May 24, 2022 

Connecticut Sun Notebook: Quick new offense continues to roll; how Sun can adjust without Jasmine Thomas

Mental Health Awareness Month continues at Mohegan Sun

On Friday, Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller said this season’s Sun’s roster was deeper than it has been since he became head coach. Two days later, the team lost their captain for the season.

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Jasmine Thomas went down after colliding with Alaina Coates as she drove to the rim for a routine layup in the Sun’s win over the Indiana Fever on Sunday. She immediately clutched her right knee after hitting the ground, and stayed on the ground until the referees called the next play dead.

Thomas was able to walk off the floor with the help of Sun head athletic trainer Nicole Alexander, but an MRI on Monday confirmed the worst – Thomas tore the ACL in her right knee and will miss the rest of the 2022 season, the Sun said in a news release.

It will be the first time the reliable Thomas will miss time for injury in her 12-year WNBA career, according to the Sun. She has played in 358 games, missing only seven due to overseas commitments, rest and a family commitment, the team said.

“Of course, I’m sad that I won’t be able to continue playing on the court with this special team,” Thomas said in the Sun’s news release. “Everyone has been supportive and uplifting, and I’m just preparing mentally and emotionally to attack my recovery. I will continue to be a vocal leader and support my team from the sidelines. They’re incredible and I’m excited about what they’re going to achieve.”

In five games this season, Thomas averaged 6.6 points, 3 assists and 2.2 rebounds as she took on less of a scoring role. Losing Thomas and her playmaking and defensive intensity leaves a massive hole in the lineup.

Not only will the Sun miss her ability on the court, but she is the team’s veteran voice and brings poise and leadership. It’s a huge blow for a team that finally got a glimpse of their potential with a fully healthy lineup last week. 

“Saddened and disappointed for Jas,” head coach Curt Miller said in the release. “She has been the epitome of an iron woman throughout her career. We will support her throughout her recovery and continue to lean on her leadership lens from the sideline. We look forward to having her back on the court in the future.”

Before Thomas’ injury, Miller called this year’s squad the deepest team he’s had in Connecticut yet. That depth will be tested as the Sun gets set to adjust – again – to missing one of their key players.

“The obvious is we could be down to 10 for the season, and it’s a really, really difficult footprint to play all season with 10,” Miller said after Sunday’s game. “But we’ll pivot and do whatever we need to, to continue to put our players in position to be successful.”

With Brionna Jones as one of the most dangerous sixth women in the league, fourth-year guard Natisha Hiedeman continuing to rip from the perimeter and in the fast break, and second year guard DiJonai Carrington bringing energy and aggressiveness off the bench, the Sun have scored at least 25 bench points in their last three games.

Hiedeman has been impressive for the Sun off the bench, averaging career highs in points (8.4), assists (3.6), and steals (1.8). And while the first five games is a small sample size, Hiedeman’s assist to turnover ratio ranks sixth overall in the league. 

While Hiedeman excels in creating her shot off the ball, she seems like a natural replacement at the point while Jasmine Thomas is out. Miller has called Hiedeman the team’s best ball screen point guard, and said her defense continues to improve every year.

While it seems less likely in this scenario, Carrington already started the first two games when the Sun without DeWanna Bonner and Courtney Williams. Miller could also decide to start Carrington in order to have a physical off-ball defender in the backcourt to lighten the blow of losing Jasmine Thomas’ defense, with a guard like Hiedeman or Williams running the point, keeping Brionna Jones as the first player off the bench — a role she’s excelled at so far.

The Sun brought Williams back to play the two-guard alongside Thomas, but she also has the ability to pick up for some of the playmaking the Sun are losing with Thomas out. Williams averaged 4 assists per game last season in Atlanta, and 3.8 per game in her last season with Connecticut in 2019 – both top 15 in the league.

Rookies Yvonne Anderson and Nia Clouden are also capable of running the offense, but have the least time off the bench this year – Anderson has played 37 total minutes in three games, while Clouden has tallied 39 minutes in four appearances this year.

However, Anderson finished Sunday’s game against the Fever with a career-high nine points in 18 minutes after filling in for Thomas. Even without Thomas, Anderson helped keep Fever star Kelsey Mitchell at bay for the rest of the game, holding one of the league’s top scorers to just five points on the night – a different scene from Connecticut’s first meeting with Indiana where Mitchell erupted for 19 points in the fourth quarter alone.

