January 18, 2023 

Inside the thinking of Connecticut Sun around Jonquel Jones, Jasmine Thomas deals

'Now it’s about being able to deliver'

Almost a year ago, coming off a 2021 MVP season, Jonquel Jones decided to stay in Connecticut, signing a discounted two-year deal with the Sun to take another shot at winning the franchise’s first WNBA Finals.

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Jones told The Next at training camp that she had turned away other opportunities to tend to unfinished business in Connecticut. In September, the Sun again found themselves on the precipice of finishing that business – coming minutes from pushing their Finals series with the Las Vegas Aces to a deciding Game 5.

Now, four months removed from Jones’ second WNBA Finals loss with the Sun in four years, she asked for a trade to move on to the next chapter in her career – and the Sun are pivoting to build a roster around Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones, insisting the team plans to contend right away.

“Some of the things I’ve been seeing and reading are that people think we’re rebuilding,” Sun GM Darius Taylor told The Next in an exclusive interview Tuesday. “We’re not.”

On Monday, the Sun finalized a three-team trade that sent Jones to the New York Liberty, with Connecticut receiving the No. 6 pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft and guard/forward Rebecca Allen from the New York Liberty, and guard Tyasha Harris from the Dallas Wings. 

Taylor said that Jones’ impending departure had been looming since after the playoffs, and possibly even a year or two before that. Recognizing that she was a major part of what the Sun have accomplished, he said moving on was best for the team culture and fit.

Trading her meant they got something instead of getting nothing if she left in free agency after this season, Taylor said. It will also give the Sun the chance to re-sign free agent Brionna Jones.

“[Trading Jonquel Jones] was a decision that was made in terms of making sure we have the right fit for our organization going forward, and what her desires were in terms of wanting to move on,” Taylor said. “We made the decision to put our organization in a position to be able to continue to compete, and also be able to go after some highly sought after free agents that we feel can get us over the hump.”

The trade shocked the WNBA world, but the writing may have already been on the wall for Jones’ future in Connecticut as her minutes and her role decreased this past season with Alyssa Thomas back from injury – and the Sun struggled to create space for the two to operate on offense. 

During new head coach Stephanie White’s introductory press conference in November, she lauded Alyssa Thomas as the team’s best player and engine, but didn’t mention Jones in her remarks. President Jen Rizzotti also deflected during the same press conference when asked about building around Jones.

Trading away Jones signaled the Sun were moving in a radically different direction, and just a few hours after announcing that trade, Connecticut announced it was sending Jasmine Thomas – the Sun’s captain and starting point guard since 2015 – to re-join Curt Miller on the Los Angeles Sparks.

The Sun received forwards Jasmine Walker and UConn-alum Olivia Nelson Ododa, and the rights to reserved free agent Kianna Smith – who will not play this season because of injury – for Thomas and the tenth pick in the upcoming draft.

Building around AT and Bri Jones

The biggest question for the Sun heading into this offseason appeared to be whether the team would be able to keep star center Brionna Jones, who was sure to draw max contract offers as an unrestricted free agent.

After trading Jonquel Jones to the Liberty, it appears that the Sun will keep Bri Jones. Taylor said they will likely place the core designation on the 2021 Most Improved Player and 2022 Sixth Woman of the Year – which prevents her from negotiating with other teams. 

“She’s just continued to develop herself. She’s committed to working on her game as well as her body, and you can see the fruits of her labor,” Taylor said. “You can see the progressions she’s made from year to year, from being Most Improved to Sixth Woman, to being an All Star coming off the bench. Those are all tell-tale signs of someone that takes the game serious and is always trying to find ways to get better.”

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) congratulates Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones (42) during the WNBA game between the Phoenix Mercury and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on August 04, 2022. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Bri Jones will go from supersub to the core of the Sun’s future plans, maintaining the punishing frontcourt duo with Alyssa Thomas that has continued from the Maryland Terrapins, to the Sun, to USK Praha in the Czech Republic, and to Team USA.

The Sun want to maximize Alyssa Thomas’s ability to facilitate and create shots for other players by surrounding her with players who can run the floor and spot up, or cut to the rim. And those same players will be able to make the most of Jones’ ability to draw double teams in the paint – cashing in on open threes or open lanes to the basket.

