Kayla Thornton: Ready To Fly High With the Wings
By Dorothy J. Gentry
Anyone else would have quit.
Given up. Thrown in the towel. Shot up the deuces.
But not Kayla Thornton.
If anything, the struggle she endured on her way to the W helped make her into who she is today: a WNBA player on the verge of a breakout year. And when the Dallas Wings training camp opened on Sunday, Thornton entered with a laser-focus and the chance to emerge both as a leader on the team and as one of the new faces of the W.
In fact, she was the last player on the floor long after practice was over, still practicing and putting up shots. She knows the time is now. She knows the opportunity lies before her to take her game to the next level.
All because she didn’t give up.
“It’s been a long road. I can’t be more blessed and grateful to even go through this,” Thornton said shortly after arriving home last month from overseas in Korea where she had just helped the KB Stars win the WKBL Championship.
“Going through it made me into the person I am today,” Thornton continued. “Coming out of college, not getting drafted, getting picked up by Washington and being cutting twice was a blessing. If I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Where she is today is on the precipice of stardom in the W. Today she is a champion, having averaged 26.7 points and 10.6 rebounds a game in the final series of the KB Stars’ season and posting a 29-point, 14 rebound double-double in the last game. The El Paso, Texas native was also named Player of the Year, Import Player of the Year and First-Team All-Korea by Asia-Basket.com.
“I’m blessed that I’m able to do what I’m capable of doing to go out there and perform,” Thornton said. That’s my professional first championship and it opened my eyes to what I am capable of doing.”
“Now, I just want to translate all of this over to the W.” Now she'll have her chance.
Thornton, heading into her fourth WNBA season, started 32 of last year’s games for the Wings. With the uncanny ability to guard any position on the floor for the Wings, she averaged 9.2 points and 4.0 rebounds, all career-high marks, while shooting a career-best 44.7 percent from the field and 86.0 from the foul line. Her efforts were a key reason the Wings made the playoffs. She set career marks in field goals made, three-pointers made, free throws made, total rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and minutes played.
Not bad for a player who went undrafted out of the University of Texas at El Pason in 2015; was picked up by the Washington Mystics, barely saw any playing time and was cut – twice – and then missed an entire season (2016) after being cut from the San Antonio Stars (now Las Vegas Aces) training camp roster.
“My mom said He (God) didn’t have a place for me there in Washington when I got cut,” Thornton said. “It was hard on me at first but people in my corner, my mom (a preacher), were like, ‘God is not done with you yet.
“Even though one door closes, he opens up another,” she said. “This is your destiny, they said. Yes it hurt, but just being cut lit a fire in me and ever since then, it’s been lit.
“I remind myself of it so I won’t get relaxed. I haven’t done anything yet.”
Despite the adversity, she eventually got an opportunity to work out with the Wings and the rest, they say, is history.
One person excited to see how Thornton evolves this season is new Head Coach Brian Agler.
“Kayla comes into the league in a different way than a lot of people do,” Agler said. “Most come in drafted, but she came in the backdoor, the hard way; going to training camps, making teams, getting cut…When you go through that and persevere, that says a lot about her character.
“A lot of people wouldn’t have pushed like she did,” Agler continued. “It shows a lot of character. I think Kayla can be a good leader for us through her actions. As a player she has extended her 3-point range, she can put the ball on the floor, she’s a unique defender. She’s the type of player that fits well with what I like to do as a coach.”
While taking a couple of weeks break since coming from Korea and before heading to Dallas, Thornton shared a few thoughts about the upcoming season.
On making her mark this season: “I’m not big with the spotlight. My work ethic speaks for me. I plan on coming in and being more vocal but by what I do – that will speak for itself.”
On her expectations for the team: “Working toward a championship, but with a new coach and staff, there will be some rebuilding. First, getting the chemistry together with the team and making it to the next level of the playoffs; finding our identity and taking it from there and taking it game by game.
On what she focused on during off-season: “I worked on being more of a ball handler, more shooting.”
On her 2019 season goals: “I want to make the All-Defensive Team. I didn’t get it last year so this is one of my main goals this season.”
On playing overseas: “It’s an unfortunate part of the game (that) we have to go out to earn extra money because we don’t make enough. Wherever the opportunity is, I will go and ask God to guide me.”
On playing for a new coach: “With the new coaching staff I’m excited to see what they have in store, what’s up next for the team.”
Thornton said this season many players will have to take on more responsibility. “With what we are going through, a lot of us will have to step up and fill those roles we had last year that we don’t have this year,” she said. “Being resilient will play a major part. If things don’t work out, we gotta keep pushing and pushing and stick to the little basics that our coach will have us do. This will mold us and help keep us together.”
The 2019 WNBA season could be a big breakout year for Thornton. And to think, she wouldn’t be here today, if she had given up when adversity struck.
“It all made me mentally strong,” Thornton said of her unorthodox entry into the W. “I have love for the game and my passion is there to grow as a player and broaden my game. My faith got me through.
“I had to be patient and let Him guide me,” she said. “At times things didn’t look right and it was taking so long. Now I’m seeing the results.
“I’m thankful for Coach Fred (Williams – former Wings coach) and Greg (Bibb – Wings President and CEO), giving me a chance and bringing me in to try out.
I’m thankful for them seeing something in me that other folks didn’t see.”