“She plays with poise. She plays with maturity. She doesn’t get sped up for the most part, and you can tell she’s a seasoned pro. It may not have been in this league and she’s biding her time to earn this opportunity finally in this league, but there’s a poise about her and a competitiveness,” Miller said after her performance on Sunday. “That was the loudest applause in our locker room after the game – when we talked about Yvonne’s defense tonight, and she also ran the offense. One of the reasons we kept an extra point guard was her veteran leadership, her poise. We never like to see an injury, but we’re very fortunate to have Yvonne Anderson on our roster right now.”

Hiedeman, Anderson, and the rest of the backcourt will have a tall task in defending the Dallas Wings’ leading scorers Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey when Dallas visits Mohegan Sun Arena for a back-to-back series at home.

The Sun enter the first game of a home-and-home series against Dallas on a four-game win streak and the second best record in the league, but the Wings also look improved from an up and down season last year. With a 4-2 record, the Wings are coming off two wins scoring 94 points. Even more impressive, Dallas has averaged an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions)  of 113.8 in their four wins on the season. By comparison, the Sun have averaged an offensive rating of 105.4 across their four wins.

And for the most part, the Sun are sticking to what they know best – taking over the paint and rebounding. But they have also found ways to cash in on their opponents’ mistakes. The Sun are forcing a league high 21 turnovers a game – which includes a franchise record 32 turnovers in their second game against the Liberty – and have scored at least 25 points off turnovers in their last three games. (Last season, the Sun scored at least 25 points off turnovers only four times during the regular season.)

After a slow ease into the schedule with only five games played since their season started on May 7, they are now on the third game of a nine game stretch in a 17-day span. By the end of the extended stretch in early June, more than a third of the regular season will be over.

“It’s one game at a time and it’s a lot about our preparation. Not on the court — It’s film prep, it’s sleep, it’s nutritional choices. It’s all those other things that we’re trying to make good choices, to try to differentiate us when we’re gonna get ready to play this really difficult stretch of games,” Miller said.

Alyssa Thomas dominates, earns Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) during the WNBA game between the Indiana Fever and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 20, 2022. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Alyssa Thomas has wasted no time re-establishing herself as one of the league’s best players. She earned her fifth career player of the week award after leading the Sun to a 3-0 record between May 16 and May 22nd, averaging 15.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 3.0 steals a game.

Thomas has been nothing short of dominant in her return to full strength on the court from an achilles injury after missing all but six games last season. In five games, Thomas ranks top five in the league in scoring with 19.0 points per game (5th), steals (2nd), two-point attempts (1st) and free-throw attempts (1st). Her 19.0 points and 2.8 steals per game and 60.7 field goal percentage would all be career highs.

Thomas is known to be “the engine” that does everything for the Sun, and her versatility will be the key to unlocking the best combinations of the team’s All-Star players. Her ball handling and ability to push the pace in transition will be especially needed while Jasmine Thomas is out.

Against the Liberty last Tuesday, Miller said he had Thomas guard three different positions from Sami Whitcomb to Natasha Howard, and he considered having her guard a fourth position.

“Alyssa Thomas has been fantastic out of the gate,”  Miller said after the Liberty game on May 17th. “(She was) leading in the league in scoring and I move her position, but that just shows her versatility that she can play about anywhere on the floor.”

Fast-paced offense drops 90 points in last three games

Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner (24) drives to the basket during the WNBA game between the Indiana Fever and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 20, 2022. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The Sun are coming off a run of three straight games scoring at least 90 points, which already exceeds what the team totaled in 34 games during the regular season last year.

After Friday’s 94-85 win against the Indiana Fever at home, Miller wasn’t thrilled about the high-scoring game. Connecticut shot 43.7% on 71 attempts, but Indiana shot a season high 54.0% and outscored the Sun 42-34 in the paint.

“I want to pull my hair out offensively tonight, and we scored over 90,” Miller said during the postgame of the first match against the Fever. “We scored over 90, but we didn’t do it efficiently, and that’s where I feel frustrated as a coach that I couldn’t help them be more efficient with our offense.”

