August 17, 2023 

How the Connecticut Sun weathered it all to remain title contenders

GM Darius Taylor digs into Connecticut's success

After trading Jonquel Jones and Jasmine Thomas early in the offseason, first-year Connecticut Sun general manager Darius Taylor was adamant that the Sun weren’t rebuilding. The Sun would still contend for titles like they have in recent history, but there would also be a renewed focus on building for the future.

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With 10 games left in the regular season, the 21-9 Sun have sat in the top three of the league all season and are on the verge of clinching a playoff spot, even without Brionna Jones on the court for more than half the season.

“Anytime you have an injury as significant as Bri Jones, teams can go either way – they can fold or they can continue to play, and play for her. And I think that’s what our team has done this year,” Taylor told The Next. “I don’t think a lot of people anticipated or expected us to be where we are.”

Taylor’s offseason vision for the Sun revolved around a foundation of Alyssa Thomas and Jones, who ended up signing a one-year deal in free agency under a core designation. That vision lived up to the team’s hopes with the familiar duo combining for an average of 30.7 points, 18.7 rebounds and 3.9 steals per game, and leading the team to a 10-3 record before the Sun lost Jones for the season.

Replacing a player of Jones’ caliber and skillset is challenging enough on top of everything else a front office is tasked with, but navigating a hard salary cap and a limited player pool makes it even more difficult.

The Sun couldn’t immediately replace Jones because her injury brought Connecticut’s roster of healthy players to 10. Teams don’t qualify for an emergency hardship player until they only have nine healthy players available.

Finding a young post player for the last spot on the team has been a work in progress all year – originally starting the season with Lauren Cox and then Liz Dixon, trying Kristine Anigwe on a seven-day contract, and eventually landing on 6’10 Hungarian center Bernadett Hatar to a rest of season contract on July 26.

Taylor said while the hard cap already makes moves difficult (the Sun can only afford to sign a player with less than two years of WNBA experience to a minimum contract), many players who they would be interested in signing are already on hardships with other teams because of injuries. A lot of players have already signed contracts with overseas teams, and for others agreeing to a hardship or seven-day contract late in the season isn’t financially worth it.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know who you can add very late at this point that can have a huge impact on your roster and on your team, so that’s been the challenge,” Taylor said.

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Hatar averaged 4.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 15 minutes per game, and appeared in seven games with two starts for the Indiana Fever in 2021. She missed the second half of the 2021 season and all of 2022 because of injury, and the Fever temporarily suspended her contract at the start of this season because of her national commitments in EuroBasket. The Fever waived her in early June, and once Taylor learned that she was willing to come over after EuroBasket, it was an easy phone call for him.

“She obviously played in Indiana a couple of years ago, so I know what her capability is,” Taylor said “She’s a unicorn. There’s not a lot of 6’10 players running around.”

Hatar missed her first three games because of a lingering left knee injury, but played five minutes in garbage time in the Sun’s 81-69 win in Seattle. Against the Phoenix Mercury on August 10, Hatar got thrown into the fire early in the first quarter after the Sun quickly gave up the most points in a quarter in league history. The Sun almost managed to close the gap in the 90-84 loss, but Hatar had a promising six points on 3 of 7 shooting and two rebounds.

While Thomas and DeWanna Bonner have been keeping the Sun afloat throughout the season, the additions who Taylor brought in – Rebecca Allen, Ty Harris, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, and Tiffany Hayes – have all contributed to the team’s success. Working on continuity as the season progresses into the playoffs is still a goal, but Taylor has been impressed with how the roster has developed chemistry on both sides of the ball and found different ways to win games without their All-Star center.

Connecticut Sun guard Tiffany Hayes (15) drives to the basket during the WNBA game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on August 01, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Hayes and Allen have filled a void at the guard spot with their veteran leadership and defensive playmaking, but they have also found more offensive consistency as the season has progressed and they’ve settled in. Both Hayes and Allen have been averaging more scoring and playing more minutes since after the All-Star break last month, and Allen’s field goal percentage went from 37.5% before the All-Star break to 54.2%, while her volume of shots also significantly increased in the 10 games since.

In adding players who are contributing now, Taylor is also making moves with the future in mind. Before the regular season even started, Taylor extended Harris’ contract through 2025 and exercised the fourth-year option for DiJonai Carrington, who has turned herself into a new three-point threat for the Sun in the best year of her career so far.

“I’ve been around the W long enough to know when players have the potential to be really good, and I think she certainly is one of them,” Taylor said of Carrington. “The bang she’s been off the bench, the growth she’s had this year, has been really key for our team. When you have a young team and a young player like her who plays with the confidence she plays with, it’s really important when you’re trying to compete with some of the other teams in our league.”

A lot of focus is dedicated to the current season, but Taylor said that he also has to balance preparing for the offseason. He reiterated his original vision of keeping Jones and Thomas, who is currently signed through 2025, as the Sun’s cornerstone players and emphasized their goal of keeping the pair in Connecticut for the long term.

He’ll have other decisions to make heading into 2024 that may not be as clear cut, though, as Bonner, Hayes and Allen, along with Jones, are all upcoming free agents.

“Players on one-year deals, you do have conversations, but you kind of have to wait for free agency, versus players that are coming off longer year deals, you have the opportunity to extend them. It’s just a matter of negotiating with them and their agents that it’s something they want to do,” Taylor said. “We’re still in talks and looking at some of those opportunities.”

Part of keeping the Sun prepared to compete in the future is scouting younger up and coming talent. Taylor traveled to Spain to scout the 19-under FIBA World Cup in July, and attended the first all-girls Basketball Without Borders Global Camp with assistant GM Morgan Tuck in Las Vegas during the All-Star break. Taylor said seeing young international talent play live is valuable because you also learn things like which players have an interest in playing in the league and which players are already locked up by club teams.

“You don’t want to waste a pick on a player you don’t see forthcoming to the W for another five years … It essentially becomes a wasted pick if they don’t come overseas, and I don’t want to do that,” Taylor said. “I want to invest in players that want to be in the league, and have the opportunity to develop them and hopefully get them on the roster. So that will be my focus.”

Even with the uncertainty of class for the upcoming 2024 and 2025 drafts, Taylor believes the pool is deep enough for the Sun to find players who they can develop for the franchise’s future – even if the Sun end up picking late into the first or even second round like they have in years past.

Taylor said he wants to continue to push the envelope and attend events where they can see talent at a much younger age so they can keep track of a player’s development as they get older. He said it’s hard to make a decision on a pick when he’s only seen them blossom across the span of one to two years, so he wants to have as much information on players as possible to ensure a sound draft decision.

Connecticut Sun forward Morgan Tuck (33) is interviewed during WNBA practice and media availability at Mohegan Tribal Center, Uncasville, CT, USA on October 05, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Connecticut Sun forward Morgan Tuck (33) is interviewed during WNBA practice and media availability at Mohegan Tribal Center, Uncasville, CT, USA on October 05, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The Sun’s expanded front office of former players Jen Rizzotti and Tuck also allow the Sun to cover more ground in improving the organization, on top of other duties like scouting, which will ramp up with the college season.

“They can be more the face and the boots on the ground and I can be more in the background and really focus on other areas in terms of things we can do to continue to enhance the player experience,” Taylor said. “Thinking outside the box or other ways we can be creative and make Connecticut an organization that players want to continue to look at in free agency. We want to continue to be an organization that players want to play for.”

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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