June 17, 2021 

How the Sun can learn from losing without Jonquel Jones

What Connecticut needs to focus on and other Sun notes

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Sunday’s rematch against the Seattle Storm was a learning opportunity for the Connecticut Sun about how the team stacks up without Jonquel Jones, who is expected to miss at least three more games while she competes in EuroBasket with the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team. 

Last time the Storm beat the Sun in transition. This time, it was turnovers – with Seattle scoring 26 extra points off of 18 Sun turnovers. Connecticut turned the ball over six times in the first 10 minutes, leading to 14 of Seattle’s 26 first-quarter points. 

By the half, the Storm had built a 14-point lead. Seattle had an answer to every run the Sun started in the second half, and Connecticut coughed it over six more times in the third quarter alone. Seattle won 89-66 — it was the Sun’s third loss on the season and their first loss at home.

Interim head coach Brandi Poole, who is filling in for Curt Miller as he tends to family matters, said on Tuesday that the team has been working in practice to fix “the little things” that contributed to Sunday’s loss – especially with spacing, timing, and screening angles on offense. 

“We didn’t look like ourselves Sunday,” Poole said. “I never felt like we could get into a flow offensively.” 

The Sun will play their first “back-to-back” games of the season against the Chicago Sky on Thursday and Saturday at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. 

The Sky have won three straight since Candace Parker and Allie Quigley returned, but Poole said they expect the Sky will defend them in a similar way to the Storm, and that they will be prepared. As always, Poole said, the Sun will lean on their defense.

So what did we learn in the Sun’s first game without Jonquel Jones? And what are the Sun focusing on to get back in the win column?

It’s Brionna Jones’ paint now – and defenses know it

Brionna Jones goes up for a basket under the rim while Ezi Magbegor and Jewell Loyd try to contest her shot against the Seattle Storm at Mohegan Sun Arena on Sunday, June 13. Photo Credit: Khoi Ton

Not having to worry about Jonquel Jones, the Storm constantly double-teamed Bri Jones when she got the ball down low – and after she scored 10 in the first quarter, the Storm managed to hold her to two points for the rest of the game. Poole said she counted 11 double teams on Jones, and it felt like it was every play. 

Jones has taken a huge leap as a distributor, and already has more assists through 11 games than she’s had in any season in her career. If Jones could find a passing lane, she had no problem dishing out of the trap. Both of her assists came out of the double team.

In the third quarter, Jones got a pass on the left block, spun to her right to get some separation from Mercedes Russell, and ran into Katie Lou Samuelson, who had left Bonner alone on the opposite corner. Jones was able to pivot away from the pressure to find a wide open Jasmine Thomas on the perimeter, who didn’t hesitate to take an open lane to the hoop.

She said they can be better on the perimeter, cutting and moving and helping Jones out to find her easy open shots when she’s smothered in the post. She turned over the ball on a few double teams when the Sun bunched up, or didn’t cut to a spot where Jones could find them.

In this play, Hiedeman slides over to the top of the arc to give Jones room to go to work in the post – but she also draws her defender Jewel Lloyd over to Beatrice Mompremier, who is waiting at the free throw line for an outlet pass after Candice Dupree leaves her to trap Jones. Jones tries to slip the ball to Mompremier, but Lloyd easily intercepts the pass.

Poole said it was no surprise to the Sun that Jones and DeWanna Bonner would get extra attention down low. They executed well at times, but also failed to give Jones better options to get out of traps on several possessions. Jones said she’s up for the challenge, and Poole agreed.

“Breezy has absolutely earned that attention, and we trust her, you know, to make good decisions out of that,” Poole said. 

Assistant coach Chris Koclanes said on Wednesday that, like Seattle he expects Chicago to try to force the Sun to the sidelines on ball screens — a scenario where Bonner frequently found herself guarded by two defenders.

Bonner got better responding to those traps as the game went on — losing the ball with an errant pass on an early possession, but pulling up for a quick mid-range jumper as defenders closed in later on.

“When DB’s in a lot of actions, teams are going to tend to switch those actions and really challenge DB to be more physical, and have to go down to the paint against some guards, which Seattle did and Chicago will do tomorrow,” Koclanes said.

A new look offense

Of all the ways Jonquel Jones helps the Sun win, her rebounding might be the most significant. The Sun lead the league in offensive rebounding rate and average 9.6 a game, per Her Hoop Stats, which Miller said is a huge boost when shots aren’t falling.

Bonner effectively replaced Jones, filling in the four spot in the starting lineup. As long and skilled as she is, Bonner just doesn’t replace Jones’ production on the boards, and the Sun only grabbed five offensive boards on Sunday.

Miller said Emma Cannon, Beatrice Mompremier, and Stephanie Jones need to step up so the team can play more of a traditional lineup that has Bonner in her natural position at the three.

But Bonner is still going to get plenty of time at the four until Jonquel Jones returns. They need her to stretch the floor. 

What Jonquel Jones does for the Sun’s spacing on offense has never been more apparent than when Bri Jones and Beatrice Mompremier shared the frontcourt – neither known for their jump shooting, though Jones did hit a long two-pointer against the Storm. 

“We’ve got to figure out how to play a whole different style of basketball now, when you lose a huge piece like [Jonquel], so we definitely got to figure out how to play with each other all over again,” Poole said. 

While Jonquel Jones can play on the perimeter and feed the ball into the post like a 6’6” point guard, the Sun relied more on Bri Jones or Mompremier trying to dump the ball off to the other under the basket. Unsurprisingly, their success in the post had a lot to do with how much space they were given to work with.

