Jones, Jones and Bonner lead rested Sun into the season’s second half

Jasmine Thomas, DeWanna Bonner, Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Natisha Heidemann huddle at a timeout. Getty Images photo.

The Connecticut Sun approach the last 12 games of the WNBA season in third place, and vying for the valuable double-bye in the playoffs that the top two seeds receive. To say this is a surprise is an understatement.

Many wrote the Sun off after all-everything forward Alyssa Thomas ruptured her Achilles in January playing overseas. Thomas – the team rebound and assists leader, and second-leading scorer – is a critical part of their rotation.

And, if losing his best player were not enough, coach Curt Miller entered the season without a true training camp because of his team’s overseas commitments. Connecticut’s core group never practiced all together prior to league competition. The team therefore needed a game plan that would make sense quickly, as players returned.

Without Thomas acting as the point forward of a running game, Miller retooled his offense to take full advantage of the versatile games of 6-6 Jonquel Jones and 6-4 DeWanna Bonner, and the ever-improving true post, 6-3 Brionna Jones.

That change involved, in part, slowing the game down, relying on a stout defense, rebounding well, and focusing more on offensive sets than on the free-flowing opportunities that Alyssa Thomas made possible.

For this team, it all begins with defense. All five starters are in the top 10 of defensive win shares, an overall rating of defensive efficiency. They are second in opponent field goal percentage.

The Sun is also is second in the league in both total rebounds and offensive rebounds.

“There’s an intent to play slower and lessen possessions,” Miller said. “And we’ve got to play a different style than maybe we all would like. But it’s a smart way to play pace-wise this year.”

On the other hand, there is much to improve upon.

“We grade out really well at the defensive end at some of the offensive end,” Miller said. “We’re in the top four in offensive efficiency, but our turnover ratio is tenth in the league. You can’t play slower and have your turnover percentage higher. And as dominant of a defensive rebounding team as we are, we’re last in the league in fast break points.”

Indeed, Connecticut’s biggest fault so far is turnovers, even from normally reliable players. Unfortunately, far too many of those have been live ball turnovers that allow the opponent to score quickly at the other end. In the recent Commissioner’s Cup drubbing, 20 turnovers led to 26 Seattle Storm points. Sun players repeatedly threw passes directly into the outstretched hands of their defenders.

The slow pace, and the limited fast breaks also reflect a team speed that is average at best. With the exception of Natisha Hiedeman, no player in the regular rotation is exceptionally quick end to end of the court. Connecticut seems to have no interest in secondary fast breaks, but revert to the set-play plan if the first level is thwarted.

This is not to suggest that the Sun have more problems than most other teams not from Seattle. Despite having no true training camp, and then playing nine games in the season’s first 17 days, Connecticut seized a place at the top of the league with an 8-2 start, before losing three straight when Jonquel Jones left the team to play in the Eurobasket tournament. But even without their MVP candidate for two more games, they went 6-1 entering the five week Olympic break.

After 60 percent of the season, the Sun are in third place, at 14-6 because they play great defense and their three All-Star post players can score enough to win most of the time. The team is starkly divided between six established players, and a much less-effective young second team.

Jonquel Jones returned after a COVID year off to establish herself as among the leaders for the MVP, continuing her year-by-year improvement since joining the WNBA in 2016.

Jones averages a double-double of 21 points and 11.1 rebounds, playing in 15 games this season. Her superb three-point shooting makes her all but unguardable. She averages over two per contest (.437), and just barely lost the All-Star game three-point contest to Chicago’s Allie Quigley.

Because Jones has learned to blow by post defenders who guard her at the arc, she has been scoring from all parts of the court this year. Her league-leading rebounding also gives her regular second-chance points.

“This year, playing alongside of a true five in Brionna Jones,” Miller said. “You’re getting to see the versatility in her game. Her versatility, she’s kind of a unicorn, where she’s playing offensively at the four, she’s guarding four players and she’s thriving at it.”

Miller said Jonquel Jones is in a class of her own.

“(She is) one of the elite rebounders in the world, (with) the versatility offensively to play inside and out,” he said. You’re seeing more of her facilitating opportunities now [3.1 assists per game]. She impacts the game at both ends of the floor. You don’t see a lot of people 6-6, 6-7, that are able to play the game like she can.”

Most importantly, Connecticut has lost only three regular-season games in which Jones has played. She missed five games in June playing for Bosnia and Herzegovina (though her home is in the Bahamas) in the EuroBasket tournament. The Sun lost the first three of those.

Since her return, the only blemish on their record was an unexpected July loss to the 4-12 Fever, which was the Sun’s fourth game in seven days and Jones’ worst shooting night of the season. If there is a knock on Jones, it would be that she plays too smoothly. It is not clear that she has a killer mentality in key games, which sometimes is the difference in a close game (see Breanna Stewart).

