With Alyssa Thomas injured, can the Sun pivot for 2021?

The start of free agency is typically a time for excitement and optimism. That won’t be the case for the Connecticut Sun, who announced that Alyssa Thomas underwent surgery earlier this week to repair a torn Achilles tendon. 

So, where can the Sun go from here? 

The release did not specify a timetable for a return. Recovery times have differed for some of Thomas’ peers. According to one expert, athletes need six months to a year, or more, to return to form. Breanna Stewart returned to play in an exhibition with USA Basketball about nine months after rupturing her right Achilles tendon. A nine month timetable for Thomas would extend beyond the end date of each of the past two WNBA Finals series. 

Rachel Galligan reported last week that Thomas, who had been playing overseas for ZVVZ USK Praha, was returning to the states to undergo further evaluation. Now the Sun must prepare for the 2021 season with the Thomas news in mind and the free agency negotiation period already underway. 

Rather than adding some pieces around a Big Three of Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner and Thomas, Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller may need to alter his offseason approach. Bonner, Jones, Briann January and Kaila Charles are the only players under contract for 2021 according to Her Hoop Stats, along with young reserves Natisha Hiedeman and Beatrice Mompremier who signed their qualifying offers to return to Connecticut earlier this month. 

Re-signing starting point guard Jasmine Thomas remains an obvious priority. Can Miller and the Sun pivot from here to land another starter or high-end bench player with the hopes of still contending this season? Connecticut’s options will be limited. Jones and Bonner are on max contracts, and Jasmine Thomas will likely command a sizable new deal. Prior to the injury, Alyssa Thomas, an unrestricted free agent this offseason, was a clear max player. 

Factor all four players into their plans for 2022, and they wouldn’t be able to fill out a roster and stay under the salary cap next year with the addition of a new player on a big multi-year contract. Possibly the most convenient path forward for Connecticut at this point: offering a one-year deal and a big role with what should still be a solid playoff team at minimum. 

Miller still would need to sort through what happens for Alyssa Thomas in the near term. Thomas isn’t under contract for 2021 at the moment. One could understand the Sun wanting to still take care of one of their stars financially, but paying Thomas while injured would limit what they’re able to do in fielding the most competitive team possible this season. WNBA teams don’t have any kind of injured list and get a maximum of 12 roster spots. They work under a hard salary cap with very limited in-season hardship exceptions. 

Kelsey Plum, who suffered a torn Achilles last summer, was still under contract with the Aces and had signed a two-year extension about one month prior. Las Vegas kept Plum on the roster all season. One key difference between the two situations: the Aces weren’t in the same kind of predicament in working to stay under the salary cap. Plum’s extension hadn’t kicked in yet as she was still on her rookie contract. Back in 2019, the Storm suspended Stewart without pay to open up a roster spot. The league ended up creating a new one-season paid ambassador role for Stewart that season that largely remained undefined, leading to natural questions of how the league office would react to a similar case in future instances. 

In searching for possible targets for the Sun this offseason, the list of available power forwards is limited. Glory Johnson likely tops out as an average 3-point shooter but is solid in several areas. Tianna Hawkins could open up the floor as a capable 3-point threat but may be better suited in a bench role as opposed to one as a full-time starter. Amanda Zahui B. might be another stretch big worth a look. 

Restricted free agent center Brionna Jones filled in admirably as Connecticut’s starter this season. Could Miller lean on familiarity, bring Jones back, and at least try to play his two centers together a tad? The fit with Jonquel Jones and Thomas already got clunky at times in the halfcourt. It would become difficult to play through Jonquel Jones inside against a locked-in defense because Thomas isn’t a threat to score from outside the paint. That effect would be amplified with a Jones-Jones pairing. According to WNBA.com, that duo logged just 15 minutes together in the 2019 regular season. 

The Sun don’t own their own 2021 first-round pick which was shipped out in the Bonner deal. Alabama senior Jasmine Walker is a very intriguing stretch 4 in this draft class, but the sharpshooting forward has likely played her way well out of Connecticut’s reach in the late second round. If the Sun did have any kind of trade chip to get into the first round this year to target Walker or somebody else, giving up their own 2022 first seems like the only viable means of doing so.

Trading future firsts this far ahead of time is always a risky proposition. With one key player already injured, the 2021 Sun could be a rolled ankle or one bad spell away from ending up closer to No. 8 than No. 4 in the standings. It’s entirely possible you get a chance to trade for, say, a pick in the 8-to-10 range here in 2021 only for the 2022 pick you’re giving up to end up as high as No. 5 or 6 (or even in the lottery if injuries pile up). 

All that said, Miller still has one far more appealing lever to pull than any of the options stated above. Sliding Bonner up to the 4 position, either on a full-time basis or something close to it, would open up a spot in the starting lineup to offer to somebody in free agency. This path has much more upside offensively. The Sun could run some five-out actions or play four around one with Jonquel Jones or even Bonner attacking a mismatch inside. Jones or Bonner could be the screener in pick and rolls, and Miller could even put three 3-point shooters around a Bonner-Jones pick and roll. 

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Possible targets could include Betnijah Laney or Aerial Powers, or restricted free agents Brittney Sykes and Allisha Gray. (Any offer sheet to a restricted free agent, however, must be for at least two seasons, which may create the kind of 2022 salary cap dilemma referenced earlier.) Connecticut could even target a smaller guard. Why not? You’re trying to make the best of an imperfect situation here. Erica Wheeler could fit next to Jasmine Thomas in the backcourt in theory as an on- and off-ball threat. Depending on the opponent, January could play as part of some three-guard lineups or just round out the guard rotation with those two. Connecticut could also look to pry restricted free agent shooting guard Sami Whitcomb away from Seattle to add a high-volume 3-point threat to the mix. 

All goes well with this roadmap, let’s say Miller manages to sign one of those perimeter players and one of Johnson, Zahui, or Hawkins. You would be adding some frontcourt depth to limit the wear and tear for Bonner defending bigger players while adding a quality perimeter player that can make you more dangerous offensively when Bonner does slide up to the 4. 

Who knows in the immediate aftermath of the Thomas injury news if that would even be a plausible outcome for the Sun, or if Miller would even take that kind of approach. All of the free agents mentioned above may well find strong offers elsewhere, and some of the preferred targets for every team will simply opt to go sign elsewhere even if they do happen to find your offer enticing. Teams won’t always get their full wish list in free agency even if a bunch of players league-wide would be happy to play there. 

The Sun bounced back from a slow start in 2020 to come within minutes of another Finals trip without Jonquel Jones, rightfully adding to the excitement around what they could accomplish in 2021. Those plans took a big hit this week. There’s no question that the league is better with a healthy Alyssa Thomas, one of the league’s fiercest competitors and an unquestioned All-WNBA-caliber player. 

Miller still has plenty of time to work the phones before free agent signings can become official on February 1. The Sun can’t come close to replicating everything The Engine does for them on both ends with one move in February. But judging from what we just saw last season, they’ll still find a way to be a tough out when it matters most. 

Written by Ben Dull (@Ben_Dull on Twitter). Read more of his work at Floor Game and subscribe to the Floor Game podcast, part of the Winsidr podcast network

 

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