November 22, 2022
Stephanie White officially introduced as Connecticut Sun head coach
The Connecticut Sun officially introduced Stephanie White as the team’s new head coach in a press conference on Tuesday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Almost two years removed from her last game as head coach of the women’s basketball team at Vanderbilt, new Connecticut Sun coach Stephanie White said she’s realized how much she missed coaching basketball.
“There are many nights when you’re in a restaurant, and you’re putting salt shakers in certain places and thinking about what you would do in end-of-game situations,” White said. “And certainly watching the WNBA playoffs this past season, there were lots of end-of-game situations.”
The Connecticut Sun, represented by team president Jennifer Rizzotti and Sarah Harris, Vice Chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, officially introduced White as the team’s new head coach in a press conference on Tuesday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena.
White spent last season as a basketball analyst, having parted ways with Vanderbilt after a five-year stretch where the Commodores went 13-54 in the SEC. She said she learned to appreciate just how volatile the coaching profession is and how important it is to appreciate the opportunity to coach basketball.
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“Ultimately, at the end of the day, when you sit back and you have fresh perspective, this is about players,” White said. “Players make plays. Putting players in positions to be successful, putting the right pieces together for teams to be successful, is a challenge that I love. I love competition. I love the high stakes of competition.”
And even in her first season with the Connecticut Sun, the stakes could not be higher. After four straight seasons knocking on the doorstep, the Sun want to win the franchise’s first championship and they want to win it now.
It’s not an unfamiliar situation for White, who made the WNBA Finals in her first-ever season as a head coach after taking over for Lin Dunn as head coach of the Indiana Fever in 2015. White won the Finals with that Fever team in 2012 as an assistant coach and when she took over for Dunn, they were still built to win.
She inherited a roster with now — Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings. On the Sun, she said she has a similar player — Alyssa Thomas, whose “grit, toughness, competitiveness and fire” White said reminds her of the Fever legend.
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“The toughness, the grit, the competitive nature, that permeates the organization, it permeates the team, and the expectation is to compete every day like that,” White said.
But what that Fever team did not have is two MVP candidates. And that’s what she’s getting with the Sun: 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas, who she called a “potential MVP.”
“Making life easier for both of them is my job,” White told The Next after her introductory press conference. “It doesn’t have to be so hard for them to get the things that they need to get in-game – whether it’s shots, whether it’s rebounds, whether it’s positions to open up isolations – it’s my job and our job as a staff to make their life easier.”
Having those two, as well as All-Star and WNBA Champion DeWanna Bonner, to build around is an exciting opportunity, she said.
“I think the team culture is pretty much already established, the identity of this franchise has been the same,” White said. “It’s been about hard work. It’s been about toughness, it’s been about sacrifice, it’s been about the team, it’s been about together. You know, for me, the culture that we want to continue to build on are those core principles.”
But White said she wants to add a different dimension on the court: moving the Sun away from their grit-and-grind mentality to a “fast-paced, up-tempo, free-flowing, offensive team.”
“I think the pieces that we have here are versatile, they are hungry, they are unselfish, and it fits a system that is free-flowing,” White said. “Whether it becomes a four-out system or a five-out system, no matter what actions you run, I think it fits the personnel.”
Rizzotti said the last two WNBA Champions, the Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces; both played with a style that fits where the game has evolved to in both the WNBA and NBA. That style is less focused on dominating the paint and backing down the post and more focused on the perimeter and spreading the floor with guards who can get three-point shots off ball screens, handoffs and their own dribbles.
What will happen with the Sun roster?
Rizzotti said there have been different ways that teams have gotten over the hump to win their first championships in recent years: the Sky added Candace Parker and the Aces opted not to bring back Liz Cambage to open the flow of their offense. Bringing in a “new energy and fresh voice” to a team that is already a contender could be one of the “small adjustments” that get the Sun to a championship.
Bringing in White and her plans for a revamped offense is the starting point, but the Sun still have a busy offseason ahead.
Brionna Jones, the reigning Sixth Player of the Year and a major contributor to the Sun’s success the past three seasons is a free agent. Anything can happen, but it would not be a surprise for Bri Jones to find a max contract and a leading role outside of Connecticut.
Barring a shocking move like a blockbuster trade to move Jonquel Jones ahead of her impending free agency, the Sun will likely look to make incremental moves to improve the spacing around their two MVP-caliber forwards.
