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Ex-Centennial High star beats odds, makes WNBA roster

Making a WNBA roster might be one of the most difficult things to do in sports.

The 36 players drafted every year face an uphill battle during training camp to claim a spot and fulfill the dream of playing in the league.

Former Centennial High School star Sam Thomas wasn’t even one of them. She went undrafted.

But Thomas, a 6-foot wing who played at Arizona, beat the odds. She made the Phoenix Mercury’s opening day roster in May and has appeared in seven games, scoring her first basket — and only one of the season — May 29 against the Atlanta Dream.

“I’m grateful for every moment I have here,” she said. “It’s been amazing. I’ve been loving every second of it.”

The 12-team WNBA has 144 available roster spots — assuming all the teams carry a full 12-player roster.

It’s far from a guarantee.

In 2020, the league and players’ association signed a new collective bargaining agreement that increased player salaries. But these new contracts make it difficult for most teams to stay within the salary cap.

Several teams, including the Aces, chose to enter the season with 11 players to maneuver around the salary cap. Nineteen of the 36 players drafted this year were waived before the start of the season, though some have caught on with other teams.

Thomas never heard her name called despite a successful career at Arizona, where she helped lead the Wildcats to the 2021 NCAA Tournament championship game, the first in school history.

Her connections to Arizona got her into the Mercury’s training camp. Along with her coach, Adia Barnes, Thomas reached out to several teams about signing with them as an undrafted free agent before the draft. The Mercury said they were interested if she wasn’t selected.

Thirty minutes after the draft ended, Thomas got a call from Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard, asking her to attend training camp.

“Phoenix was where I wanted to be,” said Thomas, a defensive stalwart who made the Pac-12 all-defensive team three consecutive seasons at Arizona.

The Las Vegas native admitted it was intimidating entering training camp. Playing with WNBA stars Skylar Diggins-Smith, Tina Charles and Diana Taurasi was overwhelming, but Thomas said she tried to take things one day at a time.

Consistency always has been Thomas’ approach. Karen Weitz, who coached Thomas at Centennial, said it’s one of her best qualities — along with her defense and 3-point shooting. Nygaard agreed and said Thomas’ work ethic went a long way toward earning her a roster spot.

Thomas found out she had made the roster two days before the Mercury made their final cuts and immediately contacted her family to share the news. Her father, Derek, said watching his daughter’s hard work be rewarded has been incredible.

“It was a very emotional moment for all of us,” he said.

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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