High-potential Sun have many options, and cuts to make

Chiney Ogwumike has returned to the court for the first time since the 2016 season with renewed energy. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.
Chiney Ogwumike has returned to the court for the first time since the 2016 season with renewed energy. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Connecticut Sun are like every other team in the WNBA, with more talent in training camp than they have roster spots to give. But as early contenders for Eastern Conference bragging rights, the pressure to create just the right mix is higher.

The Sun went from a ninth-place league finish in 2016 to fourth last season, and sprinted into the playoffs for the first time in five years by winning 19 of their final 21 regular-season games. They scored an average 86 points per game, blistering some opponents – including the powerhouse Minnesota Lynx – to whom they gave their first loss.

The emergence of 6-6 center Jonquel Jones from “who?” into an All-Star was the most obvious difference-maker for Connecticut, as she averaged a double-double and led the league in rebounds all season long in her sophomore year.

Jones was not alone in her advancement, however. Both veteran point guard Jasmine Thomas and second-year guard Courtney Williams improved in nearly every statistical category, providing support for the brilliance of Jones and the rock-steady play of forward Alyssa Thomas. That core group can take the Sun back to the playoffs. The most enticing question, as the season begins, is how much impact the return of 2014 Rookie of the Year Chiney Ogwumike and top-three pick Morgan Tuck will have to elevate the Sun to truly elite status.

Certainly, coach Curt Miller is excited about blending these two top talents into mix that had so much success without them in 2017.

“We’re looking forward to the day to see how Chiney and JJ [Jones] fit together on the court and see how it all works out,” he said. “There’s no doubt [Ogwumike] is an impactful player in this league and how high she can get back up with some consistent good luck & health. I’m not sure how high that ceiling is, but I know it’s high.”

Jonquel Jones scores for the Sun. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Jonquel Jones scores for the Sun last season. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

“She’s so long. She’s a both end player. She’s a great rim protector, and can be an impactful player for us. At the same time, she’s got a high motor, and that high motor at the offensive end allows her to be productive without us running a lot of things through her. She’s just a person who has consistently put numbers up when given the opportunity to be on the court, when healthy enough to be on the court.”

“Rim protector” is one of Miller’s favorite phrases, and he did not have one on last year’s team, which was a weakness on defense. He sees hope for that defense this year.

“I think we graded out OK defensively [in 2017], but we had little rim protection,” Miller conceded. “I think having Chiney back gives us a better rim protector. We look forward to challenging JJ to take the next step with her length and athleticism, she should be a better rim protector than she is.”

“Individually, between Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas, two of the best defenders individually at their positions in the league, we can be better as a team. So, Courtney Williams really has to take the jump up defensively. Alex Bentley’s a really good defender when she wants to be. The challenge is to be engaged each and every night.”

Another area for improvement is playing for 40 minutes, according to Miller.

“We need to be more aggressive,” he said. “I need to put them in better positions. Sometimes, we were a conservative defensive team, and while it works well on most nights, there are some nights where we have to dictate and disrupt more.”

Despite having a solid, successful core group enhanced by two new, talented post pieces, the Sun’s principal remaining weakness is the lack of an all-around three guard who can play both ways and contend with the league’s surfeit of great wings: Maya Moore, Angel McCoughtry, Simone Augustus, Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne, who mostly plays the four. An ideal three-guard is big enough to shoot over defending guards, has a reliable three-point shot to draw defenders to the arc, and is quick enough to drive past them and score against rim protectors in the paint. Rebounding should also be a part of the skill set. It is a tall order, and one without an obvious solution on the current Sun roster.

“I think it’s still going to be something we’re searching for,” Jasmine Thomas said. “I have this conversation a lot.”

“More and more in our league, the three is becoming like a versatile four. We’re bringing the Delle Donnes, we’re bringing the (Breanna Stewart) Stewies out to the wing, so when you’re looking for a three player, those are the players you’re looking for them to defend and score on. Those long, versatile fours. So, can we find a three who can play that traditional position? Yes, I think we definitely can, and we have that in camp.”

