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If this FIBA ​​Basketball World Cup marks the start of a new era in American women’s basketball, it is remarkable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas makes his world championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her thirties. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to don an American uniform had such an impact from the get-go. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when at 30 Yolanda Griffith played at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the past week, Thomas has led the United States in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games with Breanna Stewart, Tokyo’s Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in points (10.6 ppg), is tied for second in rebounds (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals ( 2.7).

The Americans, with their new top striker, will face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and a 60th consecutive victory between the Olympics and the world championships dating back to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off us” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her james lebron-like to play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six college girls named to a 33-man national team training camp.

But that involvement was the last of Thomas’ highlights in her USA Basketball biography for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA ​​World Cup Qualifying Squad last February.

Thomas had to wait his turn.

The United States were loaded on the front line in the 2010s with more established players – Candice Parker, Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles, Britney Griner, Elena Delle Donne – then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans of the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, so far, the best WNBA season of his career in 2020, but tore an Achilles while playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not part of the national team’s 36-man squad at the time of his injury.)

The combination of player absences this year – Charles, after three Olympic golds, gave up to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being held in Russia – and Cheryl Reeve becoming a head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas grabbed it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where they recorded triple-doubles in the final two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she flew to Sydney for her first big international experience and also blossomed.

Jennifer Rizottiwho serves on the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalenthe death of Parker and the physicality of Rebecca Brunson. She plays with tears of labrum in each shoulder. There is not a single player like her.

“There are definitely some post players who have that cutting edge mentality, but not quite with the guarding skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anyone, including the guards, who can do what she does in open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to keep one-to-five. A’ja can keep one to five, Stewie can keep one to five, but no one is as disruptive as Alyssa. On the perimeter and off the ball.

Thomas also matched what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking to retool the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasihis national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she hoped that with the rotation of the guard, we would be able to play faster, more athletically, with more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And as a result, she wanted to have post players who could push the tempo, who could facilitate and kind of adapt to a ball-handling mentality, passing from the track point.”

However, Thomas did not expect to put on an American jersey this year. “shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe his reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just taken my name off it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example – very successful, it turns out – of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the United States national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get comments like, oh, this is political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And that’s not true.

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