The Connecticut Sun are bringing a different look to the 2020 season
Curt Miller welcomes six new faces to the team
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Connecticut Sun forward Theresa Plaisance (55) Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas (5) Connecticut Sun guard Bria Holmes (32) and Connecticut Sun forward Morgan Tuck (33) during the WNBA game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on August 23, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
The Connecticut Sun finished a single win shy of the 2019 WNBA title. But that team, last seen taking the Washington Mystics to the brink, no longer exists.
The Sun welcome six new players this season: DeWanna Bonner, Kaila Charles, Jacki Gemelos, Briann January, Beatrice Mompremier and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. The returnees? Natisha Hiedeman, Bria Holmes, Brionna Jones, Theresa Plaisance, Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas.
Miller believes that this new team has a high ceiling, too.
“Our bench has more versatility than we've had in the past,” Miller said from Bradenton, Florida this week, ahead of the July 26 opener against the Lynx. “We may have a little bit more athleticism. At the same time, you know it's going to be a work in progress… we can't be playing September and October basketball right now, we have to go through the steps, we've got to grind through them the highs and lows and just continue to keep getting better and better but if we can, be a playoff team.”
With Jonquel Jones opting out and Hiedeman and January self-isolating, the coaching staff has had to get creative with their lineups and make adjustments to previous plans for the season.
During Media Day, assistant coach Chris Koclanes said that Gemelos was running point on the second team, something that challenged her.
Gemelos said that she hadn’t played the point guard position in 15 years, but has been able to make the adjustment.
“I'm super excited to try and help in that aspect and be able to be somewhat of a relief for Jas if she's tired in the game for the first few games, or if she's in foul trouble, whatever the situation is,” Gemelos said said.
Gemelos naturally plays the 2 or the 3, but said she’s been floating around right now with Hiedeman and January’s absence.
Their absence has led to Jasmine Thomas rarely getting a break in practice, something that she has embraced, saying it’s helped her get her conditioning back.
“I'm a player that likes to play defense, likes the pressure,” Thomas said. “So being able to do some of that early so that when it comes time to games I can kind of dial it back a little bit in practice has helped me.”
Even down a few guards, the versatility of the Sun’s bigs help to give Thomas a break on playmaking duties, even when she’s in the game.
“You've seen [Alyssa Thomas] and what she's able to do with running our fastbreak and calling set spread,” Thomas said. “She played some minutes at the 1 last year as well. And then now having DeWanna also someone that can just rebound and run the break. I think that's going to help me and even when we get Bri and T back that's still going to be something that they do for us is having our 4s push the ball.”
While head coach Curt Miller referred to a lineup with Bonner at the 5, Alyssa Thomas at the 4, and three guards as their small one, only Jasmine Thomas (5’9) and Mosqueda-Lewis (5’11) are under 6’ tall.
When he plays a bigger lineup he plans to put Jones at the 5, Bonner at what he referred to as “her natural 3 position” and Holmes at the 2.
“And so we get really long and lanky so we're gonna have to be really good defensively, we're gonna have to create some offense with our defense,” Miller said. “We've got to get disruptive and get deflections.”
Charles said that defense has been emphasized in practice. She noted that the team has been known for their defense for the last couple of years and they’re working to make sure the newcomers know the principles.
Miller believes that despite losing an All-Defensive First Team player in Jonquel Jones, his defense can be good because of the talents of Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas, as well as the length of Bonner and Holmes. However, he acknowledged that there is no substitute for building chemistry on the court.
Every player on the Sun is versatile. That’s how Miller likes it.
Bonner came to the Sun in the offseason after spending her first 11 seasons with the Phoenix Mercury.
Last season she averaged 17.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Her teammates are excited to play with her and see her versatile skills at work.
“For me it's just another weapon in transition,” Alyssa Thomas said. “We've seen what she's been able to do in her career, and I'm just excited to have her on our side. Finally.”
Similarly, Jasmine Thomas is excited about Bonner’s leadership and championship mentality.
In the first few days of practice Miller and his coaching staff began working to figure out where Bonner is most successful on the floor.
“It's a fun problem to try to figure out,” Miller said. “But DeWanna is a very unselfish scorer — I mean her numbers are off the charts — and when you work with her personally you realize just how talented of an offensive player she is and she can do that in such a variety of ways.”
The Sun selected Charles with the 23rd overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft out of the University of Maryland.
Last season Charles averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. At Maryland she played the four, but has been shifted to more of a guard position with the Sun, something she has enjoyed.
“I like to make plays and I like to have the ball in my hands and make plays for my teammates and so being able to play that position now is exciting because that's kind of my natural position that I kind of grew up playing,” Charles said.
She also said that though it’s a little difficult because she hasn’t played the position consistently in a couple of years, she's working to get better every single practice and learn as much as she can.
Gemelos joins the Sun after five years away from the league, last playing with the Chicago Sky in 2015. Miller has expressed interest in signing her and finally did this offseason. He believes there’s no better story in the bubble due to her perseverance and determination through her injuries.
Miller views her as a veteran and a playmaker, and has enjoyed coaching her so far.
“I love people that are uniters in the locker room,” he said. “People that are positive, people that have tremendous gratitude. There is a great appreciation of people at the end of your bench that have gratitude to be in this league and she's earned it.”
