May 16, 2023
2023 WNBA season preview: Connecticut Sun
The energy feels different in Connecticut this season
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – The energy feels different in Connecticut this season.
For years, the Sun have consistently been at the top of the league, bringing back a familiar group of players year after year to play their trademark gritty, smashmouth style of basketball. But after losing their second Finals in four years, they’re making a fresh start.
Longtime head coach and general manager Curt Miller, captain Jasmine Thomas and 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones are all on to new chapters in the league’s biggest markets — Miller and Thomas in Los Angeles and Jones in New York. `
And back in the league’s smallest market, Sun president Jen Rizzotti is turning the page for the franchise — bringing in head coach Stephanie White, who promises a dramatic shift to a free-flowing, NBA-style offense, and general manager Darius Taylor, who has already turned the page by building a roster that could have four or five new players when the Sun tip-off on May 19 against the Indiana Fever.
It’s a new challenge for a team used to running it back, but one they’re embracing. Third-year player DiJonai Carrington said it’s been a fresh start, learning new systems and meeting new teammates. Alyssa Thomas said the franchise has a new energy, and it’s the most excited she’s been for a season in years.
“It’s just been a breath of fresh air, you know — a new staff that’s excited to be here. A lot of them are first-time [coaching] in the league, and they’re ready to teach. It’s new for all of us,” Thomas said. “So it’s been a learning experience. It’s just about growing together as a team and getting better day by day.”
It wasn’t as shocking for the players as it was to the WNBA world when it was announced Jones had been traded to the I-95 rival Liberty. Sun players spoke openly during their playoff run that they saw it as their last chance to win a title together. Jonquel Jones returned on a two-year contract last season with a promise she would be traded this offseason.
Thomas, now the unquestioned top dog of this team after sharing that role with Jones for years, said the former MVP moving on is something the team had talked about. After spending a lot of time in one place, some people are ready for a change, she said. It’s just part of the game, she said, and it’s a fact of life for Connecticut in particular.
“That’s just part of basketball, especially in Connecticut. It’s a hard place to keep people for a long period of time, but it’s the next person up,” Alyssa Thomas told The Next. “Bri (Jones) is a capable starter. I mean, we have (Natisha Hiedeman) who’s coming into her own – she was our starter last year.”
But for all the changes this offseason, some things stay the same. White has said defense, preparation and relentless intensity will continue to be the Sun’s identity. And Thomas said the goal is still the same.
“For us, there’s no drop-off. It’s just picking up where we left off,” Thomas said. “And we want to get back to the Finals.”
New coach, new offense
From the first day she was introduced as the new coach at Mohegan Sun Arena, White has made it clear that the Sun’s offense will not look the same.
In previous seasons, the Sun offense has been characterized by slow-developing half-court sets and Miller’s efforts to — sometimes awkwardly — fit together an abundance of dominant frontcourt players without much shooting to space the floor for them.
White has another vision — one of a fast-paced, free-flowing offense where players make reads more than they run plays and rain threes. She said her system is inspired by fluid offenses seen with the NBA’s Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets — similar to the system longtime NBA assistant coach Becky Hammon used to get the Las Vegas Aces over the hump to their first WNBA championship last season.
Fast pace and constant movement make offenses difficult to guard because defenses can’t rest as they’re constantly pressured by all five players, she said. And if defenses choose not to guard somebody — like they did last season, leaving Thomas alone at the 3-point line to fill in the paint — movement is going to help the Sun find their advantage, she said.
“That’s the advantage of an offense like this, being able to make it difficult for defenses,” White said. “Put them in rotation early, make it tougher to recover, open up offensive rebound opportunities, and take open shots and high percentage shots when you get them.”
White said the Sun are going to build around what Thomas does best — make plays and facilitate the offense. She said Thomas is going to be asked to move around on offense more than she has in the past, but she is going to have the ball in her hands — a lot.
Thomas is thrilled about the new offense — a big reason she’s so excited about this season. She said she wanted White as the Sun’s coach, saying she’s heard nothing but great things about her, and told Rizzotti that during the team’s search.
White and Taylor flew out to Prague at the start of free agency — partly to lock down free agent Brionna Jones as the team’s new cornerstone but also to start to show Thomas and Jones the new offense.
“I think it’s exciting that finally, we’re bringing an NBA-style offense,” Thomas said. “I think that’s one of the things that league is lacking, is it’s such a college-oriented offense. And now that we’re getting to play up-tempo and free movement, it’s really exciting.”
DeWanna Bonner said the offense is nothing like what she’s done in the 13 years she’s played in the WNBA but has seen glimpses of it from Las Vegas last season.
“We’re just learning right now, so hopefully, we can figure it out. Of course, it is fast-paced. But it’s been really exciting. It’s been a new challenge that I haven’t faced in my basketball career,” Bonner said. “I’m really excited to try to crack the code.”
Roster moves bring shooters to Uncasville
In the initial trade that sent Jonquel Jones to New York, the Sun added Rebecca Allen from the Liberty and Tyasha Harris from the Dallas Wings – two versatile guards who White sees fitting into the team’s puzzle right away.
Allen suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung during the World Cup in October that kept her from playing overseas, but White said she’s looked comfortable and confident early in camp and has been moving well.
She had a down year last season as she dealt with injuries, shooting just 31.3% from three – but she made 37% from deep in her seven seasons in New York. The Sun are counting on her shooting more like she did in 2021 when she converted 38% on five attempts from three a game.
