June 24, 2023
How the Connecticut Sun are adjusting after Brionna Jones ruptures Achilles
Head coach Stephanie White opted for small ball in first game without Jones
Connecticut Sun center Brionna Jones will miss the remainder of the 2023 season after rupturing her right Achilles tendon near the end of Tuesday’s game against the Seattle Storm.
There is no timetable for Jones’ return. She had successful surgery on Friday in Seattle, the team said.
“First, I want to thank everyone who has reached out over the last few days. All of the love I’ve received has truly been a blessing as I’ve gone through this tough time,” Jones said in a statement. “While this is not how I envisioned this season ending for me, I am determined and ready to head into the next stage of recovery and rehab. I know I have an amazing support system behind me, and I will return on the other side of this stronger than ever.
“I’m definitely going to miss competing every night with this incredible group of women the most. But I am excited to see this team continue to flourish and accomplish great things this season.”
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“We are heartbroken for Breezy,” Sun head coach Stephanie White said in a statement, using Jones’ nickname. “Anyone who knows her knows she’s an amazing person, teammate and leader for our group. On the court, she has worked so hard to position herself as a cornerstone of our franchise and was playing terrific basketball. We will be here for her and lift her up as she goes through the recovery process. As a team, we know we have a job to do, and we will dedicate our work toward the ultimate goal of winning a championship in a way that honors Breezy.”
This is now the third consecutive season that the Sun have been down a starter for the majority of the season because of injury. Before that, in 2020, then-Sun forward Jonquel Jones opted out of the bubble season, so the Sun haven’t had a chance to make a run with their complete core since the 2019 Finals.
Jones’ impact before the injury
Jones, the 2021 WNBA Most Improved Player and 2022 Sixth Player of the Year, had re-signed with the Connecticut Sun this offseason as the team made Alyssa Thomas and Jones the focal points of the franchise.
The 6’3 Jones was having a career year so far this season and was essential to the Sun’s success on both ends of the floor. In 13 games, she averaged 15.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.8 steals in 31.7 minutes per game, all of which are career highs for the seventh-year pro. She led the league in offensive rebounds (3.2) at the time of her injury and was fifth in steals (1.8) per game. Her 24 total steals were already more than half of her 2022 total.
White said before the Sun’s home game against the Atlanta Dream on June 15 that she thought Jones still had another level to unlock on offense despite her impressive performances.
Jones showed shades of that level that night, scoring 21 points in the first half and ending with a season-high 26 points in the overtime loss. And Jones thought she had still another level to unlock, too, with more time getting used to the offense and building chemistry with her new teammates.
Her efficient production comes from her ability to get position and seal defenders at the rim, and she demands attention from defenses and takes up space, White said. On defense, Jones is a terrific communicator who covers up a lot of gaps.
“Her deflections don’t show up on the stat sheet. Her physicality doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, not allowing most players to get the position that they want easily, really having to work for it,” White said. “And throughout the course of the game, that wears on them, her physicality and the way that she makes them work because of her defense.”
Jones missed the Sun’s game against the Minnesota Lynx on Thursday but celebrated the team’s dominant 89-68 win over FaceTime.
Sun go small in first game without Jones
With one day to travel from Seattle to Minnesota, the Sun had to quickly adjust and find a new identity to close out a three-game road trip. They opted for a small-ball lineup in their first game without Jones on Thursday.
Jones hadn’t missed a game since an ankle injury sidelined her on Aug. 30, 2020. For several years, the Sun have been overloaded with frontcourt stars and used their strength to dominate in the paint and on the boards. But down to 6’5 second-year player Olivia Nelson-Ododa and 6’5 rookie Liz Dixon as traditional center options, White instead put 6’2 wing Rebecca Allen into the starting lineup — pushing 6’4 wing DeWanna Bonner to cover the Lynx’s centers.
The idea was to give the Sun two long, athletic wings who White hoped would be disruptive on defense and help make up for Jones’ rebounding. And with playmaking forward Thomas surrounded by four shooters, the Sun spaced the floor, making a season-high 12 3-pointers on 25 attempts. Guards Tiffany Hayes and DiJonai Carrington also capitalized on that space by attacking the rim.
Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said that the Sun had multiple straight-line drives that created open outside shots.
One of the Lynx’s few advantages was outscoring the Sun 38-26 in the paint, but Reeve said that didn’t paint the full picture. Connecticut was scoring more from outside, but attacking the paint and making plays remained the center of the Sun’s offense.
