May 1, 2023 

Connecticut Sun rookies get crash course in leap from college to WNBA

Morris, Bickle quickly get up to speed in fight for final roster spot(s)

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Her communication and energy have drawn positive reviews for Alexis Morris in her first few days training with the Connecticut Sun, but the rookie guard acknowledged picking up the speed of the pro game and a vastly different offensive system than she played in college has been a challenge.

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New Sun head coach Stephanie White has talked about bringing the Sun a more uptempo and free-flowing system than in recent years, relying on players moving and making reads rather than running set plays and backing down the post.

Learning that system while also battling for a roster spot has been an adjustment for Morris, who said the offense she’s used to from playing at LSU under Kim Mulkey was more stagnant.

That offense helped Morris and the rest of a talented LSU roster win a NCAA Championship last month, but she said it didn’t prepare her for what was coming in the WNBA. In a TikTok Morris posted after a workout Saturday, she said that in order for the league to grow, college programs need to do more to prepare their players for the next level.

“You need to watch the league to see the style, the systems that they’re running, so that the adjustment for women college players to the WNBA won’t be so difficult,” Morris said in the video. “I’m not saying that it’s difficult for everyone, but I do think the style that you play in college can either help or hurt you when you’re transitioning to the next level.”

Morris told reporters Sunday, the opening day of training camp, that she thinks some people took her comments the wrong way and assumed she was sad about the transition from college to the pros.

With only 12 spots on each WNBA team, and many carrying only 11 with cap constraints, it has been difficult for rookies to come into camp right after their college careers end and make a team. 

Morris, who won an NCAA Championship just four weeks ago, is now in camp battling for a final guard spot on the Connecticut Sun roster that will only carry 11 players.

But Morris said she’s excited for the opportunity. She was commenting to help other players understand that transitioning to a pro offense can be challenging — especially the pace.

Ending the first day of camp with a message for her new team — including six rookies — coach White told players she needs to see them playing with elite pace and being intentional in their movement. If they can’t show high effort consistently, she said, “this is not the place for you.”

Morris finished her five-year NCAA career under Mulkey at LSU, but she said the year she spent playing for C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers’ gave her the best look at a pro offense — moving quickly and constantly.

“At LSU, the offense can get really stagnant sometimes and it’s just very different from what we’re doing here in the pros,” Morris said.

White, who most recently coached at Vanderbilt University from 2016 to 2021, said one of the toughest challenges that a college coach has is finding the balance between winning as a team and helping individual players develop for the future.

“That is the single toughest challenge I think college coaches have and I think the ones who are the most successful find the balance of your team and helping the players to continue to grow their game,” White said 

Rookie forward Caitlin Bickle played her last two seasons at Baylor under Nikki Collen, who coached the Atlanta Dream from 2018 until just before 2021, when she left the Dream to replace, ironically enough, Mulkey. One of a handful of versatile bigs and forwards the Sun have invited to camp to battle out for a spot backing up Alyssa Thomas, Bickle is embracing the opportunity.

She said learning from Collen, the 2018 WNBA Coach of the Year, has prepared her for the jump to the pro game — with her Baylor coach using familiar lingo and defensive concepts, and especially emphasizing pace in her system. 

“The talk was the same – the ideas of dragging in transition, stepping up in transition, hitting the drift pass whenever you go baseline, just different things like that,” Bickle said. “Our biggest thing today on the first day was space and pace, and I think Nikki did that with our team the last couple years that she’s been at Baylor.”

Morris said her experience in college relied on players’ individual speed and talent to win. In her first taste of the pro level, she’s learning it’s about doing the small things right — playing with pace, making the right reads, and moving, she said.

“I’m kind of a free-spirited player, but when you’re part of a new system you adjust and you learn, and you be coachable,” Morris said. “So that’s the transition I’m having right now. Just learning to do the small things right.”

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White said the biggest difference between being a college athlete and being a pro is players taking ownership for their own growth. The reality of the WNBA is that players don’t get a lot of time to prepare for training camp, and coaches don’t get a ton of time to get rookies in workouts before the grind of a grueling camp begins. 

“We don’t expect them to not make mistakes. Everything that’s being thrown at them is new and they’re doing it on a level where we’re moving on the next day whether you’re ready to move on or not. And if you keep up great, and if you don’t you get left behind,” White said. “So there’s a lot of ownership in that. Get with our coaches if you need extra time. If you need extra work in the film room, if you need to walk through plays, get with the coaches now. It’s nobody holding your hand to do that. You have to be accountable to do that.”

As for Morris, White said she’s been impressed with the former LSU star’s ability to communicate — making introductions and speaking up when she doesn’t understand something new. She said she expects Morris to continue to communicate, be a good teammate, and quickly pick up new concepts in the Sun’s scheme.

“If you mess up, you mess up — fine. Move on to the next, continue to play the game, even if you don’t know what the heck is going on,” White said. “I like to call it, ‘make music.’ You can’t freeze, you know, you’ve still got to make a play, even if you don’t know what the heck is going on. And I think that’s the challenge for all new players, but particularly young players who have been in a system where they know exactly what’s coming.”

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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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