April 30, 2022
2022 WNBA season preview: Connecticut Sun
The Sun will finally have an opportunity to see the potential of a fully healthy superstar trio of DeWanna Bonner, Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas
Their roster is almost the same, but the Connecticut Sun will look much different this year as they look to finally win their first title.
With fan-favorite Courtney Williams back in Connecticut after two seasons with the Atlanta Dream and Alyssa Thomas fully healthy after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury, the Sun now have six All-Stars, and the expectations to match.
The Sun have been on the precipice of the franchise’s first WNBA title since 2019. But they’re no longer the scrappy upstarts being overlooked (and #disrespeCTed). They dominated the league for much of last season and brought back Jonquel Jones, the reigning MVP and possibly the best player. Winning a championship is an expectation.
The Sun will finally have an opportunity to see the potential of a fully healthy superstar trio of DeWanna Bonner, Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas – one that was first imagined as a response to getting so close to the coveted first championship after the 2019 season.
But the Sun have the added benefit of an evolved Brionna Jones, who has morphed into a steady low-post presence in those two years, and a dynamic rebounding guard in Williams, who helped fuel the team’s run to the 2019 Finals appearance the last time she was on the team.
“This is the first season where you know, the vision of the team has been healthy and on the court together. So I’m just looking forward to that part,” Alyssa Thomas said. “I can’t wait to distribute the ball to DB, Courtney, and JJ. I’m gonna have a field day out there.”
Can the Sun speed up the pace while limiting turnovers?
The Sun were an anomaly last season. At a time when basketball is being played faster and faster, the Sun seemed to turn back the clock, posting the slowest pace in the league as they relied on their smothering defense to win.
With Courtney and Alyssa Thomas, the Sun will play faster than last year, when they focused on pushing the ball inside to Bri Jones and Jonquel Jones on offense.
“With Courtney back, I think our style of play is going to change,” Jones said. “We’re going to be able to get up and down the floor faster and it’s going to be another way that we can be successful.”
Alyssa Thomas consistently ranks at or near the top of the league in steals and rebounds. She’ll create fast break opportunities on defense and thrives as a playmaker in the open court. And Williams’ speed made her a good fit alongside Thomas in the break the last time they played together in 2019.
“Last year, we didn’t look to push tempo off the steals or off of rebounds like that,” Alyssa Thomas said. “Now with (Courtney) and myself being back, we’re gonna go. Courtney likes to get out; I like to get out and go. Now, it just adds to what our defense has already been doing. And now we’re going to be able to put a few more points on the board.”
But limiting their own turnovers will be a key if the Sun want to capitalize on those extra possessions. Even with the slowest pace in the league last season, the Sun had the second-most turnovers. It’s been a major focus throughout training camp, as players have been called out for being sloppy with the ball or not making open shots in transition.
Of the Sun’s starters last season, only Briann January – now with the Seattle Storm – gave up fewer than two turnovers a game. Jasmine Thomas said the players know they need to be sharper and be accountable for their mistakes to meet their expectations and win a championship.
“It’s really just up to us making smart plays, playing fast without being rushed, and really still making good decisions,” Jasmine Thomas said.
Jasmine Thomas said the Sun found success playing through their All-Star frontcourt, and they want to keep feeding the paint this year. But they also want more opportunities on offense.
“We’ve had success in the past with that too, really getting more possessions, playing good defense, turning people over,” Jasmine Thomas said. “So we’re just trying to blend both games together.”
Miller said picking up the pace starts with the team’s defense creating more offensive opportunities. Defense is still the team’s identity, and Miller said that starts with being efficient on offense and giving the other team fewer opportunities to attack.
How does the backcourt fit into the Sun’s identity?
January was the only player from last year’s team to leave in free agency. It will be impossible to replace her defensive tenacity, but bringing Williams back gives the Sun an electric scorer, which they seemed to miss during the semifinals last season.
Miller said it’s rare to find players who can consistently create their own offense when a play breaks down, and Williams is one of the best. That’s something the Sun has lacked since she left for Atlanta.
And Williams might not be the relentless on-ball defender that January is, but she’s no slouch. And she grabbed more rebounds than any guard each of the last two seasons – which will be key to the Sun’s success.
“She puts the ball in the basket, but she’s also developed her game,” Jasmine Thomas said of Williams. “She’s always been a rebounder. She’s always been a transition/fast break player, but she’s also making plays and assisting. When things are getting harder for her to get her shots up – people are trapping her or doing different things – she’s able to find that next-level pass.”
Williams will be suspended for the first two games against the New York Liberty in Barclays and the LA Sparks in the Sun home opener.
It will be another chance for Natisha Hiedeman to step up and get the Sun rolling from the start, like when she helped power the team to a 2-0 start while Jasmine Thomas was finishing up overseas last season.
Training camp last year was crucial in helping Hiedeman grow as a leader, and she’s taken another step this year as she led the first four practices at the point. She’s another ball handler to go along with Jasmine Thomas and Alyssa Thomas, and her speed and ability to hit catch-and-shoot threes will help the Sun push in transition.
Miller has been impressed with Hiedeman in camp this year as she continues to develop her game and on-court leadership. Early on in camp, Miller praised her leadership and said her assist-to-turnover ratio was “off the charts” in practice.
