June 29, 2021 

The Sun are rising again, and Jonquel Jones’ return is on the horizon

Connecticut went 2-3 while Jones was away at EuroBasket

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Starters Jasmine Thomas, Kaila Charles, Briann January, and Brionna Jones walk on the court together during the Sun’s series finale against the Chicago Sky on Sunday, June 27, at Mohegan Sun Arena. Photo by Khoi Ton.

UNCASVILLE – Before Sunday’s game against the Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller said the Sky were bound to go on runs throughout the game. How Connecticut responded to the pressure would decide who came out on top.

The Sky were averaging more than 90 points a game on a seven-game win streak, but looked out of sync as Connecticut jumped out to a 21-13 lead after the first quarter. Brionna Jones dominated the paint from the beginning, recording 10 points and six rebounds (including three offensive rebounds) in the first 10 minutes.

Candace Parker didn’t score until a putback about halfway through the second quarter. With three minutes until the half, DeWanna Bonner pulled up from three to put the Sun ahead by 17. Then came the run Miller expected.

Courtney Vandersloot answered Bonner with a pull up three of her own to spark a 13-point Sky run. Connecticut turned the ball over three times and missed their final three shot attempts of the first half, while the Sky closed the half with their first three three-pointers of the game. 

But Connecticut locked down on defense and attacked the rim at the start of the second half. They went back to what they know best — attacking the paint and providing enough inside-out spacing to get open perimeter shots. After a 16’ pullup from Vandersloot started the second half, Jones, Bonner, and Jasmine Thomas took control scoring all of Connecticut’s 26 third-quarter points. 

With 2:35 left in the third, Jasmine Thomas picked off a pass from Allie Quigley to Vandersloot. She took it all the way to the basket before tossing a lob over Diamond DeShields to Bonner, who tapped it back to Thomas for an easy layup that brought the Sun lead back to 17.

The Sky wouldn’t score more than four straight points the rest of the game, and the Sun’s lead never fell below 16. 

Chicago scored a season-low 58 points on 33 percent shooting, scoring 5 for 24 from three, and zero transition points. Kahleah Copper and Allie Quigley led the Sky with 11 points each, while Candace Parker, Diamond DeShields, and Courtney Vandersloot combined for just 15 points total. 

Jasmine Thomas, DeWanna Bonner, and Brionna Jones outscored the entire Sky team, combining for 62 points on Sunday. Miller said they were looking for balance, and they found a stable triangle — Thomas attacked the rim and Jones dominated the paint, while Bonner rained threes.

“We talked about, could we find an equal balance tonight? Could we get Bri Jones touches? Could we get guards into the lane and playing inside out?” Miller said. “There was a toughness about us. While we weren’t perfect, there was a toughness. There’s an effort. We played really, really hard tonight.”

Jonquel Jones was listed as “available” on Tuesday morning after the missing the last few weeks because of international commitments, and if she plays against the Washington Mystics as expected, the Sun would end their stretch without their best player with a 2-3 record — and still comfortably in third place in the standings.

She was clearly missed. When she was protecting the rim, grabbing offensive rebounds and spacing the floor, she covered for almost any mistakes the team could make. It took some time, but Connecticut finally learned how to adjust their game, and Jones is returning to a team that has the confidence of knowing it can still play good basketball even without possibly the best player in the world.

“We know that we can continue to, you know, go at people hard, and we have people coming off the bench who are ready to come in and contribute,” Bri Jones said. “We’re just gonna be even better when she’s on the court. You know, like, with her coming back, our leading scorer coming back. … We can only go up from here.” 

Miller likes to talk about the unintended consequences of key players missing time, and Kaila Charles played herself into a starting role — scoring double digits each of the first four games before being held scoreless on Sunday as she struggled with being called for fouls while guarding DeShields. 

“I definitely think it made me more comfortable, more confident, being able to play more minutes,” Charles said. “Being able to get those reps, in game reps, made me more veteran, you know, helped me learn the game more, and just helped me improve. So I’m looking forward to being able to carry that over when JJ comes back, you know, being that spark off the bench, and just getting better every single day.”

Just like she did in Jonquel Jones’ absence last season, Bri Jones has taken another step up. She struggled at times when she saw extra attention in the post in the first few games, but adjusted and has scored 20 points in each of the last three games. She was unstoppable in the paint on Sunday, scoring 21 on 8 for 13 shooting, and rounded out her game with nine rebounds and two assists. 

DeWanna Bonner certainly earned her conference player of the week nod, averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 assists — but she and Miller both said it could have easily gone to Jones. Miller has called her the best low-post center in the game other than the Olympians, and she showed that on Sunday as she went to work against Stef Dolson.

Bonner said that the team learned that they have to play the same way with or without Jonquel Jones and stick to what the team knows and thrives on — strong defense, owning the paint, and playing inside out. 

The Sun will also have the clean up the turnovers, which have been an issue for most of the season, but seemed to improve before the Sun hit their three-game losing streak. In their three June losses against Seattle at home and Chicago away twice, the Sun totaled 52 turnovers that led to 63 points for the other team. The Sun’s 20 turnovers on Sunday were more than any other game in that span, but the Sky were only able to convert that to 12 points, while the Sun added 20 points off of 19 Sky turnovers. 

“They weren’t able to take those turnovers and get out into position, so I think just having a better awareness of that is what helped us. And then, you know, just being aggressive and being active,” Bri Jones said. “We were active in all of our gaps this game and that allowed us to be successful on defense.”

Adding Jonquel Jones back may not make the immediate impact everyone believes it will — or at least that’s what Curt Miller wants his opponents to think. Jones has been on a tear during EuroBasket (setting a EuroBasket single-game rebounding record and being named to the All-Tournament team), but he said getting readjusted to the Sun system will take some time. Not that we haven’t seen her do it before, though.

Jones had just one practice with the team during training camp before the 2021 opener in May, and that’s after returning to a new look team after opting out for the 2020 season.  Jasmine Thomas didn’t show any concern about getting her longtime teammate back in the mix.

“JJ is the type of player that you know whether she’s here or not, when she comes back into this, it’s easy to get her into a flow,” Thomas said on Monday afternoon. “She does everything for us, you know, so she’s gonna fit in exactly where she was when when she left.”

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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