May 14, 2021
2021 WNBA season preview: Connecticut Sun
Jasmine Thomas is temporarily suspended and will join the team after she clears COVID protocols
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Photo credit: Chris Poss // August 1, 2019
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It’s been a long training camp for the Connecticut Sun. In 19 days, the team didn’t get one day of camp with the team’s full starting lineup — something crucial for a team that will rely on its veteran leadership to push them back into contention for the franchise’s first-ever championship.
The Sun shaved their camp from what began as a 22-player roster to 11 players on Thursday ahead of the season opener in Atlanta on Friday night. The team will carry 11 players, including Alyssa Thomas who will miss the season with an Achilles injury. DiJonai Carrington, who the Sun selected No. 20 overall in this year’s draft, secured a spot, as well as Stephanie Jones, Bri Jones’ younger sister.
Jasmine Thomas is temporarily suspended and will join the team after she clears COVID protocols.
An 0-5 start last season looked like it could sink the Sun’s chances at another Finals run before it began, but the team rallied back to make the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. They plowed their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and just barely missed out on a second-straight finals appearance in a Game 5 semifinals loss that came down to the final possession.
COVID protocols in the Bradenton bubble made for a strange start to last season for everyone, but the Sun are heading towards an unusual start this season, too.
The Sun relied on DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones as the most experienced veterans in camp, as well as Alyssa Thomas’ leadership on the sidelines. But even they didn’t return until a few days into camp.
The Sun completed their preseason slate — a scrimmage at home against New York on May 3 and a full preseason match in Dallas on May 8 — without starters Jonquel Jones, Briann January, and Jasmine Thomas.
Jonquel Jones, the key to the Sun’s success this season, cleared COVID protocols and joined the team on Wednesday — giving her only two days to practice with the team, including Bonner, who she’s never played with before. B. January had her first practice with the team on Thursday after coming off a Hungarian League championship overseas.
Miller said he supported his players’ overseas careers and made sure that they received at least a few days between their offseasons for a mental health break, but at some point, the league needs to figure out how to avoid the scheduling conflict.
“My honest takeaway is we’ve got to figure out how to get these pros back from their international seasons,” Miller said. “I’m so proud of our players and their loyalty to their international teams, and I’m happy for their success. We have so many of them on the best teams in their individual leagues, (which) comes with that ability to play for championships, comes (with) that playoff bonus money for them. But it totally affects our product in the WNBA.”
With so much uncertainty throughout camp, the Sun may need a few games to get everyone on the same page. And having that chemistry will be even more important with talisman Alyssa Thomas missing the season. Jonquel Jones admitted the team is still learning and growing, but she sounded sure they would figure it out.
“I think our ceiling is as high as we want it to go. I think we can be a very successful team, but it all comes down to how we mesh on the court, and how we’re able to problem solve, you know, as we hit adversity,” Jones told media on Thursday. “As of right now, I’m not going to say too much on the ceiling, but I know that we’re going to be a good team.”
What do you do without Alyssa Thomas?
Thomas is an elite defender and rebounder and was the Sun’s second-highest scorer last season. She is the fiercest competitor on the floor on any given night.
She is impossible to replace, but if you were going to try, bringing back Jonquel Jones is a very good start. Jones is one of the league’s top bigs, and she will pick up Thomas’s scoring and rebounding load. But even as versatile as Jones is, she doesn’t have the playmaking ability of Thomas, who is the best facilitating forward in the game.
As an elite rim protector, Jones will also bolster the Sun’s offense. But Thomas led the league in steals last year, and her ability to force turnovers was a major part of the team’s identity. In their preseason game Saturday, the Sun only forced four steals and nine turnovers. It’s hard to tell what is real or not in the preseason, but Miller is keenly aware of how difficult it will be to force as many turnovers this season.
“One of the things that the coaches talked about immediately after the game is without AT can we create as many turnovers?” Miller said. “I thought we were pretty good in certain areas defensively, but we just didn’t create the turnovers that we would like.”
Jones and Thomas provide different skillsets, and since Jones has never played with Bonner, or really even Brionna Jones, it’s forced the coaches to adjust their playbook to fit the strengths of this season’s big three.
“As much as we miss AT and what she did for us, JJ is a different player, right, so we’ve had to tweak our offense because JJ just brings a different skillset as far as her shooting, and her rim protection and things like that,” assistant coach Brandi Poole said on Thursday. “Bri Jones still has to touch the ball. We played through her all last year in the wubble and it was fantastic. Where can we get JJ touches? On the block and on the perimeter. And DB, the ball’s got to be in her hands to make plays. So a little bit different look at times because we have to play to our strengths and those strengths are different now with different people on the floor.”
Although Thomas won’t make her impact directly on the floor, she’ll be an important key player on the team’s sideline. The younger players in camp have said that having her in practice has been important to their progression as they competed to make the final cut.
“Even though (Thomas) is not playing this year, you wouldn’t know it based off of how much she still communicates with us on the side,” Carrington said. “When I do something wrong, I look at her because I know that she’s gonna, you know, tell me what I should have done or just help me correct it.”
Dominate the paint
Efficiency in the paint was an issue last season. The Sun took more shots in the restricted area than any other team, but only converted 59.6% of the time — tied for the last with the Liberty. Only the Las Vegas Aces attempted more shots from 5-to-9 feet out, but the Sun were in the bottom quarter of the league, shooting 35.4% from that range.
With Jonquel Jones back in the rotation, Connecticut will have one of the tallest groups of post players in the league and could take advantage of some big lineups with Bonner, Jonquel Jones and Bri Jones — or Beatrice Mompremier — on the floor.
Bri Jones excelled on the offensive glass last season, and Jonquel Jones has led the league in offensive rebounds twice in her career. Miller said Bri Jones is going to need to continue to be the strong inside presence she was last season, even with Jonquel Jones back in the lineup. But he was ambivalent about the Sun’s 16 offensive rebounds against the Wings in preseason.
“I hate that stat though, because that means you missed a lot of shots if you got 16 offensive rebounds,” Miller said. “I wish we would shoot a better percentage.”
But Miller said those rebounds translated to at least 20 points for the offense. If the Sun can convert on those second chance opportunities throughout the season, it could be a major boost for a team that can go cold from outside.
Who will bring offensive consistency off the bench?
Miller headed into the preseason looking for someone to be an offensive spark plug off the bench. Carrington, who scored 16 points off of 6-of-15 shooting in the preseason game against Dallas, may be that player.
The Sun’s core has proven they can play with anyone, but the team’s depth has hurt them in the playoffs. If the starters couldn’t find their shot, there wasn’t someone who could consistently provide a spark off the bench.
Fatigue seemed to play a factor, too. In Game 5 of the 2020 semifinals, the Sun closed the first half up six points, but shot just 27 percent in the second half and only scored two points in the final six minutes.
Connecticut has one of the youngest and most inexperienced reserve rotations in the league, no matter who ends up on the final roster. The team needs better 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting, and it will look to its young trio of guards: Carrington, Natisha Hiedeman and Kaila Charles to help get that done.
Bonner has been impressed with Carrington’s attentiveness in practice and said her physicality mirrors Charles’. Although the rookie still has a lot to learn, Bonner thinks she’ll make a great addition to the roster.
“When I tell you she’s not afraid, she’s not afraid. She gets the ball, she takes the shots that are given to her. She’s aggressive. She’s aggressive on defense. She’s trying to pick up the system, learn the system, and she’s picking it up really really fast,” Bonner said. “I think she’s what we need right now, especially with Alyssa being out. Somebody who can get in there and bully a little bit.”