January 8, 2023
2023 WNBA free agency preview: Connecticut Sun
Darius Taylor and Stephanie White have a new vision for the Connecticut Sun future and it starts with free agency
After a disappointing loss in the WNBA finals, a head coaching change and a front office shakeup, the Connecticut Sun still have two MVP-level players hungry for their first championship and the team is looking to add a few pieces to complement them rather than go into a full rebuild.
The Sun have been one of the most dominant and consistent groups over the last few seasons and morphed into a defensive juggernaut under former head coach Curt Miller. But the offense, dominated by four All-Star frontcourt players, often struggled to create space for Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas to work and became stagnant when opponents double — and triple—teamed them in the post.
Stephanie White, a self-described offensive-minded coach, wants to take the Sun in a different direction, swapping grit and grind for a fast-paced offense with guards who shoot threes and open up the paint for Jones and Thomas to get easier looks.
The front office, including new general manager Darius Taylor and Sun president Jen Rizzotti, have both echoed their support for the new direction.
The Sun head into free agency with most of its core intact for 2023 — which includes Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas — but White and Taylor know there’s a piece of the puzzle that’s missing and will spend their first offseason together trying to find it.
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“We have things in place and now it’s time to really kind of focus on what those pieces are that are going to get us over the hump and to win a title,” Taylor said. “That’s the short-term goal and the long-term goal. We want to be in a position to continue to contend for a title and build out a roster that not only answers to now but also is set up to be successful in the future.”
Connecticut Sun free agent outlook
- Brionna Jones – center
- Courtney Williams – guard
- Bria Hartley – guard
- Odyssey Sims – guard
- Natisha Hiedeman (restricted free agent – Connecticut can match any team’s offer) – guard
- Joyner Holmes (reserved free agent – Holmes can only negotiate with Connecticut) – forward
Players signed for 2023
- Jonquel Jones (protected) – forward
- Alyssa Thomas (protected) – forward
- DeWanna Bonner (protected) – forward/guard
- Jasmine Thomas (protected) – guard
- DiJonai Carrington – guard
- Nia Clouden – guard
- Kiara Smith – guard
- The Sun have Smith’s rights after drafting her in the 3rd round last season and could extend her a training camp invite. She spent all last year rehabbing an ACL injury sustained at the end of her college career. Although Miller drafted Smith, he was very high on her potential before her injury and planned on having her in camp in 2023.
Here are the three biggest questions for the Sun as they approach free agency.
Who can improve the team’s three-point shooting?
This is the primary emphasis for the Sun this offseason. White and the front office agree that the Sun need to shift to a more modern style of play — and Rizzotti has pointed to the nearby Boston Celtics as inspiration.
The Sun weren’t bad at shooting threes last season — they converted 35.4 percent from deep, good for third in the league. But they attempted only 18 a game and made only 6.4 per game, the second-fewest in the league. That is what White wants to change.
Natisha Hiedeman was the team’s best and most reliable perimeter shooter last season, so it would be hard to imagine the front office letting her go. Hiedeman could draw interest from other teams after the best season in her career so far, but she’s a restricted free agent, so the Sun have the right to match another team’s offer sheet and prevent her from leaving. Still, another team with more cap space could make an offer that would force the Sun to make a difficult decision.
Retaining Hiedeman is a start, but the Sun will need to bring in new shooters to accomplish White’s vision. One possible option is shooting guard Sami Whitcomb, who is entering her seventh season in the WNBA as a free agent after spending the last two years with the New York Liberty.
Her three-point stats dipped last year after she led the league with 2.5 makes per game in 2021. But she was still one of the best perimeter shooters on the best three-point shooting team in the league and has a career average of 36.8 percent behind the arc. She’ll likely have multiple suitors this January, but the Sun could make a compelling pitch that she’s the missing piece for a Finals run.
The Sun could also look at Lexie Brown or Rachel Banham, both drafted to the Sun by Curt Miller. Neither was a major contributor during their time in Connecticut, but are coming off career seasons after finding larger roles on different teams.
Both averaged 1.6 made threes a game and Brown ranked in the top 15 in the league with nearly 40 percent shooting from deep. A new coach preaching a fast-paced offense with an emphasis on outside shooting could entice one of them to return.
Former UConn Husky Kia Nurse didn’t play last season after tearing her ACL during the 2021 WNBA Finals, which could make her a high-risk, high-reward signing for the Sun. She’s never been an efficient shooter but has shown flashes — shooting 45.5 percent from deep in the 2021 postseason for the Mercury. For the right price, she could bring veteran depth to the Sun bench.
Moriah Jefferson is another interesting free-agent guard who showed major improvements in a new environment last season after joining the Minnesota Lynx. She started every game she played for the Lynx as their point guard and led the Lynx with 4.9 assists per game but she also showed she could be a decent scorer with 10.8 points per game on 45% shooting. She was the Lynx’s most efficient perimeter shooter, with a 47.4% clip throughout the regular season.
