Sam Thomas was the prize of Adia Barnes’ 2017 recruiting class. The four-star forward out of Nevada’s powerhouse Centennial High showed why as soon as she stepped on campus.
And after a slow start this season, she’s back to proving it once again.
Last season saw Thomas lead Pac-12 freshmen in rebounding, steals, blocks and minutes, while ranking second in scoring. That stat line landed her on the Pac-12 All-Freshman team. She represented both the present of Arizona women’s basketball, and the hope for the future.
Thomas ended up leading the team in shooting percentage (42%), rebounding (7.0), blocks (1.3), steals (1.5), and minutes (36.3) per game. She was the reason to come watch the Arizona women in six-win rebuilding year.
The only question was how she was going to follow it up.
When 2018 rolled around, though, Thomas struggled a bit on the offensive end. While she still excelled at blocking shots and racking up steals, she got off to a slow start shooting the ball. The player who averaged double figures in 2017-18 only scored 10 or more points once in the first seven games.
Her lowest point came in a two-game stretch that included a loss to Loyola Marymount and a win over Seattle. She shot only 20% from the floor against the Lions, including going 0 for 5 from 3. She followed that up with a 28.6 percent night from the field against the Redhawks. She had other games when she didn’t shoot much at all, including putting up only three shots against South Carolina State. At the end of that seven-game stretch, she was averaging seven points per game.
Thomas still found ways to contribute during that early stretch. She averaged 2.1 steals, 1.1 blocks and 4.7 rebounds per game. But Barnes was concerned that the task of scoring was falling too heavily on Aari McDonald and Cate Reese. She felt that the team would ultimately struggle to win that way, especially once Pac-12 play started.
The coach stressed that the team not only had the need for more scorers. She told the media on several occasions that they had the talent to expect at least three or four players to score in double figures.
“We always talk about that third player that needs to score,” Barnes said. “It can’t just be Aari. It can’t just be Cate. It needs to be Sam, Dominique (McBryde).”
Thomas has shown that she’s ready to be that player over the past three games. She has raised her season scoring average by over two points per game in the last two weeks.
“Sam Thomas is kind of coming into her own,” Barnes said after the Wildcats’ win over UTEP.
Thomas scored 14 points in that game while shooting 50% from the field. Four of her five baskets came from behind the 3-point line, and she attempted 10 shots that night. She also contributed four rebounds, three assists, a block and four steals.
Over the three-game stretch that ended with that victory over the Miners, Thomas averaged 14 points per game — exactly double what she averaged over the first seven contests. She shot 51.7%, including going 9-for-17 from beyond the arc. She also averaged 3.7 assists, 1.3 blocks and 2.3 steals.
So, what’s changed? Barnes thinks it’s all about being aggressive.
“If you look at the last five games, she looks like a different player,” Barnes said. “So, I think it takes one game to kind of see what you’re capable of doing. And she’s more aggressive. She’s looking for shots more, she’s driving. She’s asserting herself on the floor, and I like that. That’s what I want her to do.”
Part of that might just getting used to the personnel changes, Barnes said. Thomas needed to know that despite the changes brought by the highly-touted transfers and freshmen, the team’s success relied heavily on her success.
“She knows I believe in her,” Barnes said. “Just having her believe in herself was a big thing. And it does take time, because everybody’s role is adjusted. Now, we inserted the three transfers, the freshmen. It takes a while to adjust. We play a lot faster with Aari. So, I think there was a learning curve even with Lucia (Alonso). So, now Sam’s seeing that she has the green light to do those things.”
Thomas agrees that the personnel changes were a wrinkle everyone had to adapt to, but she doesn’t think that’s unique to this season.
“I feel like every year you have to get used to your personnel,” Thomas said. “Games are nothing like practices. You try to build that chemistry there, but there’s a whole new chemistry on the court. Definitely with the transfers and the freshmen coming in, it took some time to get used to—which I think the exhibition games are great for us to learn our personnel—but now I think we’re really clicking.”
With the last three games providing a boost both to the team’s offense and Thomas’ stat line, Barnes thinks her star sophomore is on the right track.
“Once you do it and you do it well, you’re going to keep doing it,” Barnes said.