Bonner said the team is confident in Allen’s shooting and that the offense the staff is implementing caters to her ability. They’ve encouraged her not to pass up shots during practice as she finds her footing with her new team.
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“I really want to be able to knock down those shots when they’re open. That’s something that I’ve always had in my game, and that’s something that I’ve always sort of fallen back on,” Allen said. “The shots will come, but there’s also a dynamic of being that spacer and also creating out of that with a long close out.”
Harris didn’t find much opportunity during her three seasons in a crowded Wings backcourt, but the Sun think she can make a difference with consistent playing time. And it’s clear they see her as a key piece of the future, announcing Tuesday that they’ve extended her contract through the 2025 season.
Harris said she likes what she’s seen from White’s system and said the up-tempo style fits her because she’s quick and likes to make reads and react. The only true point guard on the Sun roster, Harris will have opportunities. She said she wants to focus on being a leader when she’s on the floor.
“I have to be more vocal and that’s what I’m learning and trying to focus on now, just being more vocal because I’m silent and shy sometimes,” Harris said.
But perhaps the Sun’s most impactful acquisition this offseason is Tiffany Hayes, who the team signed to a one-year deal after flipping the No. 6 pick acquired in the Jones trade to Atlanta for the rights to sign Hayes.
In Hayes, the Sun added an explosive two-way player and veteran leader to the backcourt. But she has the potential to make the most impact with her shot – whether she’s running to the rim in transition or pulling up from deep.
Bonner played with Hayes for CBK Mersin for the last two years in Turkey and said she was constantly in Hayes’ ear to try and get her to Connecticut. Now that Hayes is here, Bonner believes she elevates the team as an elite guard and said people will actually get to see Hayes in her element after dealing with injuries over the last few seasons in Atlanta.
Fitting with the team’s identity, Hayes comes to Connecticut with a chip on her shoulder. She’s eager to remind people just how good of a shooter she can be – shooting above 40% from three each of her last two seasons.
“I’m not in any specific box when it comes to playing basketball,” Hayes said. “So whatever is needed from me here, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
White and the front office have spoken highly of another UConn alum, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, since acquiring her in the trade that sent Jasmine Thomas to the Sparks. She appears to be featured as the backup center to Jones.
They’re high on her potential, especially how she can grow her game by working daily with and against Jones in practice. And White has said the playmaking skills she learned as a big in Geno Auriemma’s offense will fit the read-and-react style.
Lauren Cox, who made the final 11 after returning from Spain for the final days of training camp, has struggled to catch on in the WNBA since the Indiana Fever drafted her third in 2020. And she didn’t play in the league last year. But the 6’5 forward has been hitting threes playing for Valencia in Europe, making 38.7% from deep and showing how she can be a valuable floor spacer in White’s system.
On Tuesday, the Sun appeared to finalize their roster, trading a 2025 third-round pick to the Dream for Leigha Brown, a former Michigan guard who Atlanta drafted 15th overall in last month’s draft. The Sun waived undrafted rookies Jayla Everett and Caitlin Bickle and, most surprisingly, 2022 first-round pick Nia Clouden.
Same players, new roles
Along with bringing in a stable of players who can shoot the three, the Sun made it a priority to keep their best shooter — fifth-year guard Hiedeman.
Hiedeman said she had interest from multiple teams as a restricted free agent, but she returned to Connecticut on a two-year deal because Connecticut has always been her home in the league — even if that looks different from years past in her career.
“One-thousand percent, everything changed. It’s a lot of learning right now, but I think that with the players that we have and what Steph is bringing to the offense, I think that is going to be really good for us and it’s gonna really make teams have to guard us,” Hiedeman said.
Mainly a rotational shooter in her first three seasons, Hiedeman took a huge leap in 2022, stepping into the starting point guard role when Jasmine Thomas went down for the season. She said she expects to play both on-and off-ball roles in White’s positionless offense. She doesn’t know if she’ll be starting again this season, but she said it doesn’t matter to her.
“Starting, coming off the bench — whatever,” Hiedeman said. “I know what I gotta bring to the team and what I have to do.”
Some returning players have clearer roles. White, Taylor and Rizzotti have all been very clear that this team is building around Thomas and Jones for the foreseeable future. Thomas will continue to be the engine that drives the team as a premier facilitator on offense and the foundation of the defense. And Jones will step back into the starting role and be a dominating force in the paint, and hopefully start to stretch the floor more.
“The great thing about Bri is that she’s always ready. Even early on in her career, when she wasn’t playing, she was still working, getting better overseas. And, you know, (2020) bubble season was an easy transition for her for a starting role,” Thomas said. ”We’ve been playing together so long that it’s second nature, so I’m just used to seeing her do what she does, so it’s really no different.”
After averaging 13.5 points per game last season – her lowest season scoring effort since 2014 – Bonner said she felt like she had a down year and wants to improve on her efficiency.
White doesn’t think that will be a tall task in the new system, where Bonner can focus more on being a spot-up shooter and be less concerned with playmaking and ball handling. Bonner said White sat her down and showed her the kinds of difficult shots she was taking last season – shots the new coach doesn’t want to see this year.
“I’m old now, so I just need to get to my spot and shoot the ball,” Bonner said.
Carrington’s role has grown in her first two seasons as a high-energy player off the bench who can get loose in transition, but this year the staff wants her to focus on getting offensive rebounds and defensive tenacity.
“I know personally what I can bring on the offensive end, but I think my ticket to getting more playing time is going to be a defensive stopper and wanting that assignment on (the opponent’s) best perimeter player every night.”