“The three-balls where there’s penetration and kick-outs, those are the hardest ones [to defend],” Reeve said. “… But they have players that can really get to the rim. Hayes is really good, and Carrington is really helpful to them.”
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Hayes may have benefited the most from the small-ball lineup, ending the night with 21 points on 50% shooting. She had struggled with early foul trouble in recent games, forcing her to the bench before she could get rolling.
But on Thursday, she sparked the Sun from the tip. She took a handoff from Allen at the top of the arc and ran her defender right into a screen from Thomas. As the nominal center, Thomas drew Lynx center Dorka Juhasz out with her. Hayes turned the corner, attacked the lane and scored one-on-one against Lynx guard Kayla McBride at the rim.
Hayes kept rolling, shooting 2-for-3 from behind the arc in the first four minutes of the game and ending the first quarter with 14 points. The Sun held a 10-point lead, and it was the start of what would be a long night for Minnesota trying to keep up with the Sun’s small lineups.
“I don’t know that there’s one person in this league that can stop Tiffany Hayes one-on-one when she gets downhill,” White said. “I thought she established herself from the opening tip of being aggressive to the rim. She got there. She made the right plays. She knocked down shots and just played with confidence.”
Sun needed collective effort and got it
White’s message for the Sun before the game was clear: making up for Jones’ impact isn’t a one-person job and would require a collective effort from the team.
“You can’t make up for that size and experience, and at the end of the day no one person is going to give us what Breezy gives us,” White said.
In Allen’s first start with the Sun, she found momentum early by grabbing an offensive rebound, walking out to the 3-point line and nailing a wide-open shot. She ended the game with eight points, four rebounds and three blocks, and her shooting and ability to protect the rim as a wing were huge in Connecticut’s small lineup.
“She played aggressive. Defensively, she was terrific. She rebounded the ball really well,” White said. “She played really active on both ends … You look at the stat sheet and you think, ‘Oh, okay, well, eight points,’ but she makes winning plays and hustle plays, and those are important.”
The entire guard group stepped up to the challenge White has given them all season to be better rebounders. Allen, Hayes, Natisha Hiedeman and Carrington combined for 18 of the team’s 40 rebounds. Hayes had a season-high six boards, and Carrington added five, including two offensive rebounds.
“We’ve really relied on Breezy and [Thomas] to clean up the defensive glass, and I felt like our guards made a concerted effort today,” White said. “Tip [Hayes] on the glass, Bec [Allen] on the glass, Nai [Carrington] on the glass all did an outstanding job, and [Natisha] and Ty [Harris] got in there as well. So for us, it was just in time and we’ve got to continue to have that.”
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Carrington had her most productive game of the season off the bench with 17 points, including a career-high three 3-pointers. Ten of her points came in the fourth quarter, when she helped hold off a garbage-time surge from the Lynx. That allowed the Sun starters to stay on the bench for some much-needed rest after a string of close games on the road. Bonner, Thomas and Hayes all ended the weeklong trip with a full quarter of rest.
Everyone off the bench saw playing time and scored, including Dixon, who played her first minutes since joining the Sun since joining on June 3. Fellow rookie Leigha Brown also scored her first WNBA points on a free throw.
Nelson-Ododa made an impact with four points, four rebounds and a team-high four assists. She also had two blocks and a steal in a season-high 19 minutes.
“Liv takes up space and even if she doesn’t block a shot, she alters shots, and defensively that’s big for us,” White said. “Anything we get from her offensively is a bonus. Our players are doing a good job of finding her when she’s rolling to the rim and when she’s sealing her position. She’s going to continue to get better.”
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The beginning of this season has been about finding out what rotations work best on the floor in different situations, and White said before Thursday’s game that she felt they had been close to figuring that out before Jones’ injury.
Now they’ll have to figure that out again for the rest of the season. They could go small, like they did on Thursday, or go bigger with Nelson-Ododa and Dixon — both of whom need more reps, White said.
“Everybody’s just got to step up,” White said. “Our margin for error is going to be a little bit smaller than it has been.”
The Sun will get their next chance to test their new rotations on Sunday, when they return home to Mohegan Sun Arena to face the Chicago Sky for the first time this season. The Sky swept the Sun in the regular season last year, but the Sun beat the Sky in the WNBA semifinals. However, the Sky have a completely different roster this season and come to Connecticut looking to snap a five-game losing streak.