Rizzotti and White put a heavy emphasis on guard play, especially outside shooting, which hasn’t been the Sun’s strength in recent years.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here,” White said. “We need to add a couple pieces, we need to re-tool a little bit.”
The emphasis on three-point shooting suggests that bringing back Hiedeman will be a priority for the Sun. She has been Connecticut’s most consistent three-point shooter and made great strides as a defender while filling in for Jasmine Thomas last season.
Courtney Williams is a fan and team favorite, but her continued fit on the Sun is less clear. Williams does her damage more from the mid-range than from three, so she may not fit into White and Rizzotti’s offensive vision.
And Williams could be in line for a raise after putting in a good season on a one-year prove-it contract with the Sun last year, which could be an issue for a Sun team with four near-max contracts and tight cap space.
DiJonai Carrington, who is under contract for 2023, took a big step forward as a key bench player last year, but she’ll need to be more efficient from the perimeter. Rookie Nia Clouden showed sparks in limited action and could be ready to take on a bigger scoring role if she gets the minutes.
Still, the Sun will likely look to bring in proven shooters in free agency. And those players will need to fit in the Sun culture, White said.
“It goes back to that family atmosphere,” White said. “Who fits the Connecticut Sun? Who wants to be here? Who wants to battle the way that we want to battle? Who wants to be a part of and engaged in the community? Who wants to use their platform for good and the game?”
What else do the Sun need to do this offseason?
After head coach and GM Curt Miller left for the Los Angeles Sparks, Rizzotti said she wanted to separate the GM and head coach positions.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how difficult it has become to navigate through the salary cap and collective bargaining agreement components,” Rizzotti said. “So teams around the league are finding that they need somebody full-time so that they’re living and breathing free agency and college scouting and potential moves within the league.”
Rizzotti said she and White have talked about needing to find a GM who is organized, has some experience, understands that it’s a relationship-driven league and is able to plan for a future that could include and expanded league. The Sun still have not found that person — Rizzotti said she wanted to focus on securing White first — but said she expects to start making decisions quickly.
One piece of the front office puzzle is already in place, with Rizzotti announcing that former UConn and Sun star Morgan Tuck has been elevated to assistant GM after spending the last two seasons with the team as Director of Franchise Development. She will continue in a dual role balancing both positions.
The Sun will also need to fill out their bench staff. Brandi Poole has joined the Dallas Wings as an assistant coach and while there has been no announcement on Chris Koclanes’ future, it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to follow Miller to LA.
Rizzotti said the Sun players said they would like a former player as a coach, which led her to White. And White said she wants to bring former players onto her staff. White played five years in the WNBA and spent 10 seasons as a coach in the league, including a 37-31 record and a Finals appearance in two seasons as head coach of the Fever.
She said her time as an assistant coach in Indiana taught her how to communicate between the head coach and players. She wants assistants who can help her do the same with the Sun players since she is now further removed from the experience of being a WNBA player.
“I’m looking for young, hungry coaches who want to be in the gym with our players, who want to continue to develop them, who want to challenge them, but also who are relationship driven,” White said. “It’s important to have former players as well. Being able to help mold and empower and prepare that next group of women to coach in our league is important.”
Since White is a former WNBA player, the team can choose to sign three assistant coaches, something other teams have already taken advantage of in previous years.
One intriguing option is Briann January, who recently retired from the WNBA and has expressed interest in coaching. January has previous coaching experience as a volunteer assistant at Adelphi University in 2013 and at her alma mater — Arizona State University — in 2018.
January started two seasons for the Sun in 2020 and 2021 and has played with everyone in the core group, but first became a star with the Indiana Fever and was on every Fever team that White was a part of, including both championship, runs. Having January — someone who has already had a relationship and familiarity with the players — on the staff could help ease the transition and could be huge in helping develop the Sun’s young guards.
The front office already has three former players in Rizzotti, White and Tuck. While technically not on the coaching staff, the Sun benefited from having two players in, Alyssa Thomas during the 2021 season and Jasmine Thomas in 2022, serve as de facto coaches, who were able to bring a players’ perspective to the sideline and provide feedback to players and coaches during games.
“Not everyone understands how hard it is. Not everyone understands the work that it takes. And as a player, you don’t get it. I didn’t get it. You go to work and you go home, and as coach, that’s just not the way it works,” White said. “You’re always on and there are talented women in our league who have a coach’s mind (and) who have a coach’s work ethic. (They) just need opportunity and just need experience, and we want to provide that for them.”