The reality for the Sun is that Moores, Delle Donnes and Stewarts are rare, and the Sun do not have one in camp. To compete with those players, Connecticut will need to do so by committee, until and unless someone on the roster develops additional skills to match them.

Alyssa Thomas powers up a bucket. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.
Alyssa Thomas powers up a bucket. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.

The Sun does have some partial solutions at the three. The first is Alyssa Thomas, who was an All-Star at the four last season, but could be converted back to the three – especially with Ogwumike returning as a dynamic four player. Tuck is available at either position. This season, Thomas’ conversion includes the unusual step of shifting her shooting hand from left to right.

“You know she’s shooting with the right hand now,” Jasmine Thomas said, smiling. “And she knows she can shoot [the three]. But there’s many teams that we play, they back up off of Alyssa and she still gets to the basket and gets the and-one. She’s such a great passer and such a great finisher that it’s really hard to stop her even without her shooting that outside shot.”

“You know, it helps space the floor a little bit when people are stretching out to guard her, which probably won’t happen until she is consistently hitting it. But I think she’s able to do some good stuff for us at the three, posting up small guards, so it gives us a different look from (veteran Shekinna Stricklen) Strick.”

Miller, too, expects that Alyssa Thomas will play some three this season, but is concerned that the magic of last season’s success will be hurt.

“We have a great offensive three in Strick in terms of ‘how can I space the floor?’” he said. “It’s defensively. And that’s where if we can play big at times and put Alyssa on the threes. She’s a bully, and she can really defend people at the three. But then offensively, we’re different, because we lose some floor spacing.”

“We’ve gone from Strick, who’s five feet beyond the arc, to Alyssa, who’s going to be penetrating. So, you give and take. As we gain a great defender in Alyssa if you move her to the three, you lose the offensive spacing that’s so critical in how we want to play.”

Veteran Shekinna Stricklen has been a rock-solid reserve for Connecticut. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.
Veteran Shekinna Stricklen has been a rock-solid reserve for Connecticut. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.

Stricklen is a three-point specialist who shot very well (71 threes, .410) last season, and was the starter at the wing position. But she cannot defend elite threes, and that shifts the defense away from ideal positions.

“They know I’m not the best defender,” Stricklen said, “but my other four teammates know that, and . . . when I’m in the game they help more, and they rotate more.”

Neither is Stricklen a good rebounder (3.1 rpg). Her deadly shot helps to spread the floor, but “the pounding and the post up that we used to get out of the position we don’t get out of Strick,” Alyssa Thomas said.

Tuck, if she can stay healthy – and that is a continuing question until she does so for a whole season – might move to the three. She is a good defender, a great rebounder, and can hit threes, though her career average, college and pro, hovers around 30 percent.

“I feel like even through her injuries, she’s matured,” Jasmine Thomas said. “So like she came out in training camp and she’s had to play the three and the four. You know a few times throughout her career they’ve tried to move her to the three and it’s kinda shaken things up, and it might not have been the best position for her, but you can tell she’s definitely been working on that.”

In fact, in a short winter season in China, Tuck played mostly on the perimeter.

“I really focused on improving my perimeter skills,” she said. “Just being more comfortable out there. Handling the ball.”

“In China, that’s what I did a lot of the time. That’s where I scored a lot, was from the perimeter, so it was good that I got to practice that while I was there. Because it really helped me to be more comfortable at the wing, and not, you know, kind of wanting to go back to my safe spot at the four where I’m really comfortable.”

Perhaps Tuck will be the answer. She is not especially quick, and has no history of driving to the hoop. But she’s working on it. She is an intelligent player who can adapt, and knows who to emulate.

“I’m not going to be the quickest or the most athletic,” Tuck conceded. “In [Team USA] camp in February, I watched how Maya did it, because she can guard anybody. And the more I work on it the better I’ll be at it.”

