September 28, 2021
How the Connecticut Sun reached WNBA favorite status
Defense is the identity, championship is the mentality
The Connecticut Sun have had their eyes on a championship all season, and after ending the regular season on a 14-game winning streak, the team is only six wins away from hoisting the coveted finals trophy.
Though they’re closer to that goal than they have been all season, the Sun only have their sights on one thing — stopping the high-speed Chicago Sky offense in the WNBA semifinals, which begins at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday night at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Sky are one of only two teams that have won a series against the Sun during the regular season, but Game 1 presents a very different matchup than when the teams met in June. Both teams will be at full strength – head coach Curt Miller missed the first two games in Chicago and Jonquel Jones missed all three games – and the Sky are playing with a different starting five than their regular season series.
The Sun’s biggest challenges will be overcoming the Sky’s length in the paint and containing the team’s fast-paced transition game. But grinding down high powered offenses is nothing new for the Sun, who are closing out a historic defensive season — becoming the first team since the 2011 Storm to hold teams to fewer than 70 points per game over a season.
Without Alyssa Thomas pushing the team to the fast paced offense of recent seasons, the Sun have locked in to their defensive and slow-paced identity all season. And it’s paid off with a 14-game winning streak, a franchise-best 81.3% winning percentage and 15-1 home record, and the best defensive rating in the league since the 2015 New York Liberty.
Sun assistant coach Chris Koclanes, who specializes in defense, said that the Sun have some incredible individual pieces on their team – three All Stars, four players on a league WNBA Defensive team, and the AP’s MVP and Most Improved player.
Koclanes said Jasmine Thomas was “the head of the monster,” constantly pestering and pressuring ball handlers on the perimeter. Bri Jones is the quarterback of the defense, because her communication is key to making everything work, he said. Though she goes under the radar on defense, she is the smartest player on the floor and is always one step ahead of the offense. Jonquel Jones, too, has become more comfortable using her voice as she’s grown into an MVP.
“You’ve got a ton of great leadership out there,” Koclanes told The Next. “Most teams are trying to hide someone defensively, but (for the Sun), across the board everyone plays both sides of the ball and they care about both sides of the ball.”
While they all shine individually as defenders, what makes the Sun incredibly special is how well everyone fits together.
“That’s credit to them for how they communicate with each other,” Koclanes said. “We can practice and talk about tendencies and actions, but ultimately it’s all out there (on the court). Different things are gonna be thrown at you and if you can talk it, you can do it. Ultimately, it’s just their ability to communicate with each other and play off of each other and for each other.”
Everyone on the team pushes each other to be better, and Koclanes said there’s been a sense of urgency among the veteran group to compete and improve. Communication and leadership have been keys, and for the Sun that starts on the practice floor. Miller is frequently preaching the importance of communication during practice, and everyone has bought in.
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The Sun veterans all lead in their own way according to Koclanes. Bonner is especially vocal in practice, while Briann January and Jasmine Thomas like to lead by example through working hard on every possession.
“Things aren’t always perfect. We mess up a coverage, we don’t execute perfectly, there’s slippage, but their effort masks a lot of that. They don’t give up on plays,” Koclanes said. “They just have that mindset, and it’s all of them and they hold each other accountable.”
Bri Jones agreed, adding that it’s the team’s trust in one another that has helped lead such a drastic change in style of play without the team’s best defender in Alyssa Thomas.
“At the start of training camp, we knew we were going to be more team-oriented in the way we guard teams and everybody has bought into that and everybody knows that,” Jones told The Next. “Even if they missed a coverage or a possession, there’s somebody who going to have your back behind you, and having that trust as teammates has let us be successful out there defensively. Continuing to have that is trust is what’s gonna continue to win us games.”
Another big part of the Sun’s success this season is from the team’s dedication to owning the boards. The Sun have only been out-rebounded four times this season, and their total rebound rate – the percentage of rebounds the team grabbed throughout the season – was an incredible 57.2 percent for the regular season. It’s the best rebound rate in the history of the league, by a lot. The only other team in league history to reach a 55 percent total rebound rate is the 2012 Minnesota Lynx (who won the Finals that year).
Elite rebounding is something the team focuses on, but their dominance also comes down to having some of the best individual rebounders in the world in Jonquel Jones, who’s led the league in rebounding for the third time in her career this season, DeWanna Bonner and Bri Jones.
Bri Jones — who is averaging a career high 7.3 rebounds a game, including 3.2 offensive boards a game — didn’t get her first points-rebounds double-double until August 28 in a game against Las Vegas. It was a shock to everyone on the team, who all swore it had happened sooner.
“Bri Jones should be awarded a double-double (for the season) because she’s the reason we get rebounds,” January said. “She’s the one that gets the big girl off the boards and out of position so everyone can swoop in and get rebounds. She’s one of the reasons we’re such a great rebounding team.”
But it’s not just the Sun’s long frontcourt dominating the boards. Koclanes said part of the reason the team is so good on the glass is because of everyone’s dedication on both ends of the floor, up and down the roster. The Sun’s offense often pulls the post players out to the perimeter, so the guards are expected to mix it up in the paint, Koclanes said.
According to Miller, it obviously helps to have long players who have histories of success at rebounding, even before the pro level, but the Sun’s effort is what sets them apart on the glass.
“That is a locker room filled with really, really hard workers, and effort is hard to teach,” Miller said.
Koclanes said it was unique to have five players out on the floor who are really committed to the defensive end of the ball and never take a possession off. And it doesn’t just apply to their starting group, who all average more than 30 minutes a game. The bench rotation has improved all season – and is now bolstered by Alyssa Thomas, who is still recovering after achilles surgery in January.
Second-year guard Kaila Charles said she’s improved on the defensive end by learning from and watching both Jasmine Thomas and Briann January. Both Charles and Miller agreed that Charles was more foul-prone during her rookie year as a physical, bigger guard, but she has improved in that area this year.
“Right before games, I go up (to January) and I’m like ‘give me the secret potion,’” Heideman told The Next. “She’s got a lot of grit and determination, so that’s what I try to have. Seeing her do that just gives me the energy and spark to try to go out there and do that too.”
Jonquel Jones said she’s seen improvement from everyone on the bench this season and feels like the team is in a good spot to achieve their championship goal. She said each of the reserves has been challenged to improve on various weaknesses throughout the year, and they’ve stepped up to the plate. She said she thinks second-year post player Beatrice Mompremier has made the biggest jump in terms of her individual growth this season.
“We know that when we put Beatrice in the game, she’s going to rebound, she’s going to run hard, she’s going to defend and protect the rim,” Jones told The Next. “Her level of consistency has allowed us to really depend on her. Kaila and DiJonai (Carrington) are also going to be huge for us in terms of their ability to be big guards and get stops for us defensively.”
The team really meshes well together on the court, and they all really care for each other off the court, which makes it that much easier to put it all out on the line for their teammates each and every night – whether it’s in practice or during a game.
“It’s been one of the staples of this organization and this team since I’ve been drafted here,” Jones said. “We genuinely want to be around each other, and we care for each other, and it translates on the court. When you know somebody cares, it’s easy to go out there and just go to war with them and want to help them.”
As for the semifinals matchup against the Sky, Jones knows that the Sun will just have to stick to what they’ve been doing all season, and she’s looking forward to the challenge.
“We’re confident,” Jones said. “It’s not cockiness, it’s not overlooking our opponents. We’re just confident in what we’ve been able to do this season and our mindset going into the playoffs.”