June 2, 2024 

The Sun’s lockdown defender, DiJonai Carrington, got her defensive roots playing football

DiJonai Carrington’s defensive prowess is the result of athletic prowess, attention to detail – and a defensive linebacker upbringing. Her impact has been transformative for Connecticut

On opening night, a whole lot of people who hadn’t yet heard of DiJonai Carrington learned her name. That’s because Carrington, a 26-year-old guard out of Baylor, was tasked with guarding Caitlin Clark in her first-ever WNBA game. She helped force Clark to commit a franchise-record 10 turnovers, while putting together a 16-point offensive performance at the same time. 

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And in the two weeks since the season tipped off, Carrington has continued to pick up tough defensive assignments. Most recently, this involved guarding Arike Ogunbowale in a win over the Wings. 

“She was ready for this moment,” teammate Brionna Jones said. 

Last year, Carrington averaged just 17 minutes off the bench; this year, she’s averaging more than 30. While her minutes grow, she’s emerging as one of the WNBA’s most elite guard defenders. 

“It’s time,” head coach Stephanie White said of Carrington’s increased role. “The natural progression is typically between year three and four, when players make that jump. She’s played behind some really good players on teams here, she’s been that spark off the bench that we’ve needed, and now she’s called upon to do more and do it consistently.” 

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Offensively, it’s been up and down for Carrington. She is averaging a career-high 12.6 points per game, but doing so on 37.8% shooting, her lowest since her rookie season. But the team isn’t concerned about her offense, provided she’s able to maintain her elite defense. 

“The number one priority is bringing it on the defensive end of the floor, and she’s doing that,” White said. “Offensively, that’s going to continue to continue to come, and we’re fine with the offense ebbing and flowing a little bit, because we know how much we need her on the defensive end.”

On Friday night, Carrington held Arike Ogunbowale to 21 points on 8-21 shooting, including forcing multiple Ogunbowale misses in the final seconds.   

“You’re not going to stop a player like Arike,” White said. “The thing that you want to try to do is make every shot tough, and then you’ve got to live with those shots.” 

How DiJonai Carrington became an elite defender

Growing up, Carrington played football, an experience she credits with helping her become such a top-tier defender, particularly off of the ball. 

“I think that actually really helped me, playing defensive back, being able to just make reads,” she said. “In the backfield, you can see everything, you make those reads, running passing lines, and kind of read the offensive players’ eyes and things like that.” 

Her football upbringing helps provide her with the instincts and spatial awareness to be an effective defender. At the same time, she watches film on a daily basis. She works with assistant coach Brianna January to prepare for each individiual assignment

“Just trying to figure out what their tendencies are, where my body positioning needs to be in certain plays, and then trying to not necessarily memorize, but trying to know their play calls,” Carrington said of her mindset when watching film. “That’ll get better as the season progresses.”

Connecticut Sun guard-forward DiJonai Carrington (21) with Connecticut Sun Assistant Coach Briann January before the WNBA game between the Dallas Wings and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 31, 2024. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Her background playing football has been particularly helping in guarding off the ball.

“On the ball is very different than being an off ball defender,” Carrington said. “I’m just focusing on body positioning, fighting through screens, staying disciplined, staying locked in, not getting early fouls.” 

And while she’s not new to defense, the big adjustment this year has been doing so from the jump. She’s doing less of what she used to do — taking her first looks from the sidelines.

“Coming off the bench, you’re able to watch the flow of the game a little bit for the first few minutes. You can kind of see what’s working, what’s not working, with whoever you’re guarding,” Carrington said. “That’s the biggest difference. You just have to feel it out in live time, in real time, instead of being able to watch it before you go in.” 

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She’s impactful on more than just defense. Carrington is averaging 12.6 points per game — the fourth-highest on the Sun. In four of her first seven games she scored 14 or more points.

“Being able to get to the basket the way she does, and provide that offensive spark as well, she’s done a great job this year of stepping into this new role,” Jones said.

But defense is where Carrington hangs her hat.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I think it’s really just effort. I have the physical tools and the mental tools. And I understand basketball IQ-wise, and I understand angles and stuff like that.”

“It’s not just something where they’re making me guard the best player. I want to. This is something that also fuels my offense — when I’m able to get stops, it just gives us energy.”

Carrington made national headlines for her lockdown defense on one of the most highly anticipated players in women’s basketball history. But to her, it was just another opportunity to go out there and compete. 

“I know everybody on the opposing teams has All Stars on their team, so I don’t really get caught up in the names of who I’m guarding.” 

The Connecticut Sun hold a 7-0 record – the best in the league. The Big Three – headlined by Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna Bonner, and Brionna Jones – have made it a point to empower Carrington as she acclimates to a starting role. If she’s able to maintain this defensive consistency, that could be a game-changer for the Sun’s championship prospects. 

“They trust me,” she said. “They’ve seen the work that I put in and they see that I’m still putting it in, watching film and doing all the extra stuff that I need to do to be prepared. They know I’m never gonna quit — whether my offense is flowing or not — I’m still going to be out there giving everything on defense because I take that personal, and I take pride in that.”

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Written by Noa Dalzell

Noa Dalzell covers the Boston Celtics for SB Nation's CelticsBlog, and the Connecticut Sun for The Next Hoops. Her work has also appeared in FanSided and Swish Appeals, as well as CLNS Media. When she's not writing about basketball, she's playing basketball or lobbying for a more sustainable food system.

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