Reminded that Moore was not a great defender when she first turned pro, Tuck smiled. “I know. That helps. She came up a long way, so hopefully I can, too.“

If Tuck were to become a competent all-around three, and if she and Ogwumike can stay healthy, the Sun could easily contend for a title this season.

The Sun’s core

Connecticut’s strong finish last year proved that Miller had molded his mostly-young players into contenders. The key elements of that group all return (and are signed for several years to come). Miller, of course, will guide them.

Miller won Coach of the Year after completely turning the Sun around in just his second season, despite key injuries to Ogwumike and Tuck. He did so by optimizing the play of a core group of four returning stalwarts.

Although Jones became the face of the franchise, point guard Thomas, the most senior player on the roster, has emerged as the clear leader of the team, and may be the Sun’s most important athlete.

Jasmine Thomas has led the Sun with fire and energy. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.
Jasmine Thomas has led the Sun with fire and energy. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.

“It’s her team. Her team,” Miller said. “I’m a point guard coach, . . . I’m going to put the point guard in a position to be in attack mode, and she will do that. She’s not looking over her shoulder anymore that someone’s going to take her job. She’s without question the leader of our team.”

That isn’t to say Thomas doesn’t have room for improvement.

“Our challenge is to continue to get her to think like me, so she’s an extension of our thoughts and our system on the court,” Miller said. “I believe in our system, I believe in how we play. At the same time, I can’t micromanage the team, I can’t call every play. So Jasmine is an extension of our coaches back on the floor, getting players in the right position, explaining why we do things the way we do. So it’s a growth area, and I think you’re going to see Jasmine and I thinking even more alike, the longer we’re around each other.”

Thomas is everything you want in a floor leader. She is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, controls the offense with great court vision, can score off the bounce or from outside (.403), and remains calm under pressure. She is also astonishingly durable for a slightly built player (5-9, 145 lbs.) Of a possible 238 games in her 7-year career, she has missed just two, one for a wedding, one for an ankle injury.

At shooting guard, Williams is a lightning-quick penetrating scorer with a sweet fade-away 10-footer. Her quickness allows her to rebound above her size (5-8), and she was the third best Sun on the boards last season (4.2 rpg). Although Williams is a capable three-point shooter (.320), fewer than ten percent of her attempts were from beyond the arc last season.

When Miller included her in a 2016 trade that sent center Kelsey Bone to Phoenix, he did not really know what he was getting.

Courtney Williams is aggressive on court and humorous off of it. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.
Courtney Williams is aggressive on court and humorous off of it. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.

“Confidence we knew,” he said. “That athleticism, we knew. Didn’t know just how good she was. We were pleasantly surprised. She has a chance to be really special.”

“She’s really our best offensive player. I feel that when you need a basket, you can give her the ball and she’ll get a basket or a pretty good attempt at it. Her biggest challenge is the defensive end. . . . She’s allergic sometimes at the defensive end, at that end of the floor. We’re trying to find the antibiotics to, you know, cure her of any allergies to that end of the floor. . . . I think she’s embraced the challenge and will get better at it.”

Williams is also reported to be a funny, popular teammate. Her animation on the court balances well with Thomas’ steady demeanor.

For now, both Thomas and Williams are backed up by Bentley, once a starter, but now a steady presence with adequate skills. Miller has said “she’s as good a backup point guard as there is in the league. She’s as good a backup two-guard as there is in the league.” Bentley offers that versatility and makes few mistakes, but is rarely outstanding. Her .380 field goal and .278 three-point percentages allow teams to back off her and double elsewhere.

The front-court is anchored by fifth-year forward Alyssa Thomas, a solidly-built, athletic power forward who plays above her listed 6-2 to average nearly seven rebounds and 15 points per game, while shooting over 50 percent. Thomas has a great handle for a big player, and became an adept passer last season, averaging a team best 4.5 assists per game. As noted above, she has shifted to shooting with her right hand, and may be asked to play more three, now that Ogwumike is available at the four position.

