Everyone’s road to WNBA training camp is different—even if they spent three years together at the same school.
Last season, Aari McDonald was the third pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft with all the hype that comes with being a lottery pick. This year, Sam Thomas didn’t hear her name called during the draft, but with the help of Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, she quickly found a training camp spot with the Phoenix Mercury.
“I was agent Barnes for the last couple weeks,” Barnes said on April 13. “It’s actually fun because most of my friends are coaches and GMs. So I was hoping there was a chance to possibly go in the third round, and I was trying to rally for it, but I knew it’d be hard. But in some situations, it’s better to be a free agent because then you can choose where you want to go....I wanted to get to five (camps) to make sure she was gonna be at one but there was a lot of interest. And then we felt that Phoenix was the best for her. Diana Taurasi really liked her. And Vanessa Nygaard was a new coach I’ve known since we were 15.”
Rookie seasons are difficult. The 2021 season was especially unpredictable for McDonald. She had three different coaches and unpredictable minutes. One teammate was suspended for most of the season after a conflict with other teammates on the bench. Two others were told that they would not be retained in 2022 after video of them involved in a fistfight with another group of women during the pandemic went public. McDonald had to find ways to push through.
“I always prayed,” McDonald said. “I had a lot of bad days but always just kept going... There’s only 144 of us in this league, so I mean, no matter what I was going through—if I wasn’t getting the right minutes or anything—I just...played hard to try to make sure I made my teammates better, but I just made myself better along the way. But this year, I got (Erica Wheeler). We’re similar players. Man, I’m so grateful for her already. She’s pushing me every day and just constantly talking to me in high energy so that it’s something I can feed off of every day.”
Thomas is already finding out how unpredictable the WNBA can be. The Mercury have already waived third-round pick Macee Williams, reportedly after Williams left practice. While it means one fewer player is between Thomas and a roster spot, it also makes roster cuts more real.
Thomas is in an interesting spot with a team that has not kept a rookie since it kept three in 2019. Two of those three are still with the team. However, since then the Mercury have not even had a first-round draft pick. The team traded away its 2020 first-round pick. In 2021 and 2022, Phoenix had neither a first-round nor a second-round pick.
The Mercury’s recent roster construction philosophy has focused on trading for big names or getting them on the free-agent market. With the big names have come big contracts with big hits to the salary cap. As a result, Phoenix has had fewer than the maximum 12 players each of the past two seasons.
Last year this might have been a reason for a player like Thomas to think twice about signing a training camp contract with the Mercury. It was a way for a player to get quickly released. The question is whether that is still true.
Phoenix parted ways with long-time head coach Sandy Brondello and her staff during the offseason. New head coach Nygaard has not been around long enough to give indications about her feelings regarding rookies.
There is one important member of the Mercury who has let her feelings about Thomas be known. If anyone rules the roost in Phoenix, it’s Diana Taurasi. The veteran star is one reason Thomas is in the Valley.
“Diana also thought Sam would be a great addition to our camp,” Nygaard said. “And she’s doing a great job. She’s been wonderful. You can see the real high defensive and offensive basketball IQs.”
While the organization has talent evaluators, Nygaard acknowledged that Taurasi’s input is always important.
“I mean, Diana is the smartest basketball person I know,” Nygaard said. “She can see things I definitely can’t see. So she’s a huge fan of the game. She’s constantly watching. So yeah, she was familiar with Sam. And she’s right. You know, it’s like that player, who can guard, the 3-and-D, right? You can hit a 3 and you can play defense, then there might be some space for you.”
If it turns out that there isn’t enough space on a WNBA roster for Thomas, learning from one of the best to play the game will help her as she pursues a career overseas.