El Paso’s WNBA Star Kayla Thornton Gears Up for Season in a ‘Bubble’ Setting
As she had her eyes fixated on following up her career-best season in 2019, El Paso's own Kayla Thornton found herself in unfamiliar territory when the coronavirus pandemic altered the upcoming 2020 WNBA season.
The Irvin high school grad and former Miner basketball legend found herself back in the Sun City on a hiatus from competitive basketball like she never experienced before. She stayed busy by keeping up with routine basketball drills and conditioning workouts, but nothing like a five-on-five basketball experience. At points, the 27-year-old forward of the Dallas Wings felt as if the season wouldn't happen this year.
"Our player's union and our staff worked extremely hard to get us to where we needed to be. I didn't know if we were gonna have [a season] and that would have been weird. Most of us do this year-round so it was nice to have a break but as time progressed, it was a lot to take in and now we're here," she told SportsTalk.
She's right. After discussions with the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) and the league's stakeholders, the WNBA announced a return-to-play format for late July. The league followed a similar "bubble" format as the NBA and will be holding its 12 teams out at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
The timeline will feature two weeks of training camp, a 22 regular-season schedule and a playoff format following the season. In the bubble, players will follow strict daily health screenings, housing requirements and must adhere to the safety protocols during the pandemic.
"You have to have a strong mentality," Thornton said about entering the bubble format. "If you've been overseas, you'll be okay with it and you'll understand being in a bubble, not being able to do anything you wanted. People aren't used to being confined in one location. You definitely have to have a tough mentality for the next month and a half because it's not our normal. You have grown women who have kids and just to be stuck, the first three-four weeks will be fun because it's new but after that, I'm interested to see how girls are going to respond to that. Some people struggle with depression or mental issues so it'll be interesting to see how people react to this."
Along with the new format, the WNBA aims to speak out across the league on social justice issues. The league has been working on making donations from sales of its “Bigger Than Ball” women’s empowerment merchandise to the Equal Justice Initiative.
"I think as far as our platform as women, our organization and the league has done a great job at allowing us to use this platform through the WNBA to relieve how we feel and make a voice for us," Thornton said. "It will take time. If we keep pressing and moving forward with what we're doing, something will change."
The anticipation for the season's resumption gives Thornton some excitement going into her fourth season with the Dallas Wings. The squad, which finished 10-24 last year, ended up in sixth place in the Western Conference. Thornton had her career-best season by far, though. Starting all the games at the forward position, she finished with her best numbers in minutes per game (30.4), points (10.4), rebounds (5.3) and free throw percentage (93.1%).
"Last season was a blessing and there will be things this season that I need to improve on," Thornton said. "I'm excited, especially with the new format that we aren't used to."
Regular-season matchups and dates are expected to be announced soon by the WNBA. For Thornton, returning to action will help provide a perfect outlet for everything going on in the world.
"I think it's really important," she said on the resumption of play. "For many people, basketball is an outlet. Coming back to play gives us a stress reliever that we can play."