Then there is Jones. The Sun traded Chelsea Gray to Los Angeles for the sixth pick in the 2016 draft to grab her, mostly for her potential. Jones played well at mid-major George Washington, but there was no guarantee that she could handle the pressure and size she would face at the professional level. That said, there are not many players who are athletically built and 6-6, and the Sun’s fortunes had declined after trading Tina Charles without finding an adequate center to replace her. Playing 14 minutes a game in 2016, Jones managed just two double-doubles in 34 games. Opponents rarely planned their defensive sets around her.

As she slid quietly into the 2017 season, Jones looked like an ordinary, adequate center. Five games into the season, something clicked, and Jones exploded into a dynamic double-double machine (20 in 34 games) finishing the season averaging 15.4 points and 11.9 rebounds, setting WNBA records for total boards (403) and rebound average. Her rise not surprisingly coincided with the Sun’s 19-3 finish to the 2017 season.

Jones is a good ball handler for her height, has great hands, and hit 25 of 56 threes last year (.446), while shooting at 53 percent overall.

The chemistry among these four is outstanding, and they played a lot of basketball together, with Stricklen the fifth starter. Bentley, and the departed Kayla Pedersen, logged most of the bench minutes last season. This preseason is about who can reliably share time with the core group.

Brionna Jones battles the Sparks defense. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.
Brionna Jones battles the Sparks defense. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.

The front court support for Jones and Thomas are a talented trio who will be on the final roster: Ogwumike and Tuck will join returner Brionna Jones, the only true back-to-the-basket post on the squad. She saw limited time in her rookie season (4.6 minutes/game) mostly due to her defensive limitations. She is not going to guard centers who can take their defenders out of the paint, which is common in the WNBA. But some opponents will have big, solid bruisers in the paint, and she can match them for strength and rebounding, and provide second-chance points at a high percentage (.575).

Ogwumike, who missed the 2015 season with a stress fracture, has prodigious talents. At the same time, her health is suspect, and “if she can stay healthy. . .” is nearly a mantra in Sun camp. But if she indeed can, her impact should be huge.

In her two healthy seasons (2014 and 2016) Ogwumike averaged 14 points, 7.6 rebounds and a .557 shooting percentage. She is fragile, and did not play a minute in 2015 or 2017. She has asked to be brought back into play slowly, and Miller will certainly use her sparingly until her recovery is clear. But if she is healthy, the combination of Jonquel Jones and Ogwumike together in the paint would give the Sun a front court presence that would rival the Sparks combo of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike – Chiney’s sister.

Miller can barely contain his excitement about that prospect.

Who else will make the cut?

Shooting guard Rachel Banham: The Sun drafted Banham fourth overall in 2016, two spots before Jones. She made her mark at Minnesota as a three-point shooter (40 percent) and a confident leader. Though injured for a good chunk of her time with the franchise, her professional career has not been that of a top pick, but Miller thinks her overseas experience has matured her, and her game.

“She looks like the Rachel Banham we drafted,” he said. “She just has a real calmness and a presence about her that we hadn’t seen in the first two training camps. So we’re really excited if she can stay healthy to see the jump in Rachel’s game this year.”

Banham calmly hit a buzzer-beating three to seal a preseason win last week, and Miller hopes that poise in tense moments will be a harbinger of her play this year.

Lexie Brown drives to the rim. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.
Lexie Brown drives to the rim. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.

Lexie Brown, the rookie, drafted ninth last month: Miller expects Brown to be the principal back-up to Thomas at the point. She had an outstanding college career at Maryland, and then Duke. She was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, and finished her career with over 2,000 points, 500 assists, 300 steals and 200 three-point shots. While she may be the point guard of the future, in the 2018 preseason, Brown often has looked lost and timid, though less so in each of three games.

