From the WABA to France to the WNBA, Shakayla Thomas Is Seizing Her Second Chances
The former Florida State All-American is battling for a roster spot with the Las Vegas Aces
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Three years ago, Shakayla Thomas hopped off the plane at LAX with a dream: make the Los Angeles Sparks’ opening-day roster.
“Wow, I’m really here,” she recalled telling herself when the plane landed. “I'm really about to be here for however long … This is setting in that now it's really time to get to work.”
The Sparks drafted Thomas at No. 23 in 2018, which was a little lower than she had expected but a selection she was grateful for nonetheless. Thomas was a three-time All-American at Florida State and left the program ranked second all-time in career points with 1,971. As a senior, she averaged 17.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field.
Playing alongside All-Stars Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike, Thomas made it to the final day of the Sparks’ training camp before getting cut. Until a few weeks ago, that was the end of her WNBA story.
But three years later, after two stints playing overseas and the birth of her son Kashton, Thomas signed a training camp contract with the Las Vegas Aces and is currently competing for a roster spot.
Thomas told Her Hoop Stats that her best skill is her ability to attack off the dribble, and she often uses her quickness to get jump shots near the free-throw line or take one dribble and pull up. She has long been known for her athleticism—her high school coach said she could touch the backboard as a sixth-grader, and despite standing just 5-foot-11, she was able to dunk as a junior in high school. But she has expanded her game considerably since college, including by developing a 3-point shot and working on her ball-handling.
“I think in college she relied solely on the athleticism,” Aces general manager Dan Padover told Her Hoop Stats. “[But] over the past few years, she's tried to teach herself to play on the perimeter a little more, especially defensively, and also tried to stretch the game offensively … She's definitely a little more well-rounded.”
That process of expanding her game started in Israel, where she played for Maccabi Raanana in late 2018. She averaged 12.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.3 steals through six games, but her season was cut short when she found out that she was six months pregnant.
After Kashton was born in February 2019, Thomas quickly returned to basketball. “I don't think I had a break, honestly,” she said. “… The next thing you know, I was out working out, playing. Everybody [said], ‘You can't even tell that you had a baby like three weeks ago.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know. Let's just get to work.’”
That summer, Thomas joined the Montgomery Lady Magic of the Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA), a semi-professional league based in the United States, and promptly made the All-Star team. She called the experience “probably one of the best things that ever happened to me” because it allowed her to work herself back into a rhythm of playing games; get new film of her game to send to scouts; and play in the up-tempo, free-flowing style that the WABA is known for.
Yet she decided to take the next year off from playing professionally in order to raise Kashton, despite her agent’s warning that it would be difficult to get another contract if she stepped away. “I just had to take a chance on it,” she said.
Thomas told reporters last week that during her year out of professional basketball, Kashton often accompanied her to the gym. The “mama’s boy” would often run up and down the court when she was playing 5-on-5, trying to stay close to her. Thomas has also been working to complete her social science degree from Florida State ever since she was drafted.
Any fears that Thomas wouldn’t be able to come back dissipated when she signed a contract to play for Toulouse in France last winter. She described the experience as one month to “kickstart where I needed to be,” and it ultimately helped her catch Padover’s eye as well as those of a few other WNBA teams.
At every stop, Thomas was determined to learn from “any person that was there”—coaches, other players and even herself. She was by herself a lot overseas, so she learned more about herself, developed her game and gradually built her confidence.
That confidence, and the experience she got in Los Angeles three years ago, could separate her from less experienced players this time around. “Some of the other training camp players that came in with me [with the Aces] were all nervous,” she said. “I'm like, ‘Y’all just have to relax, honestly. You just have to go out there and play your game.’” Padover added that it is common for players who are a few years out of college to be more confident and less nervous than newer players and that it can make a huge difference in camp.
Padover signed Thomas partly to fill a positional need in training camp and partly as a bet on the 24-year-old’s potential. The team needed another player who could play both small forward and power forward, and he and his staff had scouted her heavily back in 2018. In addition, Padover said, Thomas is “a pure athlete,” and head coach Bill Laimbeer is “a big believer in finding special athletes who could potentially do something in a camp that shows you what they're all about.”
The Aces opened training camp with nine players on protected or unprotected contracts and six players, including Thomas, who were 2021 draft picks or on training camp contracts. The Aces can afford to pay two more players if they keep all nine of the veterans on season-long contracts, and they have waived two of the six other players so far. That likely leaves Thomas battling with veteran Emma Cannon, 2021 second-round pick Destiny Slocum and 2020 third-round pick Lauren Manis for two roster spots.
Just as she did overseas, Thomas is trying to be a sponge in Las Vegas, which is an especially good approach for a player who was born a few weeks after plans for the WNBA were announced in 1996 and who would still be on her rookie contract if she had played with the Sparks since 2018. “You name it, I want to learn it,” she told the media last week. The veteran who has helped her most in that regard is six-time All-WNBA honoree Angel McCoughtry.
“She's been in my ear literally every day, all day,” Thomas told Her Hoop Stats. “We get up, we come in early, get some shots up, stretch it out, go over plays. And honestly, that's all a person really needs is somebody that actually believes in you … I really appreciate her for that because she didn't have to do it at all.”
Thomas has also warmed up to Laimbeer, who can be an intimidating presence for new and veteran players alike. “When I first met him, I was like, I might not say anything to him. He doesn't look like a nice friendly guy, so I'm just … [going to] do what I came here to do and then go about my business,” she said. “But … it's been pretty good. … He's actually helping me, giving me a chance to make it in the league and I really appreciate that.”
Meanwhile, Laimbeer has been “pleasantly surprised” by Thomas’ performance in the first week of training camp, especially after he moved her from power forward to small forward. “Her shot is better than I thought it was,” he said at the Aces’ media day on Monday. “It doesn't look ... real standard, but it goes in. And she's as strong as an ox for a [small forward] ... So that's her best shot at [making] it and she's doing a good showing for herself so far.”
Although Thomas’ ride so far sounds like a storybook, from one of the final cuts to back in a WNBA training camp, it hasn’t been easy. In addition to the physical grind of working on her game and coming back from pregnancy, she identified the uncertainty about her future in the sport and the natural tendency to overthink things as some of the biggest mental challenges. “My son is really the only thing that’s really keeping me going,” she said.
Still, she recognizes that the setbacks in her career have helped prepare her for this moment and is grateful for “all the second chances I keep getting.” She pointed to her stint in the WABA and her contract with Toulouse as crucial second chances that extended her career before she got another opportunity in the WNBA.
“When I heard about the Aces wanting me to come in, this is God giving me a second chance at another training camp,” she said, “… and I'm appreciating those second chances more than I ever have.”
If a roster spot with the Aces isn’t in the cards this season, Thomas plans to play for another French team and keep working on her game. It is uniquely challenging for players to stick in the WNBA, which has a maximum of 144 roster spots and no domestic minor league system. But if she makes it one day, it will likely be because of the energy she brings at her position, according to Padover, and the physical strength that Laimbeer highlighted.
Thomas hopes that that day is imminent and that she won’t need a third chance to achieve her WNBA dream. She has grown from a 21-year-old who had neither been to Los Angeles nor experienced the life of a professional basketball player to a 24-year-old mother with international experience and a renewed focus.
“You don't have time to second-guess … you came here to handle business, so that's exactly what you need to be doing,” she said of her mentality. “… I'm not worried about anything else, just really trying to make the team, be on somebody's roster, because again I do have a child and I need this right here.
“So I'm really just here, strong, and focused right now.”