Miller was relentless in his pursuit of 11-year veteran DeWanna Bonner in free agency before last season. The three-time All-Star is a tall, lanky position-less player who averages 15 points and seven rebounds, and this year she leads the team in assists (72). She defends both inside and at the arc, and can score reliably from anywhere on the court. Most important, she brings a winning playoff history and a toughness that reflects her years excelling in the league.

Rail thin at 6-4 and 142 pounds, one expects her to be fragile, but she is instead agile, quick and durable. Across twelve seasons and 377 games, she has never missed a contest due to injury.

The third, and least predictable All-Star is the “other,” (unrelated) Jones, Brionna. Brionna Jones is a classic low-post center, standing 6-4 and 210 pounds. She was mostly a bench warmer until called upon to start in place of Jonquel Jones in 2020. She thrived on the tripling of her playing time, and came into this season having improved her conditioning to become a reliable scorer with a field goal percentage of 55.9. The improvement of all aspects of her game, earned her first All-Star appearance last month.

Brionna Jones averages 15 points and grabs 6.9 rebounds per game. She is powerful and unyielding once established on the block, boasting a variety of smooth and efficient scoring moves. She is also an excellent defender, quicker than her body type would suggest, and runs the floor well on offense.

“There’s an intent with us to play intentionally through our three, four, five [players],” Miller said. “JJ (Jonquel Jones) has to get touches. Bree Jones has to get touches. DaWanna has to get touches.”

“There’s got to be an attempt to play through those three. But there are significant other talented players on the court. Not enough gets talked about as how unselfish and how much Jasmine Thomas and Briann January expand that the defensive end.”

With three dominant posts, Connecticut’s veteran guards have been free to facilitate, to defend, to pick their moments to add to the score. All three (Thomas, January, and Hiedeman) can play the one or the two interchangeably, and the trio have

Thomas has quietly established herself as one of the best point guards in the WNBA. A two-time All-Defensive First Team selection, she has averaged double digit scoring for the last six seasons, and currently ranks ninth in the league in three-point shooting (.409).

The fifth starter is January, signed as a free agent in 2020 to add defense (six straight All-Defensive First Team selections from 2012-2017), veteran leadership, playoff experience (59 post-season games), and versatility to the guard position.

“If Bri January’s not first team All-Defensive this year, then I don’t know what else she has to do,” Miller said. “She’s literally holding a lot of the All-Star two guards to single digits at times and just doing a tremendous job.”

Although more of a facilitator than scorer for the team, January led the league in three-point percentage in both 2012 and 2018.

First off the bench at either the one or two is Hiedeman, who is just coming into her own after a rocky start in the league. Just the third player drafted out of Marquette, Hiedeman was waived by the Sun in 2019, picked up for two weeks mid-season by Atlanta and then cut, then re-claimed off waivers by Connecticut for the last seven games that season. She performed with such promise that they signed her to a contract in 2020, when she appeared in every Sun game. Her intensity, quickness, and timely threes (she currently leads the team with 34) have made her an integral part of this team, and one with a significant up-side.

The bench, however, is thin. It consists of four players, two (6-4 Beatrice Montpremier, 6-1 Kaila Charles) both in their second year, and two (6-0 DiJonai Carrington, 6-2 Stephanie Jones – Brionna’s sister) rookies. Combined they play 41 minutes and score 10.3 points per game, with most of those minutes going to Charles. They are a work in progress, and their slow development keeps the starters from resting very much.

If Connecticut can begin to control the turnovers – maybe a bounce pass or two? — and stay fresh enough, they have a good chance of at least a one game bye (top four) or at best the two game bye (top two) that avoids any single elimination games.

Their remaining schedule includes only three  games against teams with winning records: home and home against 12-7 Minnesota next Tuesday and Thursday, and home against 15-6 Las Vegas Aug. 24 (will Liz Cambage be playing?). The Sun have the best home record this season – a distinction they have held or shared in the last three seasons when there were fans in the arenas.

The success of Connecticut, plus the schedule, plus the fact that surging Chicago has to play Seattle three times, makes at least a first-round bye seem likely. They already hold the tie-breaker against current second place Las Vegas, having beaten them twice, with one game left.

On the other hand, Seattle’s complete dominance of the Sun in the Commissioner’s Cup game – which does not count in the standings – cast a pall over the Connecticut’s optimism. Two weeks of intense training camp with everyone in attendance was supposed to “clean up the little things,” according to Thomas. But the team committed 20 turnovers, found it difficult to run their sets, and allowed the Storm to shoot almost 50 percent.

Whether that was just rust, or a more fundamental problem, is yet to be seen. But Miller recognizes that many teams will have improved over the break.

“You’re going to see a lot of teams improve as teams get healthier,” he said. “And then who arrives in to this league, here and now that was maybe not here before.”

Miller said his team has their work cut out for them.

“So we’re just challenged, and we can’t be satisfied,” he said. “We’ve got to get better in all sorts of areas.”