Two days later, the Sun ended their second match up against the Fever with 92 points, but looked more like themselves on defense, holding the Fever to 70 points, shooting only 34% from the field. The Sun also found their efficiency on offense, downing more than half of their shot attempts.

“We were separating more out of actions we had, you know, just better tempo that we can be successful at. So, you know, tonight’s 90 felt much better,” Miller said. “I thought we did a lot of good things offensively and really pleased with our defense.”

Going big more without Jasmine Thomas?

Even with players in and out of the starting lineup, Miller has been focused on “lineup tinkering” early in the season to figure out which lineups work best in certain scenarios. The Sun’s “big” lineup of Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones, and Brionna Jones has gotten the most starting action by virtue of DeWanna Bonner’s absence – starting the preseason game against Atlanta and all but two games.

In the two games that Bonner has played, Bonner has slid into her natural three position in the starting lineup with Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones in the front court and Brionna Jones as the sixth person off the bench.

With a full roster against the Liberty, the Sun debuted a rotation with four players all more than six feet tall with Bonner, Thomas, Jones and Jones, along with Jasmine Thomas running the point, for a few minutes in the second quarter, which gave the Liberty fits. But on Friday, Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones got less than a minute of time together on the floor because of early foul trouble for Bri Jones.

“We’re still adjusting,” Alyssa Thomas said after the team’s win against the Fever at home on Friday. “There’s a lot of different lineups at times. We’re accustomed to playing fast – last season was an exception. With the amount of talent we have, we can really get up the floor, push tempo, and anybody can score the ball so that just makes us a more dangerous team.”

Sun are spotlighting mental health awareness throughout May

The Sun celebrated Community Night on Friday, May 20 against the Indiana Fever, focusing on the importance of mental health and highlighting helpful resources in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month throughout May.

“The sports world hasn’t always gotten the mental health (aspect of being a pro athlete) right. It wasn’t talked about. It was ignored. Unfortunately, there was a stigma, and now that’s going away and I’m really pleased with the resources and commitment from our organization from the top to provide our team mental health resources,” Miller said. “It’s so important and it’s bigger than basketball. It’s bigger than our team. Mental health is a real issue and finally it’s not as taboo to talk about. We need to bring it to the forefront even more.”

Fans at Friday’s game saw a sneak peak into “Mindset,” a CBS Sports series that highlights how elite athletes prioritize their mental health as much as their physical health, and features an upcoming episode with Courtney Williams.

“When I first got into the league, I had this long hair – I did love my long hair – but it was still this idea that I had to look a certain type of way to get sponsorships or get my foot in the door,” Williams said in the clip. “Me being myself unapologetically, carrying myself the way I do, talking the way I do, it skyrocketed my mental health. I’m here, like it’s okay. It’s okay to be yourself.”

The mental health theme night also happened to kick off a brutal stretch of the schedule for the
Sun that all WNBA teams will have to go through at some point this season – nine games in 17 days with travel in tight commercial flight accommodations and few opportunities to practice in between. 

The Sun will play four of the first five games of that stretch at home on the east coast before traveling to the west coast to play three games in four days. That includes the team’s only games on back-to-back days, when they play one against the Las Vegas Aces — who hold the best record and the most dominant offense in the league right now — on June 2 and then fly to Phoenix to play the Mercury the next day.

“It’s a lot. A lot of traveling, a lot of basketball mindset, so when you do have a chance to just go to your room and just decompress, you just have your moments and just enjoy the little time that you do have,” Alyssa Thomas said on Friday. “The biggest thing is knowing your body, knowing yourself, and using your teammates as support.”

Before the Sun take on the Dallas Wings on Thursday, May 26, the team is offering a free mental health workshop in partnership with L + M Hospital from 5:30pm to 6:30p.m. The team will also be supporting women’s health by participating in a Women and Mothers Necessities Supply Drive all week for The Diaper Bank CT. Donations will be accepted at the Sun’s next three home games. Fans can donate items like diapers, formula, wipes, or sanitary products, or make a monetary donation online.

Written by Jacqueline LeBlanc

Jacqueline LeBlanc is the Connecticut Sun beat reporter for The Next. Prior to The Next, Jacqueline has written for Her Hoop Stats and Sports Illustrated.

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