“Role Players” might as well be a cuss word when you talk about the Connecticut Sun. So many people have spent this year talking about how the team lacks any real stars and is just a bunch of role players, something the team’s social media account hasn’t been very happy about:
"TELL 'EM A BUNCH OF ROLE PLAYERS DID THAT. BELIEVE IT." pic.twitter.com/UmwuVwXo06
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) September 20, 2019
The Connecticut Sun do have plenty of role players, though. It’s just that they also have stars.
Jonquel Jones is a star. Alyssa Thomas is a star. Jasmine Thomas. Courtney Williams. When I say the phrase “role player” in relation to the Sun, these are not the players that I’m talking about.
But every team has players who do play a role, and those players are crucial for Connecticut’s success. Let’s look at how some of the players who aren’t part of that Big Four have been contributing to the team.
I don’t mean any #disrespeCT to Stricklen here by discussing her as a role player, because she’s a very good basketball player and I don’t consider the phrase “role player” to be a bad thing when used properly. She’s also vital to what the Sun do. This team isn’t this good without her contributions.
Stricklen plays the fewest minutes per game of Connecticut’s starters and has the lowest usage rate of them, but her shooting efficiency is hugely important to this team’s success. She leads all the team’s starters in true shooting percentage at 57.3% and per Positive Residual, Connecticut had a net rating of 11.2 in the 800 minutes that Stricklen has played in the regular season and postseason. That drops to -6.3 in the 557 minutes without her on the floor.
It’s worth noting that those minutes without her often also featured multiple other starters sitting on the bench as well and also that Stricklen is usually playing with other starters, but she’s still an important part of this Sun team.
Her shooting is an obvious reason why. Per Synergy, Stricklen ranks in the 89th percentile in points per possession on spot up attempt. Only two players — Kelsey Mitchell and Aerial Powers — have used at least 100 possessions on spot ups and rank higher than Stricklen in points per possession. Stricklen’s one of the league’s elite options when it comes to spotting up.
Per Synergy, Shekinna Stricklen scores in the 89th percentile in PPP on spot ups. pic.twitter.com/9HhtNUyROM
— Justin Carter (@juscarts) September 27, 2019
Having your fifth option be a player who shoots 38.2% from three and shot above 40% from three in each of the past two years and who is also a veteran player who fits perfectly into the role that Connecticut needs her to be in is just really unfair to the rest of the league.
And then there’s the defensive end, where Stricklen deserves more credit. While Synergy’s defensive tracking isn’t quite as accurate as their offensive tracking, she still rates as “very good” on that end per their ratings and her -0.01 defensive PIPM is as close to being neutral as you can get while still technically having a negative in that metric. The point is: Stricklen is an elite spot up shooter who isn’t a negative on the defensive end, and that’s a very good thing for the Sun.
Morgan Tuck, Bria Holmes, and Natisha Hiedeman
The Sun relied a lot on their starting lineup against the Sparks. In Game 1, for instance, we saw all the starters play at least 32 minutes, with Alyssa Thomas playing all of the minutes.
But you have to turn to the bench sometimes, and the Sun have some solid bench pieces, even if we won’t see them very much as we head to the Finals.
Tuck went to UConn, so she’s already got that to endear her to Sun fans. She’s also got experience winning championships, and while those didn’t come in the WNBA, having some big game experience still matters. Tuck’s also been an efficient spot up shooter this year if the Sun need to get some shooting on the floor in this series.
Holmes is an athletic guard who was the only non-starter to appear in every game this year for Connecticut. She led the reserves in scoring with 6.3 points per game on 39.9% shooting. She’s shot just 31.7% from deep on the year, but if she can give the team solid minutes as a backup guard, they’ll be able to survive times when Courtney Williams or Jasmine Thomas sits. She’s also been bringing solid defense to the floor.
Hiedeman was limited to just 20 regular season games because of injury, but if Layshia Clarendon remains out in this series, Hiedeman should see some run as a backup guard. She shot 46.7% from deep this year and while the sample size on that isn’t huge, she can be a source of offensive production in a pinch. In Game 3 of the Sparks series, Hiedeman played nine minutes, going 2-for-3 from deep.
Wait, Layshia Clarendon???
We all assumed Clarendon was done for the year after having ankle surgery in late June, but she’s reportedly practicing and eyeing a return for the Finals. That’s huge for this team, because having a backup point guard as reliable as Clarendon is a big plus when you’re playing in the Finals.
Clarendon isn’t much of a shooting threat, but she’s shown in the past that she can be a solid ball-handler who can avoid turning the ball over. This is the ultimate small sample, but in the 50ish minutes that Clarendon played this year without either of Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams sharing the backcourt, the team has a very respectable 13.8 turnover rate, and when she’s played in lineups with Courtney Williams but with Jasmine Thomas sitting, the Sun team as a whole has looked impressive on both ends of the floor.
Clarendon being unexpectedly available in this Finals series is essentially a gift that the Sun are getting. No offense to any other backup ball-handlers on this team, but Clarendon is the one I want to have the ball when my starting guards don’t.