The Connecticut Sun were in trouble.
After years with a stable starting lineup that took them to within a few minutes of a championship in 2019, they lost several key players to free agency in the offseason, and one to COVID-19.
Their stable locker room was stripped as energetic scorer and joker Courtney Williams and outside sharpshooter and team mother Shekinna Stricklen, signed with Atlanta. Two staples of their bench, backup 3-4 player Morgan Tuck and long-time backup guard Rachel Banham also left, for Seattle and Minnesota, respectively. Layshia Clarendon, a former all-star who missed the last half of 2019 due to injury, signed with New York.
The Sun had signed dynamic All-Star guard DeWanna Bonner to the league’s highest salary, and clearly believed she could be the path to their first championship. A front court of Bonner, rising superstar center Jonquel Jones, and forward Alyssa Thomas would rival the Sparks duo of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, or the Mystics’ Elena DelleDonne and Emma Meesseman.
Then, the axe fell. Jones, a native of the Bahamas, opted out when the coronavirus pandemic took hold. The rim-protector, scoring leader, rebounding leader, and impossible match up, who could spread the floor by her very presence, would not play in 2020.
The team was left with a much smaller core of veterans than they were used to: the Thomases – forward Alyssa and point guard Jasmine – supported by the talented Bonner. But the remainder of the roster consisted of former bench players and newcomers.
Reconfigured Connecticut had a tough time making the adjustment at first. Despite outstanding play from Bonner and Alyssa Thomas, they launched the season by losing five in a row. Jasmine Thomas, usually a consistent if reserved scorer, started the year in a slump, and the team neither scored, nor defended consistently. Injuries and COVID-19 restrictions left them short on players, including one game when they were down to seven.
Starting 0-5 in a shortened, 22 game season left the league ready to give them up on them, but the Sun didn’t fade away. The defense started improving, Jasmine Thomas started playing like her usual self, and forward Brionna Jones suddenly began scoring and rebounding. Briann January, who signed with the team in the offseason, recovered from coronavirus and took the court. Then they started winning.
Since Aug. 6 they are 10-5, and on Labor Day, they clinched a playoff spot with a dramatic win over Bonner’s former team, the Phoenix Mercury. It was just their second win over a team with a winning record, but Connecticut seems to be on a strong upward arc that could serve them well in the playoffs. They will take on the Chicago Sky in the first single-elimination round game Tuesday.
The transformation to winning involved several factors familiar to teams this season: players getting healthy, learning how to work as a team on defense, players with breakout years (Brionna Jones), and development of team chemistry.
“There was not a panic when we were 0-5,” coach Curt Miller said. “We knew we were going to get people that weren’t yet with us . . . in particular Bri January.”
“We were going to get the legs underneath us from Natisha [Hiedeman]. Theresa Plaisance (who was suffering lingering effects from coronavirus) was going to get healthier, you know, so there was gonna be a start to build a chemistry, so we didn’t panic.”
Alyssa Thomas and Bonner carried the team those first five games, showing their teammates how to play with abandon, and how to enjoy the game even in losses. They were just waiting for the team chemistry to build.
As players got healthy and everyone began to feel comfortable together, other players began to give scoring help to the two stars. The defense began to understand how to play together.
Miller is a master at creating a positive team approach, and he credits this team’s commitment to each other with the turnaround.
“I’m impressed that they — that core group has bonded as quickly as they have,” he said. “DB [Bonner] fits in perfectly with the Thomases. Bri January’s a huge addition.”
“And so, it’s fun to see people that we’ve committed to long term really fit in. And they’ve held it together. . . . This team has stuck together. And an 0-5 start with a lot of new pieces with some bench players having some bad luck in terms of injuries or things just not going their way this season, a lot of teams would have separated and been miserable. And this team has through and through stuck together and continued to grow closer and closer.”
Of course, all the love in the world will not substitute for solid play on the court.
Bonner has to be seen as among the Player of the Year candidates. She is finally out from under the shadow of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner in Phoenix, and her play has lifted the Sun all season. She ranks fourth in points (19 ppg), fifth in steals (1.9 spg), 11th in rebounds (7.7 rpg) and sixth in efficiency (20.4 perent). She is second only to Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson in free throws made (96) and attempted (108). She has scored 25 or more points in seven of the first 20 games this year.
Bonner’s quickness allows her to defend the perimeter, where her height (6-4) and very long arms intimidate guards and blockade passing lanes. Unquestionably, she has delivered on the promise Connecticut saw when they pursued her in free agency.
Alyssa Thomas is never considered for Player of the Year, yet her performance in every important statistic is unmatched by anyone else. She is tenth in the WNBA in points per game (15.7), eleventh in field goal percentage (51.4), fifth in assists (4.9 apg, first among non-guards), sixth in rebounding (8.6 rpg), and third in efficiency (21.8, behind only Breanna Stewart and Wilson). She does these things every night, logging 32.8 minutes, and controlling the offense through the four spot.
What statistics cannot show, however, is Thomas’ unmatched defensive prowess. She can defend every position, from the quickest guards to the best post players. She leads the league in steals at 2.0 per game.
“If there’s a better defender than Alyssa Thomas in the league, like who?” Miller asked. “I mean, and again, she’s going to be high in steals in the league. She’s a great defensive rebounder [sixth].”
“We asked everything of her: switch on to great guards, guard great post players. You know, she just isn’t going to have blocked shots the centers have that a lot of times have won the Defensive Player of the Year award because of blocked shots. But if there’s a better defender in the league than Alyssa Thomas, I don’t see it. I don’t see it and I really hope that she gets the credit that she deserves on who she guards. There’s not a position she doesn’t guard in this league.”
Bonner and Alyssa Thomas have played brilliantly all season, as has Jones.
Coming off an impressive European season, Jones has scored in double digits in 13 of 20 games, shooting a league-second 60 percent. Perhaps more impressive is her second-best 2.9 offensive boards each game.
Jazmine Thomas has battled injury all season, but the duo of January and Hiedeman have, of late, stepped in admirably, as Thomas has missed playing time.
During the win streak, the Sun bench has generally been able to step in when needed, with some strong performances by rookie Kaila Charles, as well as the two guards.
Quietly, but definitively, the defense – usually a hallmark of Miller’s teams – has gelled at just the right time. They have forced 16.6 turnovers per game in the last 10 contests, and have been far more effective communicating on rotations. Disrupting offenses has also allowed Connecticut to rebound better, and they lead the league in defensive rebounding over those ten games.
Miller is optimistic about the coming playoffs.
“We’re capable,” he said. “We know we haven’t played our best basketball.”
“So, again we talked about, there’s no home court advantage in the playoffs, the bottom line is you got to make the playoffs not much difference between five and eight really not much difference in our opinion between three and eight those first two rounds are one and done. And, and you just have to be the better team for 40 minutes but you’ve got to get in.”
The Sun are into the playoffs, defying the predictions of many. They are playing their best basketball of the season. If they can get healthy (Jazmine Thomas and January were “out injured” in Wednesday’s rematch with Phoenix) they might find themselves winners tomorrow.