He also noted that she is well-respected around the league because of how she has played overseas over the years.
Gemelos knows her strengths and what she can contribute.
“I think that the biggest thing that I can bring to the team is my three-point shooting,” shw said. “..As a guard I do like to facilitate. Maybe that's why they're seeing me as that backup point guard, for now.”
Even after Hiedeman and January return, Gemelos’ versatility will keep her cemented in the rotation.
Hiedeman is still in Connecticut after testing positive for COVID-19, but plans to join the team when she can.
Last year, she served as backup point guard to Jasmine Thomas. Hiedeman has the ability to come off the bench and provide a spark, as well as another three-point threat. Last season she averaged 3.7 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 10 minutes per game.
Holmes grew two inches this offseason, something she didn’t realize until she went to the doctor ahead of the season. Even at 6’3 she has been played primarily at the 2, a potential mismatch nightmare for opponents.
Her perimeter shooting is a point of emphasis for her — she shot a career-best 31.7 percent from behind the arc in 2019, and Holmes has continued to work on in the offseason.
She has openly accepted the challenge of playing the 2, though she added that the position isn’t that different from the 3 with the Sun.
January comes to the Sun for her 12th year in the league after spending the last two seasons in Phoenix.
She averaged 6.5 points and 3.3 rebounds a game last season and will provide a consistent presence behind Jasmine Thomas when she is able to join the team in Florida. She’ll also help the team stretch the floor as she shot 37.8 percent from behind the arc last season.
After three years playing behind Jonquel Jones, the Sun plan to feature Brionna Jones far more in Jonquel’s absence.
Fellow Maryland alum Alyssa Thomas is excited to see Jones get the minutes she believes she deserves.
“She's not your typical post player that we're used to seeing in this league,” Thomas said. “She is undersized, but she understands how to use her body well and I think a lot of people are going to be surprised what she can do. But then again, a lot of these people have played against her overseas in EuroLeague, so everyone knows what she's capable of.”
Jones put up cartoon numbers with USK Praha overseas, so this is no idle talk. Miller called Jones a tremendous X’s and O’s player. She is always in the right position defensively, and understands her strengths.
“She brings us a different type of defensive presence and than JJ [Jonquel Jones],” Miller said. “She's not going to be the rim protector that JJ is but positionally she really understands what's going on around her. She gives us a physical presence, around the low block, against some of these monster post players in the league.”
Mompremier was drafted 20th overall by the Los Angeles Sparks, but was waived prior to the June 1 deadline. On June 23 she was signed by the Sun.
Miller said they had the rim running post player on the team’s draft board as a first-round talent. He believes she has a high ceiling, that she can drive it in from the elbows and be creative off the bounce.
“She's got to make an adjustment to the physicality [and] the speed of the game,” Miller said. “And so, her head's spinning a little bit here in the first two days. And when you have Alyssa Thomas guarding you a lot of practice — there's a lot of people that have had their head spinning when Alyssa Thomas guards them.”
Mosqueda-Lewis joins the Sun after spending the first five years with the Seattle Storm. Her opportunities with the Storm were limited, having never averaged more than 14 minutes per game, something expected to change in Connecticut.
Alyssa Thomas called her the one of the elite shooters in the league and Miller believes that she is talented in transition, similar to former Sun wing Shekinna Stricklen.
“If you don't find her coming out of transition, she's going to make a three,” Miller said. “It's going to be fun coaching Kaleena and I think it's a spark to her, a fresh start. And I love when I have her on the court right now, especially at the offensive end because she provides that spacing that I so covet.”
Mosqueda-Lewis said she hoped to bring spacing and outside shooting to the team as well as “just try to kind of be a spark off the bench, someone who brings energy and knocks down open shots and opens up the lane so Alyssa can bulldoze over people like she usually does.”
Plaisance was traded to the Sun in early August 2019 and played limited minutes for the team last season while struggling with a back injury.
While she has been feeling better, she is not fully back in practice. When she is able to play she’ll add another versatile component to the team’s post play.
Plaisance has the ability to stretch the floor and shoot threes — a career 34.9 percent mark from deep — a skill that will be incredibly important with the absence of Jonquel Jones.
Thomas said that she would be running the point at times this season, similar to how the Sun utilized her during the Finals last season. She stressed the versatility of the team and that they would be playing without positions this season, adding that she would not be shooting from the perimeter this season. She has just made one of her ten attempted threes in her first six seasons.
She averaged 37 minutes during last season’s playoffs and it sounds like she’ll be doing something similar in this regular season. Last year, Thomas averaged 11.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game. The team will need every bit of her versatility if they are going to make another run at a WNBA title.
As Thomas enters her sixth season with the Sun, she will be asked to take on more responsibility than ever before. While the team waits for Hiedeman and January to return, most of the point guard duties will fall on Thomas.
She averaged 11.1 points, 5.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game, and will have to provide the same leadership to lead this very different team back to the Finals.
“It’s just figuring out how to get the chemistry right with this group,” Thomas said. “I’m a player who likes to play middle pick-and-roll, who likes to play transitions. So coming out of those ball screens, I feel like I have a lot of options.”