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What do new players bring?

Thomas and Jones are two of the best players in the league with two feet in the paint, but the Sun lacked three-point shooters last year, and struggled to create space for their frontcourt stars to work.

Throughout the offseason, the new Sun regime has emphasized building up the team’s three-point shooting to develop a more modern, uptempo offense. At her best, Rebecca Allen fits exactly what they’re looking for – a long, lockdown defensive wing who has shot 36.9 percent from three for her career. 

New York Liberty combo forward Rebecca Allen stands at the slot holding the ball above her head while she scans upcourt, as Washington Mystics off-ball guard Alysha Clark stands in front of her to defend
Liberty guard Rebecca Allen (9) looks to pass during a game against the Mystics at Entertainment and Sports Arena, Washington D.C., on July 21, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Allen’s health is a concern after suffering broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung while playing for Australia in the World Cup last October. Taylor said they don’t have an updated injury status, but their medical staff has reviewed the injury report and has spoken to Allen, and feels confident about her return to play in time for the season. 

Allen is also coming off a down shooting year, where she made only 31.3 percent of her three pointers while dealing with concussions. The Sun will hope she shoots more like the player who made 1.9 threes a game while shooting 38 percent from deep in 2021. 

“She’s a perimeter shooter, we know she can shoot the ball. She’s a deceptive athlete that is able to defend a couple of different positions,” Taylor said. “She’s long, she’s a really sneaky athlete. She’s someone that can play multiple positions, and I know the way that Stephanie wants to play, Rebecca fits in really well.”

Jasmine Walker is an unknown at the WNBA level after injuries derailed her first two seasons on the Sparks. But she is 6’3 and athletic, and was one of the best three-point shooters in the country in college – making 2.9 threes a game while shooting 39.8 percent her senior year at Alabama.

The Sun have started to add shooters, but the backcourt is still a major question – even more so after losing Jasmine Thomas’ leadership and defense. It’s not clear if either of the team’s starting guards next season is under contract right now.

The team is betting on Ty Harris to take a leap forward after she struggled to break through a crowded backcourt in Dallas. Taylor said that Harris has shown flashes that she can run a team, so the Sun’s hope is that she’ll be able to find a flow and consistent minutes to showcase her talent. 

Taylor said that Harris also has the versatility to play off the ball and the opportunities she’ll have in Connecticut will be more fruitful than when she was in Dallas. 

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What’s left on the Sun’s to-do list?

Taylor said the Sun’s top three priorities for the rest of offseason are adding a two guard, an impact post player, and a veteran guard. They want more balance on their bench so that the starters don’t have to carry as much of a load throughout the season as they have in recent years.

Taylor said they’re already talking to a couple of players for the two guard spot, including Sun free agent Courtney Williams. The Sun have also extended a qualifying offer to Natisha Hiedeman, who is a restricted free agent. 

Hiedeman has grown in the organization and improved every year in her career.  Her sharp three point shooting makes her a fit in the new system, and Taylor stressed that continuity is important.

The team is looking to add a veteran guard who can bring versatility and leadership. Trading Thomas was a difficult decision because of what she’s meant to the franchise both on and off the court, Taylor said – but it freed up cap space to be more aggressive in free agency, he said.

The Sun’s next steps partially hinge on Brionna Jones. The core designation gives Jones two options: accept the core offer of a one-year supermax deal ($234,936), or negotiate another contract with the Sun. 

How much she signs for will determine what caliber of player the Sun have space to add. If she signs for the full supermaximum, and the Sun keep their first round pick, they would have $171,199 left over to sign one player (Taylor said they’re likely to have 11 players on the roster this season). 

There are other moves the Sun can make to change their cap situation – either another trade, or cutting any of their players with unprotected contracts: Walker, Nelson-Ododa, DiJonai Carrington or Nia Clouden.

“We’re going after some big free agents. We are going after some key forwards as well as guards. We’ll see what happens, but we feel pretty good about the conversations we’ve had  in terms of setting up meetings to meet with people,” Taylor said. “Now it’s about being able to deliver. So being able to actually talk to them and tell them how they fit in where we would like to go.”

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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