July 11, 2023 

How the Connecticut Sun are winning big while going small

Plus: DeWanna delights from deep

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Life without Brionna Jones hasn’t been easy for the Connecticut Sun. But after six games, they’re showing they can still be a great team by flipping the script and playing small.

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The Sun bounced back from a close loss against the New York Liberty and a blowout loss to the Las Vegas Aces with a dominating win over the Seattle Storm and a close win over the Washington Mystics last week.

Despite clear growing pains as they find their new identity, Connecticut is 4-2 since Jones was lost for the season, and are in third place at 14-5, with one more game against the Chicago Sky before the midpoint of the season.

So how are the Connecticut Sun still finding a way to win without their All-Star center?

Keeping up without the Joneses

With no one to replace Jones’ size, the Sun have opted for smaller lineups with Thomas as the nominal center, and Rebecca Allen or Dijonai Carrington at the wing. They’ve also played more traditional lineups with Olivia Nelson-Ododa at center. And for the most part, they’ve held up in the paint despite being outsized.

In the first 13 games with Jones, the Sun scored 40 points per game in the paint, trailing only the Aces while allowing 35.2 points in the paint. In the six games since Jones’ injury, the Sun have struggled to defend inside – giving up 42.7 points in the paint. But the paint offense has barely taken a dip – with the team averaging 39.7 points in the paint.

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) shoots during the WNBA game between the Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 09, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

But instead of pounding the ball inside or scoring offensive putbacks, the Sun’s small ball spacing creates more open lanes to slash, and Tiffany Hayes, DiJonai Carrington and Thomas have taken advantage.

“It is more off of just you know, getting to the rim and getting out in transition, you know getting easy opportunities,” head coach Stephanie White said. “We get layups, and whether it’s the full court or the half court, then we force defensive rotations and we open up or jump shots when they’re in rotation.”

For the most part, the Sun have also been able to keep up on defense without Jones to clean up the mess, but bigger teams like Las Vegas, New York and Washington were still able to do damage.

GameOpponent Paint PointsCT Sun Paint Points
@ Minnesota Lynx – June 223826
vs. Chicago Sky – June 253854
vs. New York Liberty – June 274650
@ Las Vegas Aces – July 15244
vs. Seattle Storm – July 6 3640
vs. Washington Mystics – July 94624
A look at Connecticut Sun points scored in the paint compared to. points allowed in the paint in the team’s first six games played without Brionna Jones. Data from WNBA.com.

During Sunday’s back and forth game against the Washington Mystics, Brittney Sykes and Tianna Hawkins frequently found their way to the basket and kept the Mystics in the game despite their turnovers and the Sun’s hot shooting.

Bonner said she didn’t think the Sun were focused on defense, missing rotations or coming late while Mystics players got to the hoop without enough resistance.

“We let Brittney Sykes get to the paint and distribute the ball, and when we rotated, it was like a drop pass or spray out for three,” Bonner said. “I don’t think we did a great job in our rotation. So I don’t think we were focused enough, especially against this team. They’re a great team.”

White has said that when the small ball defense is at its best it can be versatile and disruptive. That was clear from the tip against Seattle on Thursday, when the Sun jumped out to a 29-6 lead in the first quarter.

Connecticut Sun guard Tiffany Hayes (15) drives to the basket during the WNBA game between the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 06, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Jones cleaned up a lot of mistakes on defense with her communication, positioning and strength, so now the Sun have to consistently bring energy and awareness to execute on defense to make up for losing her. That’s especially true for teams like New York and Las Vegas, where there’s no margin for error.

The Sun don’t have the defense to stop line drives to the basket once a player gets beat one-on-one on the perimeter, White said. And Sykes is so good at attacking the rim and facilitating from the paint, and Tiana Hawkins is so good at cutting into open lanes that it opened up easy buckets for the Mystics.

“Oftentimes if we make a mistake and we jump back into the screener, we put our bigs at a disadvantage because now they’ve got to stay longer, and then that opens up that dive,” White said.

Bonner and Carrington have picked up some of the rebounding load left behind by Jones, and the Sun’s rebounding rate only dropped from 51 percent to 49.9 since her injury. But they’ve lost the rebound battle in each of their last four games – splitting 2-2.

The Aces dominated the Sun on the boards, holding Connecticut to a season-low 24 rebounds. And the Liberty out-rebounded the Sun 12-5 in the fourth quarter on June 27, stalling the Sun after Connecticut clawed back from a double-digit deficit.

“Obviously Breezy brings huge size and just a huge presence down low. But I think just with the cards that we’re dealt with, I think we handled it the best that we can,” Nelson-Ododa said after the loss to the Liberty. “And so whether that’s just kind of figuring things out on the fly, being longer, being more aware of things that are going on, especially down low. Whatever the case is, it just kind of forces us to really lock in and be more aware of things happening, especially in the paint.”

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DeWanna Bonners three-point turnaround

Finding people who can generate more offense behind the arc was the team’s biggest priority in the offseason, and slowly but surely the team is starting to find a groove behind the three point line.

The Liberty and the Aces lead the league with 10.4 and 9.3 made threes, respectively, and both are hovering in the range of 38 percent efficiency beyond the arc per game. The Sun need that kind of success if they want to keep pace with the top tier in the league.

Bonner said Jones is a huge piece to lose, and the Sun are still trying to figure out their new roles. But they have found more room to drive to the basket and open up shots on the perimeter, she said.