“Lexie’s next step is the physicality of man-to-man defense,” Miller said. “She’s a great anticipator and she’s smart, but she played a lot of match up zone at Duke, and a lot of zone where she could just get in passing lanes. So the point of attack. The physicality at the point of a screen, a down screen a flare screen, that physicality she hasn’t been involved in night in and night out in a zone team.”

……Which leaves only one spot

The biggest question coming out of camp, according to Miller, is “are we going to keep six posts because of the versatility of Alyssa and Morgan, or are we going to keep five posts?”

“It’s really hard, and I’ve put together a camp to make it really hard. And they’re making it really hard,” he said. “Should we go six and six, should we go seven and five? Is Chiney ready for 34 games, can we go with five? Is Morgan ready for a 34-game season, can you get away with only five posts? So the ultimate question is ‘do we have enough depth? Can we stay healthy? So that’s a long way of answering, ‘I have no idea.’”

All team rosters need to be finalized by May 17, the day before the regular season begins.

The remaining players in camp are three guards and two posts. The best guess after three preseason games is that they will roll the dice and go seven and five, taking another guard. As Miller says, “We have a boatload of really good guards.”

Will Leticia Romero, Jessica January, or Betnijah Laney grab that final roster spot?

Betnijah Laney looks at her passing options. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.
Betnijah Laney looks at her passing options. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.

Laney has been the most visible of this group, both because she is bigger (5-11) and because she brings an intensity that cannot be denied.

“She obviously gives us something in camp we don’t have,” Miller said. “A kid that thinks ‘rim, rim, rim.’ And you’re never going to fault her for her effort or toughness.

“She is a person who thinks drive, is a real physical guard. She was my pick to be our surprise in camp and she hasn’t disappointed my prediction. She has been terrific all camp, and you can see some of the reason why. She’s aggressive and is physical. . . . She is really, really great to have around because of her toughness, but she’s still got ten days to earn this spot on the roster.”

Romero has also impressed him.

“(She is) so smooth out there, and she has a really good feel for pocket passes in the pro game. She can really pass,” Miller said.

She has not shown a lot of flair, and has received little playing time. If there are doubts that Brown will be able to contribute in her rookie year, Romero might have a step up.

January was in camp, and cut, a year ago, and Miller obviously likes her potential. But maybe not enough. She, too, has played competently in her brief minutes, but has not stood out.

Laney seems to be the favorite of members of the press, but none of us get to decide. Her advantage is that she is, indeed, different than any other guard the Sun have. Only Alyssa Thomas shares that outward aggression and toughness that can overwhelm opponents.

If Miller decides to go with six posts, then a spot opens for either 6-4 Australian Cayla George, who is solidly-built and brings both post-up game and perimeter skills, or for 6-4 Nikki Greene, a solid, athletic center specializing in rebounding.

Whoever grabs the final roster spot, this should be another winning year for the Sun. If everyone stays healthy, a championship is certainly possible. Miller will not predict one, but he is optimistic.

The Sun went from ninth in 2016 to fourth last year in coach Curt Miller's second year. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.
The Sun went from ninth in 2016 to fourth last year in coach Curt Miller’s second year. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Sun.

“I like that our core group is together. I like our versatility,” he said. “One of the things that makes us dangerous is that we typically have five players on the court at any time that can score, so we’re not ball-dominant by one or two players, we don’t have to play through one particular player. We can really share the basketball and play free. And that’s hard, because I think every night it can be someone different that really has the big game.”

“We’re not going to talk about championships. But we are not afraid to talk with them about those higher expectations, the bigger goals that we have, the fact that we’re going to have a bigger bullseye on our back because we did have a breakthrough season. We still have that next step, and it’s going to be brutal trying to be one of those eight teams in the playoffs. So first step is we gotta stick with what we do day in and day out, and try to be one of those eight teams in the playoffs.”