’s a huge asset. She really has a very deep knowledge of defensive concepts,” Nygaard said. “Her foundation is really strong and she seems resilient no matter what happens, she keeps pressing.”
In his first professional experience, Thomas has added more to both ends of his game from the help of the veterans. Fourth-year guard Sophie Cunningham has been encouraging Thomas and the other rookies throughout the camp, often helping with offensive scenarios.
Thomas was known for a deep defensive game, but training camp has given her the toughest assignment of her career with Taurasi. Instead of either of them having a front row seat, they finally can see how their games match up.
“She’s a great person and I really respect her opinion and value it. Just knowing she’s saying great things about me, I’m really thankful for that. She’s been helping me a lot… She really settles everybody down and you can tell she has this confidence about her and everyone wants to follow her,” Thomas said.
Mercury guard Shey Peddy returned to training camp Friday after playing overseas in Turkey. Peddy appeared in 32 games with the Mercury last season and averaged a career high 5.4 points. Peddy signed a training camp contract in January.
The Mercury will play its first preseason game April 28 at Footprint Center against the Seattle Storm at 7 pm It will also be the first shoe drive for BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive, a charity started by Brittney Griner in partnership with Phoenix Rescue Mission.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-647-4122. Follow her on Twitter @jennarortiz.
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