Hiedeman has made her mark so far from behind the three-point line, leading the team in threes while providing a spark off the bench last season. And the Sun will need her to keep that up to give their frontcourt more space this season.
“Whatever my role is, it don’t matter. I’m ready to do what I’ve got to do. Whether that’s coming off the bench or starting,” Hiedeman said. “Whatever I have to do, I’m already prepared for it.”
With Bonner missing all of training camp this season, second-year wing DiJonai Carrington and third-year guard/forward Kaila Charles have gotten more of an opportunity to take a leadership role in camp while also showing how they’ve developed since last season — Carrington will earn those minutes though, as Charles was waived on May 2.
Carrington will instead play alongside the Sun’s first-round pick, Nia Clouden. Clouden was the team’s top target going into the draft night, and the coaching staff has complimented her pace, shooting, and work ethic. Clouden also doubles as an additional ball-handling option, while Carrington provides a more physical presence on defense.
Clouden said she’s been trying to focus on defense in camp since the Sun play a different scheme than what she’s used to from Michigan State. However, as much as Miller emphasizes defense, he’s excited about what Clouden brings on offense, and Clouden said she feels like she’s gotten better at fitting into the Sun’s system as camp has progressed.
“I feel like I’ve gotten better at just being someone who can space the floor and attack the defense a couple of different ways, whether it’s just like spotting up and shooting or getting to the basket or trying to draw fouls,” Clouden said.
Carrington’s experience with the team and leadership could give her an advantage. She said leadership isn’t about how old she is. She already understands the concepts and philosophies the Sun are trying to implement from being on the team last season, and that’s allowed her to step up as a leader, she said.
“Definitely trying to let my own game shine, but I also want to help those around me,” Carrington said. “So whenever they have questions or just want to make sure that they know what they’re doing before they go on the court, I’m always there. Because I know that was definitely needed for me last year when I was a first-year in training camp.”
What does a superstar frontcourt look like on the floor?
Even playing at a faster pace, the Sun’s offense runs through its frontcourt stars. The Sun have waited two years to finally play with Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna, and Bri Jones at the same time.
With the reigning MVP and three other All-Stars, the Sun’s frontcourt still has a major question mark – how will they all fit into the same lineup?
“I think last season, we did play a lot of pound’em ball, which made it easy for the defense to key in on JJ and Bri,” Alyssa Thomas said. “This year is going to be crucial to get the tempo up and find them easier touches where they’re not having to bang and make tough shots. So spacing will be crucial.”
The spacing could be a concern with the frontcourt. Alyssa Thomas and Bri Jones aren’t threats to shoot from outside, though Jones has been willing to take the occasional long two-pointer and hit a three in the preseason game against Atlanta — and Thomas’ ability to make plays and hit floaters will keep defenses honest.
The Sun will have to find out if that’s enough for all four to play significant stretches simultaneously or if they’ll have to work out more of a rotation. Bonner and Thomas are both playmakers from the wing, but one of them would effectively be the two guard if all four were on the court at the same time.
The Sun would also have to figure out who is best to play alongside those four. Hiedeman was a great spot-up shooter last season and could space the floor. She could be a good complement to Alyssa Thomas, who can take on a point-forward role — and who Hiedeman called the best facilitating four in the league.
But Alyssa Thomas said she doesn’t need the ball to make an impact.
“I’m an IQ player. So for me, it’s about setting screens, getting to the right spots,” she said. “I don’t need the ball in my hands all the time. If Courtney’s got the ball in her hands, or Jas got the ball in her hands, I’m gonna set a great screen to get them open. And who knows, I might even get me open.”
The Big Four’s chemistry should help, even if they haven’t all played much together on the Sun – but they won’t have the benefit of figuring it out in training camp, as Bonner is still playing in the Turkish League playoffs and will miss the start of the season.
The Sun do at least have some time to emphasize a trio of Bri Jones, Jonquel Jones, and Alyssa Thomas. Bri Jones took major leaps in 2020 without Jonquel Jones and 2021 without Alyssa Thomas – but the three don’t have much experience playing together since Bri Jones took a step up into an All-Star level player.
The Sun’s preseason game against the Atlanta Dream on Sunday, May 1, allowed Miller to see his three stars on the floor at the same time in live game action. All three started the game and played nearly the entire third quarter together before Jonquel Jones was taken out with her third personal foul with three minutes left in the quarter.
Miller said they’ll need to work out the kinks of how the three players work together offensively, but their physicality allows them to do it.
“Those are three really, really talented players and it’s our job, players and coaches, to figure out how to put the best players on the floor together, and those three are three of our best players,” Miller said. “It will be a work in progress, but I look forward to that fun challenge and the evolution of it throughout the season.”
While all three have not had much time to play together at once in-game action, they’re all familiar with playing alongside each other. Bri Jones and Thomas were a dominant pair for USK Praha overseas and are just coming off a 3-0 sweep in the Czech league championship; the Joneses shared the floor effortlessly last season, and the last time Jonquel and Alyssa teamed up at full strength was in the 2019 WNBA finals.
“Our chemistry is there as a group that’s played together for so long. Everything just (feels) seamless,” Jones said. “We’re talking, we’re communicating, and you can really feel that we know each other and we know where each other likes the ball, how we move on defense, all of that. That feels good. So I’m excited about it. And I just feel like we’re in such a good spot that when we really start clicking, we’re going to give a lot of teams problems.”