Jefferson also has a connection to the Sun’s newest assistant general manager — Morgan Tuck — who she played alongside for four years at UConn. As assistant GM, Tuck will be one of the Sun’s main decision-makers this offseason and Taylor and Rizzotti will lean on her to be a bridge between the players and the front office.
Could the Sun’s salary cap crunch lead to a big-time trade?
Darius Taylor knows the Sun don’t have a lot of flexibility in terms of their salary cap. Without getting into specifics, he said at his introductory press conference that the front office would discuss ways to “maneuver” around the cap constraints.
The team’s four protected contracts alone is nearly $1 million, according to Her Hoop Stats, and will have $436,313 to sign at least five additional players. That’s about $87,000 per player with what remains (a 3-year veteran minimum contract will be $74,305 for comparison). That’s enough to perhaps get by on filling out the bench with young players and low-cost veterans, but if the Sun want to make a bigger change this offseason, they’ll have to get creative.
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How Connecticut approaches Brionna Jones’ free agency will drive everything with the Sun’s offseason. If the Sun want to keep the two-time All-Star, reigning Sixth Woman of the Year and their most efficient offensive player, they’ll likely have to pay her something in the orbit of a maximum contract.
That would mean trading someone away. With the Sun’s new regime’s desire to find more balance and rely less on an overpowered frontcourt, that decision could come down to choosing between MVP candidates Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones.
Jonquel Jones is the 2021 MVP, who can dominate any opponent in the paint and shoot like a guard, while Thomas is a high-octane Swiss army knife who ended last season as a triple-double machine.
If the Sun really wants to win this year, it’s hard to see them parting with either player. But if the front office sees a future without one of them and gets a good offer, the ability to keep one of the best centers in the league could be a reason to cut ties now.
An MVP candidate on the trading block would likely require many assets in return. Tiffany Hayes can only negotiate with the Atlanta Dream now. But if the Dream — who knows new Sun general manager Darius Taylor very well — and Hayes decide to part ways, a sign-and-trade to the Sun could be an intriguing option. The Dream could offer young players like Aari McDonald or Naz Hillmon and the third and eighth picks in the draft to make the trade more appealing to the Sun.
It’s been reported that Dallas is interested in moving Allisha Gray this offseason, who is due $169,900 this year. She’s been the Wings’ most consistent player throughout recent seasons and really shined as a three-and-d playmaker last season. Would a package of Gray, Marina Mabrey and draft picks be enough in return?
The Sun could also explore less dramatic trades to find a sharpshooting guard. Under Miller, the Sun were willing to trade late first-round picks for impact players — most notably trading two first-rounders for Bonner.
The Sun aren’t likely to find a player who will make an impact right away with the tenth pick in the draft. Still, they might be able to use it to secure a more proven player like Sophie Cunningham — who made 2.5 threes a game at a 40 percent clip last season but is a restricted free agent for the Phoenix Mercury. Mabrey, who made 1.8 threes a game, shooting 35.1 percent last season, is another RFA the Sun might be able to trade a draft pick for.
An unconventional option could be Han Xu, the 6’9 center from China, who is a reserved free agent and can only negotiate with the Liberty. Depending on how New York’s free agency plans go, they could decide to flip the young center for draft picks. She won’t solve the Sun’s backcourt shooting concerns, but she’s proven to be a serviceable backup center with a solid three-point shot. Han playing alongside 6’6 Jonquel Jones, one of the best shooting bigs in the game, would be a matchup nightmare for the rest of the league.
Which guard fills out the starting lineup?
As the Sun’s roster stands right now, they’ll need a starting shooting guard to start alongside Jasmine Thomas, Bonner, Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones round out the rest of the starting five.
That job last year belonged to Williams, but her affinity for the mid-range game may not be a fit for White’s offense and could persuade the Sun to look in a different direction this season.
If Hiedeman returns, she seems like the natural answer to start. She improved her decision-making and defense, filling in as the Sun’s starting point guard last year. With her fiance Jasmine Thomas returning from injury as the Sun’s floor general, Hiedeman could slide back to her natural position and focus on shooting.
Carrington took a big step forward as a spark off the bench last season, bringing energy and athleticism on defense and in transition, but she still shot just 30.6 percent from deep. Unless Carrington shows major strides in Athletes Unlimited and training camp, she’ll likely continue to develop as a role player.
Clouden was drafted 12th overall last year as the Sun’s combo guard of the future. A dynamic scorer in college, Clouden didn’t see much playing time in her rookie year. While she shot 41.4 percent from three and may be a better fit in White’s offense than in Miller’s, she hasn’t shown enough yet to take the starting spot.
It’s possible the starting shooting guard isn’t on the team yet. Not known for her defense, Whitcomb came off the bench for the Liberty for the majority of last season. But with Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones and Bonner holding down the Sun’s defense, she could fit into the starting lineup as a three-point specialist.
Cunningham and Mabrey would also likely compete for that starting spot if the Sun brought either one in. Any of them starting would make the versatile Hiedeman the first player off the bench. She could sub out either starting guard and run point for the bench squad.