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Alyssa Thomas is enjoying a record WNBA season — and may even win MVP — despite playing through a pair of debilitating injuries

Meredith Cash   

Alyssa Thomas is enjoying a record WNBA season — and may even win MVP — despite playing through a pair of debilitating injuries
  • Alyssa Thomas is the WNBA's triple-double queen and a leading contender for the 2023 MVP award.
  • She's been among the league's best players despite competing with a torn labrum in both shoulders.

There's something you should know about Alyssa Thomas, the WNBA superstar who's a top candidate to win this year's MVP award: She absolutely despises talking about herself.

So in the rare moments when she breaks her self-imposed ban on discussing her own accomplishments — like after she recorded her sixth triple-double of the 2023 season last week — fans know she means every word.

"I mean, I'm doing something that's never been done in the league before," Thomas said after dropping 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 14 assists against the Los Angeles Sparks on September 5. "And I'm making it look easy. By no means are triple-doubles easy."

"I'm coming out here each and every night and flirting with a triple-double," she added.

But in typical Thomas fashion, the 31-year-old Connecticut Sun star neglected to gloat about arguably the most staggering aspect of her dominance: She's managed to piece together a statistically unprecedented season — and lead her team to top playoff seeding — while playing through a pair of debilitating injuries.

Thomas has played through shoulder injuries for 9 seasons

The 6-foot-2 star has been navigating shoulder issues since 2015, when she first injured her right shoulder and missed 10 games of her second season in the WNBA. She hurt the other side while competing overseas ahead of the 2017 WNBA season, reinjured her right shoulder the following year, and then dislocated that same side while in Bradenton, Florida, for the league's 2020 season in the "Wubble."

The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint; at the end of the humerus bone, which stretches from the elbow to the shoulder, is a ball that sits in the socket of the scapula, or shoulder blade. The labrum is the cartilage lining the socket that's responsible for helping the ball move smoothly without slipping out or dislocating.

When the labrum is intact and the joint is operating as it's meant to, the arm can move out, up, and around without any hindrances. But with labral tears, shoulder movement may come with pain, catching, a limited range of motion, and instability. In many cases, individuals with a torn labrum are also more susceptible to shoulder dislocation, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

This is an issue for any basketball player. From rebounding and shooting to diving for loose balls, nearly every aspect of the game can be impacted by a single torn labrum.

Now multiply those struggles by two and consider the level of play necessary to compete in the top women's basketball league on the planet. That's Thomas' reality — and it has been for the better part of a decade.

It's likely that Thomas tore her labrum with the first injury to her shoulder in 2015 and each subsequent incident has only worsened the damage. The initial injury to her left shoulder, which impacted Thomas' shooting hand, was severe enough to alter her performance on the hardwood.

She's powered through the pain and discomfort year after year, playing a full season in the WNBA before heading overseas to compete for a second team each winter. The do-it-all star — who is listed as a forward despite, in actuality, fulfilling a point-center role — credits such resilience and toughness to how she was raised.

"My mom was always tough. When we fell down, just 'Get up' and 'You're fine,'" Thomas told Insider. "So I think it really started there. And as I've gone on through my career, I know when I can go and I know when I can't go."

The 31-year-old has leaned on strength training and rehab to remain on the court

Despite her considerable injuries, Thomas has gone to great lengths to stay on the floor and play at the highest level possible.

Many people who tear a labrum opt to address the injury with surgery. But Thomas has no plans to take that path; she refuses to miss any time on the court and insists she's "adapted my game to fit this style now."

Part of that adaptation, she told Insider, involves incorporating "a lot of strength training" into her routine. In addition to continual rehabbing, Thomas says it's crucial to focus on building up "all the muscles around your shoulder — your biceps, your back muscles, all of that" — to help maximize support for her injured shoulder joints.

"I do a lot of activation drills and a lot of strength training, especially offseason," she told Insider. "That's where I tend to lift heavier. When I come to the WNBA, it's about maintaining and just being smart."

Thomas switched her shooting hand to mitigate the limits of her injuries

Merely tinkering with your shot is considered perilous territory for many high-level basketball players. But changing your shooting hand outright? That's pretty much unthinkable.

But not for Thomas, who's proven time and again that she'll do whatever it takes — even the seemingly impossible — to maximize her impact on the court.

Though the four-time WNBA All-Star told Insider she's "always been ambidextrous," she shot exclusively with her left hand from her earliest days playing basketball. She was left-hand dominant on the court throughout her collegiate career with the Maryland Terrapins and during her first four years in the WNBA.

But in 2018, while she was playing overseas in Korea, she recognized that her limited range of motion in her left arm was becoming an impediment to her shooting.

So she just … switched hands.

"It got to a point where it just really wasn't working with my left hand," Thomas told Insider. "I was playing around one day with it and I was like, 'You know what? I think I'm onto something here.' I just continued to work at it little by little."

After a lot of practice over a year and some change, Thomas said she really started to feel comfortable with the change. She noted that learning to use both hands while finishing at the rim helped make "the transition a little easier for me."

The finished product looks less like the traditional gooseneck form associated with elite shooters than a one-handed "raise the roof" motion that flings the ball skyward. But it doesn't have to be pretty so long as it gets the job done.

At this point, even if she were to have surgery to correct the root of the problem, Thomas isn't convinced she'd even remember how to "shoot normal."

"So I think I'm just gonna continue as long as I can," she said.

Thomas is the first to admit she's "had a lot of rough shooting over the years." For the most part, however, her free throw and field goal shooting percentages have increased since she switched hands.

The hardest part of the conversion, she said, was cementing "the muscle memory of it all."

"I really had to train my body after shooting 20 or so years one way to change the whole different hand and form," Thomas told Insider. "Eventually I got it down, and right now, I'm happy where it's at."

Despite it all, the 4-time All-Star has made WNBA history this season

Even with her injuries, Thomas has enjoyed a historic 2023 campaign. She was already the WNBA's all-time triple-doubles leader entering the season, but she took those stat-stuffing efforts to a new level this year.

Thomas' six triple-doubles in 2023 account for a whopping 20% of the league's all-time triple-doubles. Combined with her four games with double-digit points, rebounds, and assists from seasons past, Thomas is now responsible for one of every three triple-doubles ever recorded in the history of the WNBA.

She ended the 2023 regular season with 15.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game — just 0.1 of a board and 2.1 dimes per contest shy of averaging a triple-double on the year. No WNBA player has ever even neared such a feat.

Not only was Thomas informally crowned the league's triple-double queen, but she also paced the league in several major statistical categories. She ranked first in total rebounds, total assists, and rebounds per game, finished second in dishes per contest, and clocked in at third in steals per game.

Perhaps most importantly, Thomas' remarkable output helped salvage a Connecticut Sun season that could've easily gone awry. Just a month into the 2023 campaign, Stephanie White's squad lost star Brionna Jones to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Thomas filled the gaps on both sides of the ball and in virtually every role a team could need. She distributed the rock, locked down opponents, fought for boards and loose balls, and finished through traffic with consistency.

In other words, she did it all.

"I'm just the type of person that wants to impact the game in so many different ways," Thomas told Insider. "I've always flirted with the triple-double, and this year I really went to a different level."

"I'm just proud of the fact that I'm able to impact the game in the way that I've been doing so far," she said.

Thomas and the third-seeded Sun face the Minnesota Lynx in the first round of this year's WNBA playoffs. The do-it-all superstar will learn if she's received the first MVP award of her career on September 26.

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