Players can start returning to campus for voluntary workouts on June 15, according to the Pac-12. While members of the Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball team may not be back that soon, the extended period of downtime will require them to start thinking about conditioning sooner rather than later. Then, they can start thinking about improving their games.
What does each player need to improve on? We are taking a look at the returners to discuss the biggest areas of improvement they need to address. First we discussed Cate Reese.
Next up is Sam Thomas
Sam Thomas has always been a strong defender. Ask Thomas, her coach or her dad and they will all tell you that it comes naturally to her. Pulling the string on offense does not come as naturally.
Thomas’ dad Derek said that in her younger days, Sam would often pass the ball to teammates who didn’t get to play or score as much.
“She wanted everyone to have fun,” he said.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes has praised Thomas’ smarts and ability to avoid taking bad shots. Her teammates rely on her defensive presence even when the offense is not going well.
Barnes realizes that there’s a downside to being too unselfish, though. More than once over the past two seasons, the Wildcats’ coach has stated that the team cannot win at the highest level without three or four players scoing in double digits.
Someone else needs to step up on that end of the floor to help McDonald and Cate Reese. Thomas is a prime candidate for that, but she will have to turn around some tendencies that have become more entrenched each year.
Thomas scored a lot her freshman season. She was the second-leading scorer among Pac-12 freshmen that season with only WNBA-bound Satou Sabally of Oregon out-scoring her. She led all freshmen in rebounds, steals, blocks and minutes.
That was her only season to average double-digit points. She has had flashes—like her 31-point outburst at Utah—but they are less reliable than the Wildcats need. Thomas was in double digits 15 times in Arizona’s 31 games. Eight of those came in Pac-12 play. Arizona needs better than 50-50 odds that its most efficient scorer will be a threat in big games.
So, what’s happening? Thomas has seen points per play and points per scoring attempt increase each year even while her points per game decrease. At the same time, the percentage of her points that come from 3-pointers has dramatically increased, settling comfortably over 40 percent in both her sophomore and junior seasons.
Thomas has increased her reliance on the 3-point shot to a considerable degree. The number of 2-pointers she takes was at its highest her freshman season when she took 5.3 per game. Her sophomore year, that fell dramatically to 3.9. This year, it dipped even further to 3.7 2-pointers per game.
Her junior year, Thomas shot less overall than she had in any season at Arizona. After putting up 8.8 shots per game her freshman year, she attempted 8.2 per contest in 2018-19. This year, she attempted just 7.3 shots per game.
Thomas is an extremely accurate shooter from both inside and outside the arc. Her fading presence from the offensive stats is a concern for precisely that reason.
Her effective field goal percentage of 52.4 percent is the highest on the team and puts her in the top 12.5 percent of shooters in Division I basketball. In her three years as a Wildcat, it has never dropped below 49 percent.
If Arizona is really to contend for a Pac-12 title or Final Four, the Wildcats must have reliable third and fourth options on the offense. The kind of percentages that Thomas has put up since she came to Tucson make her a prime candidate to be one of those options.
Her senior season, Thomas needs to be a more selfish and aggressive on the offensive end. It’s not about her numbers or the accolades that might come with them. It’s what Arizona needs her to do.