In 2017, the Connecticut Sun came into the season as underdogs with a lot to prove, after failing to make the playoffs the previous year. But as they prepare for their first preseason match ups this week, the young Sun are now the hunted.
Fresh off of a playoff run after finishing fourth in WNBA standings, Connecticut has two starters and one reserve player back from injury for the season, and a first-round draft pick to add to an already-cooking mix.
Coach Curt Miller said he and his squad “don’t dwell on” the higher bar that has been set for them this year.
“We addressed it early that there (are) high expectations, but none more than (what) we have in our own locker room,” Miller said. “We have had a smoother transition back into a competitive camp, and the veterans seem very comfortable within our system.”
All-star forward Chiney Ogwumike returns to the team after missing last season to recover from an Achilles tendon tear, which she sustained playing in China. The 2014 No. 1 draft pick had been the Sun’s leading scorer in two seasons, but was on the bench last year when forward Jonquel Jones had a breakout, record-setting year. In stepping up, she averaged a double-double, and led the league in rebounds.
Jones did not attend the first week of training camp last week, as she is finishing up overseas play. In the meantime, Ogwumike has stepped back into a leadership position on court.
“The point of emphasis is to win the small battles in the game,” she said. “If there is a screen, win the screen. If there is a play we’re supposed to run, let’s execute. It’s taking it one possession at a time, making sure we’re all on the same page and we are playing fast and smart.”
Ogwumike said she feels good and is excited about the Sun.
“I’m just getting some of my rhythm and my timing back, and regaining some of the chemistry we’ve had before,” she said. “But it’s been exciting because we have a really deep team this year.”
Ogwumike said being around the team last season, though she wasn’t able to suit up, is helping her transition back now.
“I was still around the team,” she said. “I was able to make sure I understood the offenses and defenses, the strengths and weaknesses of each player that we had.”
Also back is forward Morgan Tuck, who missed 12 straight games last year with a knee contusion, and reserve guard Rachel Banham, who has been rehabilitating a knee injury.
As Connecticut prepares to host a tournament Monday and Tuesday that will pit them against the Los Angeles Sparks and Dallas Wings, respectively, fans will get a first look at rookie Lexie Brown from Duke, whom they chose with their ninth pick. The ACC defensive player of the year averaged 19.4 points and 3.7 steals per game.
After her first few days in training camp, Brown said the physicality at the professional level far supersedes college-level play. She took the lead from veteran forward Alyssa Thomas in practice.
“I got nailed hard by a screen by Alyssa on the first day,” Brown said with a laugh. “The last two days have probably been my best days. I’m learning something new and (I’m) getting better every day. The vets are keeping me confident and I am having a lot of fun.”
Other returning veterans include starting point guard Jasmine Thomas, starting guards Courtney Williams and Alex Bentley, key reserve Shekinna Stricklen, and Kayla Pedersen. There are 18 players in camp, and the roster must be whittled to 12 by May 17 – three days before the season opener at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Miller looks forward to this week’s games to get a gauge on his squad.
“Both (games) will be great tests for us, but the bottom line is that (the games) will be great to use for film work moving forward,” he said.
Los Angeles was last year’s runner up in the WNBA Championship Finals series, and Miller predicts they will win the title this season. The Wings boasted the most points scored per game (80.2) last year, while Connecticut averaged 79.7 in making their first playoff appearance since 2012.
Brown, for one, is embracing the challenge her new squad faces.
“Pressure is fun,” she said. “It’s like my last two seasons at Duke. My first year playing, nobody really thought we could accomplish much, but we overachieved. The next year we came into the season with a target on our backs. It’s fun to have a target on your back. It makes you work harder every single day.”
Both games over the next two days begin at 7 p.m. ET.