In this play, the Storm completely abandons Kaila Charles in the far corner and fills the paint with defenders. Jones gets trapped and looks to pass the ball off to Mompremier, but Stephanie Talbot is right there to get a hand on the pass.

On this play, Charles has the ball and draws Talbot away from Jones before passing her the ball. Mompremier stays put on the opposite baseline, so Dupree can’t slide over to trap Jones, and Jones takes advantage of the one-on-one for a quick bucket.

Giving Bri Jones room to work is key, but it’s also important that the Sun’s role players step up and hit threes when defenders leave them alone on the perimeter. Emma Cannon did just that in her first game since joining the team, calmly sinking this three when the Storm left her alone to try to trap January off the pick and pop.

For the Sun, offensive success starts with ball movement, and the Sun have focused on fixing what went wrong with their offense in practice since the loss.

“We still could have been so much better in so many areas, just with our execution on offense,” Thomas said on Tuesday. “We, you know, weren’t really moving the ball the way we wanted, to get into action the way we wanted, screening and moving the way we wanted.”

Turnovers are deadly

Getting their offense back into a good flow will help, but more than anything, the Sun need to clean up their turnovers when they face the Chicago Sky on Thursday. 

The Sun didn’t shoot poorly against the Storm – 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from the arc – but they gave Seattle 12 extra shots because of turnovers, and giving up so many possessions took them out of the game early.

“You can’t beat an elite team with that many turnovers,” Miller said.

Bri Jones had all four of her turnovers while trapped by double teams, including one travel while swarmed trying to gather an offensive rebound. Seattle even risked leaving Bonner wide open in the opposite corner to pressure Jones, including one play where Samuelson slid over and forced Jones to cough up the ball.

Though Jones’ four turnovers matched her season high, she was far from the only culprit, as the team totaled 19 giveaways. Seattle was credited with 9 steals, but they did a great job putting on pressure and rushing the Sun offense into mistakes. They also forced the Sun into two shot clock violations.

Jones saw the most pressure, but Seattle was also quick to bring help over into driving lanes. The guards clearly felt the pressure. They were rushed into some errant passes that sailed out of bounds, and didn’t look as crisp as they did before their week long break.

Thomas said the Storm were dictating the Sun’s offense in the first half, but said the Sun were making mistakes they could control. Connecticut came out with more aggression in the second half, and cleaned up the turnovers – but not enough to close the gap.

“We let them speed us up and weren’t taking care of the ball,” Thomas said. “We were getting our usual shots and it was going in, and so it was just coach saying like we need to take care of the ball better because that was leading to their transition points.”

Second unit answers the call

Next person up and “unintended consequences” have been the mantra all season long, and the Sun’s bench players had their moments when their names were called against the Storm.

Kaila Charles scored a season-high 14 points – all in the fourth quarter. It was an impressive showing for the second-year wing whose minutes had been declining before Jonquel Jones left.

“That’s the Kaila Charles that really impacted us in stretches last year. It was really nice to see,” Miller said.

Emma Cannon, who is currently on a hardship contract, played a little more than 14 minutes and chipped in five points, two rebounds, and two assists. She held her own against Stewart in one-on-one defense, made her shots, and didn’t turn over the ball. Miller has praised the veteran Cannon’s locker room leadership, and Cannon said she saw that as a big part of her role with the Sun.

“Trying to do whatever I can do you know to help this team get wins,” Cannon said. ‘“ Then [on the court], sticking to who I am, and what I can bring is my rebounding, me talking, me scoring when I can, and just being a great teammate.”

Rookie Dijonai Carrington got the first start of her WNBA career. She struggled at times on offense, turning the ball over three times and scoring just twice, but she also led the Sun with seven rebounds – including five of their first six – despite playing only 15 minutes.

Other Sun Notes

Brandi Poole will coach her second game of the season on Thursday against Chicago, with Koclanes assisting, as head coach Curt Miller is in Pennsylvania because of a family situation. On Tuesday, Poole said there’s no timeline on his return, but she didn’t expect him to be gone for “a great amount of time.” She said testing protocols for when he returns to the team could leave things up in the air, though.

It’s business as usual for the Sun, though, and next person up rings once more.

“When somebody gets injured, or with JJ gone now, everybody steps up, right. Everybody steps up and takes a little piece of the pie, whatever is missing. And same with our staff,” Poole said. “Obviously nobody can replace (Miller). He’s our leader. But at the end of the day, we’re all ultimately after the same goal. To be as good as we can and to win.”

In May, Jasmine Thomas, the Sun’s WNBPA team representative, spearheaded a partnership between the WNBPA and the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. As part of the partnership, Thomas collaborated with BreakingT to design a t-shirt with partial proceeds benefiting the Cancer Fund. Thomas debuted her “Power of One” t-shirt in the tunnel before Sunday’s game.

“With my history with breast cancer and, you know, in my family with my mom being a survivor, it’s just something I’m passionate about,” Thomas said. “I’m excited to see that it’s grown beyond just me.”

The Sun no longer hold the best overall record in the WNBA, but still sit atop the Eastern Conference record in the Commissioner’s Cup standings. Thursday’s game against Chicago has CC implications, as the Sky sit in second place and are only two games behind the Sun. Overall, the Sun have six more Commissioner’s Cup games before the Olympic break.

After Sunday’s game, Seattle officially swept the series against the Sun as the two teams only play each other twice in the regular season this year. Although, they could meet again in the cup game if both teams win their conference. A chance at revenge, with hopefully everyone healthy and available, and a $500,000 pool could make for a very interesting rematch if it happens. The Commissioner’s Cup Final will be played on August 12 — the first game ahead of the second half of the season after the Olympics.

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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