Before Thursday’s game against the Storm, the Sun only recorded nine threes in a game twice. Looking especially refreshed after having time to rest and practice at home, they’ve cashed in during the last two games – going 9-for-13 from deep against Seattle and 13-for-25 against the Mystics on Sunday. Sunday’s showing was the team’s best three-point performance all season.

Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner (24) shoots during the WNBA game between the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 06, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

It looked like the Sun may have been in for a long night to start on Sunday after letting the Mystics end the first quarter on a 11-7 run to cut Connecticut’s lead to 18-16 at the end of the first quarter.

The Sun missed their first four three-point attempts and ended the quarter 1-for-5. But the Sun ended up making four three pointers in each of the next three quarters, shooting 60 percent from deep to finish the game.

The Sun capitalized on some buzzer-beater magic throughout the second half on Sunday, but most of the Sun’s makes from three were open – either from the Mystics dropping over screens, or losing shooters in rotation.

Bonner ended the game tying a career-high six threes on 12 attempts, with three makes coming in the fourth quarter to shut the door on Washington. Bonner is a tough matchup because she’s too mobile for most bigs to guard around screens on the perimeter, and she’s too long for guards to handle in the post, White said.

In her 14th season, Bonner is having the best three-point shooting season of her career – averaging a career high 2.2 makes per game on a career-high 38.2 percent from deep. Through 19 games, Bonner’s 42 threes have already nearly matched the total three pointers she put up in 33 games in 2022 (46), and 32 games in 2021 (44).

Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner (24) after making a 3-point shot during the WNBA game between the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 06, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

After a rough start to the season, Bonner has quickly turned in one of the best offensive seasons of her 14 year career so far. She shot 11 for 44, just 25 percent, from deep in the first eight games of the season through the Sun’s loss to the Aces on June 6, when Bonner shot 2 for 9 from the field and 1 for 4 from three.

The next game Bonner carried the Sun over the Aces, going 5 for 7 from deep and 16 for 23 from the field to score a career-high 41 points. She went on to make 31 of 66 threes – 47 percent – over the last 11 games.

Bonner was frustrated with her shooting early on, and has talked about wanting to be consistent. And she’s now made at least two threes in each of those 11 games, starting with her 41-point game.

Bonner spent three months rehabbing in Connecticut from offseason surgery before the start of the WNBA season. While recovering she was working out twice a day, and focusing on improving her three point shooting with the Sun’s director of player development Keith Porter, and on her conditioning with strength coach Analisse Rios.

“That was the first time in my career that I could actually like, work on myself, with my shot and my game,” Bonner said after Thursday’s win against Seattle.

Thomas, who was sitting beside Bonner at the press table, said she was being modest.

“A lot of her workouts were with one hand, so she really, really worked hard,” Thomas said.

Thomas said injuries are hard to come back from, and there were a lot of frustrating days where Bonner’s shot wasn’t feeling right, but she kept working through it.

“She’s shooting the ball very well, and I’m super proud of how hard she worked to get there as well,” Thomas said.

More Sun bench opportunities

The Sun have been shorthanded since losing Jones for the rest of the season, but they had only nine players available for much of Thursday and Sunday, with Carrington out against Seattle’s with a non-Covid Illness, and Natisha Hiedeman leaving in the second half Sunday after a hard fall.

White didn’t have an update after the game, but said Hiedeman could have re-aggravated something from a hit she took weeks ago.

White turned to Ty Harris off the bench, who notched 10 points and three assists in a season high 26 minutes on Sunday. She led the team with eight points in the third quarter, including a buzzer beating three to keep the Sun within one point before the final frame.

Harris has been capitalizing on open threes when she gets them, going 3-for-3 from deep over the last two games, and making at least one in each of the last five games.

“That’s the luxury of having a backup point guard like Ty Harris who can come in and immediately make an impact,” White said. “And she did a great job keeping us organized in the second half, and getting us into actions that we needed to get into.”

Connecticut Sun guard Tyasha Harris (52) shoots during the WNBA game between the Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 09, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Second-year post player Olivia Nelson-Ododa has also been called on in Jones’ absence, and she’s filled in some of the gap on the boards and brought rim protection the Sun miss with the smaller lineup.

On offense, she’s started to find lanes to cut for layups, and is developing good high-low chemistry with Thomas. And she’s had nearly as many offensive rebounds as defensive in the last six games, helping to make up for one of Jones’ greatest strengths.

“You see her getting more and more comfortable and confident. This being her second year, we’re asking a lot of her,” Thomas said. “After losing Breezy, she’s had to have a bigger role, as has everybody, but there’s a lot of great things that she’s doing. I think each and every game she’s improving.”

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) congratulates Connecticut Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa (10) during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 27, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

After the June 27 game against the Liberty where Nelson-Ododa went 6-for-6 and scored a season-high 14 points, she said she’s not focusing on trying to be like Jones, but on what she can do to help the team.

“It’s not necessarily thinking, I have to score this way, I have to defend this way or be like Breezy or anything like that, but just contribute as much as possible,” Nelson-Ododa said. “And I just try to keep it as simple as that. So whatever we need at the moment.”

White said after the Liberty game that Nelson-Ododa has great awareness and instincts, and she absorbs everything she’s told. She can impact shots on defense with her length, and she has “high hands” to get offensive boards and putbacks.

“She has a good understanding of the open areas on offense,” White said. “We’ll keep developing her skill set, certainly, but it’s really easy to do that when you have somebody that has really good instincts.”

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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