The Connecticut Sun sit atop the standings with an 8-1 record more than a quarter of the way through their 2019 schedule. However, WNBA viewers are likely more eager to gauge this team in the postseason.
After back-to-back single-elimination exits on their home floor, can someone emerge to make enough plays late in games?
The core pieces are in place, but this starts with Jonquel Jones. After an All-WNBA campaign in 2017, the 6-foot-6 stretch center was forced to take a back seat in 2018 to Chiney Ogwumike—who the team trade prior to the start of this season.
Will Jones become a much bigger scoring threat out of the post? Can she squeeze even more production out of that shooting ability by running off of more screens or flash more of a face-up game? After all, she used 52 possessions out of the post last regular season, tallying exactly 1.0 point per possession.
During that 2017 breakout season? 78 possessions, 0.885 points per possession per Synergy Sports.
The league’s top post scorers regularly triple that volume, if not more, often landing somewhere between 1.0 and 1.15 PPP. Thus, it wouldn’t be fair to expect Jones to solely make that leap in a year. She’s going to need some help because the late-game production does have to come from somewhere, especially in a playoff series.
That means the final minutes of close games in the regular season will be fascinating: How often will Curt Miller close games with one or more of his reserves on the floor? And who will this team turn to when they need a bucket against a set defense?
June 2: Connecticut Sun 80, Las Vegas Aces 74
Jasmine Thomas is the team’s only guard that can reliably get into the teeth of the defense and make plays for others. It’s been a steady climb after several seasons shooting 40-some percent from the restricted area to finishing 54.5 percent of her attempts around the basket in the halfcourt last season per Synergy Sports.
The Sun need Thomas to continue attacking late in games, which will allow her to kick it out to Jones, Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen on the perimeter or to a rolling Alyssa Thomas.
Here, Liz Cambage had a tough time with Jones and her ability to face up and drive. A simple pick and pop might not generate an open catch-and-shoot 3-pointer, but it will create a pocket of space.
Jones only needs most bigs slightly off-balance or coming at her on the move to kick off a hard drive to the rim.
June 6: Los Angeles Sparks 77, Connecticut Sun 89
The Sun were in a position to play from ahead against the Sparks but needed a bucket or two late to ice the victory. Courtney Williams doesn’t put as much pressure on the rim as Jasmine Thomas but is a much bigger pull-up scoring threat. She shot 45.6 and 42.7 percent on midrange jumpers in the past two seasons per WNBA.com.
If those shots continue to fall, the Sun have a viable No. 2 crunch-time scoring option.
On back-to-back possessions with less than two minutes to go, the Sparks switched Williams-Alyssa Thomas pick-and-rolls. Williams didn’t get anywhere on Ogwumike, her former teammate, on the first trip.
But Williams fed Thomas in the post to back down Sparks guard Chelsea Gray for a quick score that all but sealed the win.
Off-the-dribble shooting pockets won’t come as easy for Williams if teams look to switch more often. She must break bigs down to get to the rim or draw an extra defender.
Opponents switching a guard onto Jones induces immediate fear, but Alyssa Thomas is a different story. She isn’t as big and doesn’t have the same shooting touch.
The Sun will need her to score in those situations nonetheless, and Jones can spot up from deep to open up the lane and create bigger passing lanes.
June 9: Connecticut Sun 65, Atlanta Dream 59
Williams gets great rise on her jumper, which allows her to shoot right over the top of 6-foot-4 Monique Billings with relative ease here:
Connecticut needed that bucket late in the game. Jones got loose for a 3-pointer off a screen from Thomas but settled for some tough, fadeaway jumpers off the bounce.
If Jones faces up and doesn’t get all the way to the rim, what will the Sun flow into to find something better?
June 14: Connecticut Sun 85, Minnesota Lynx 81
The Sun went scoreless in the final three minutes on the road against the Lynx after building a double-digit lead. Rachel Banham was playing with the starters in place of Williams and missed a floater and turned it over.
Then Williams gave it away after replacing Banham.
Up by four with about a minute to play, Jones popped out to the right wing with a chance to go at Damiris Dantas. She drove right and found Alyssa Thomas at the rim, who was stuffed by Sylvia Fowles.
You first have to tip your cap to Fowles, one of the few players that can show help on a Jones drive at the rim, then recover to cleanly block her mark’s shot.
As the Sun run that action back, they’ll see that either Jones or Thomas have two teammates open on the back side eagerly awaiting kick-out passes. That simple action for Jones produced the result you need late in a game: collapsing the defense and putting Jones in a position to make a simple read to set somebody up.
Jones scoring as the trailer helped the Sun build the lead. Like Cambage, even Sylvia Fowles will struggle to keep tabs on and stay in front of Jones.
The Sun could replicate those situations with quick dribble handoffs early in the clock, or even roll out some pick and rolls with Jones as the ball handler and a shooter as the screener. The opportunities for her to face up and drive matter because they are the clearest path to more trips to the foul line—a precious commodity in the playoffs against great defenses.
Post-ups for Jones will get tricky because teams can sag so freely off of Alyssa Thomas without much fear, but some screening actions with Stricklen or Williams could get interesting.
Jones is only 25. So is Williams. Alyssa Thomas is 27. Stricklen is 28. Jasmine Thomas is 29. This group still has time.
But in a sense, the Sun have been lucky to have made it even this far while staying under the hard cap. That will change after this season.
As the players’ association and the league work to ink a new collective bargaining agreement, most of Connecticut’s roster will hit free agency. Miller must pull double duty as general manager to both lock in some of his core pieces longterm and fill out the roster around them as some key reserves seek out raises with the Sun or elsewhere.
The WNBA standings mean nothing this early in the season. Candace Parker (hamstring) of the Sparks, Diana Taurasi (back) of the Phoenix Mercury and several other stars are working their way back from injury. But even the best teams need some injury luck to win a title. The deserving champion Seattle Storm were able to put all of their best players on the floor at the end of last season.
The Sun started the season healthy and are out to a great start. If they follow suit, we’ll be much closer to knowing what this group looks like in a playoff series and if Jones can be the No. 1 option on a championship team.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.