For the last few years, the Connecticut Sun have played with a chip on their collective shoulders. The “disrespeCT” campaign started during their 2019 playoff run, when the lovable underdogs came within a game of winning it all despite being doubted every step of the way. Then last year, following the opt-out of Jonquel Jones, they emerged from the starting gates slowly, losing their first five contests in the Bradenton bubble before recalibrating and earning a playoff berth behind stars Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner. Following another impressive postseason effort, they were ousted by the eventual runner-up Las Vegas Aces after pushing them to five hard-fought games in the semifinals.
This year, again, Connecticut found its motivation in the media unbelievers, after Thomas tore her Achilles tendon while playing overseas for ZVVZ USK Praha in the Czech Republic. Again, we fans were robbed of the Jones-Thomas-Bonner All-Star trio we deserved and, once again, people were down on the Sun.
It would’ve been no surprise if the team started slowly this season. Jonquel Jones tipped off following just a single practice. Starting point guard Jasmine Thomas arrived late from overseas, landing stateside in time for one home game before a multi-timezone West Coast road trip. To further complicate an already-pressed roster that can only afford 11 players, Connecticut is dressing just 10, as they do right by Alyssa Thomas and pay her despite her injury.
Even with all that, though, the Sun are off to a 5-1 start, tied with the New York Liberty for the best record in the W. A major reason for that success? The gritty, tenacious play of Natisha Hiedeman.
Excelling in Every Role
We’re only six games into the season, but Hiedeman is already setting—and resetting—single-game career-highs. In the second game of the season, she scored 17 points against the Phoenix Mercury, the best mark (at the time) for the third-year pro.
In that win, the Hiedeman/Briann January backcourt more than held its own against Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith. The Sun’s pair of guards combined for 32 points, while forcing five steals against just three turnovers. “Those guys were not just impactful in the box score,” Connecticut head coach Curt Miller said in postgame, “[but]they chased around two really good guards all night long in Diana and Skylar. That’s not an easy task.”
Hiedeman, confident on the court but comfortable to perform wherever the team needs, credited the scouting and preparation for the defensive effort. “They have a whole All-Star team,” she said of Phoenix, “so we just honed in on defense. Our coaches had a great gameplan; we just needed to execute it.”
To this point, no member of the Sun has logged more minutes than Hiedeman, so she must be impressing the coaching staff with that aforementioned execution. In fact, her +12.3 plus-minus leads the team and is fourth in the entire WNBA (behind Allisha Gray and Candace Parker, who have only played one game apiece, and Mercedes Russell).
Connecticut Sun in Natisha Heideman's 200 minutes on the court: +18.9 points per 100 possesions
Connecticut Sun in Natisha Heideman's 44 minutes off the court: -13.2 points per 100 possessions
— Gabe Ibrahim (@gabe_ibrahim) May 26, 2021
That 17-point career-high wouldn’t last long. In the very next game against the Indiana Fever—despite coming off the bench—Hiedeman was pressed into extended duty after starting guard Briann January sprained her ankle. She made an immediate impact in the win, scoring 19 points and dishing out a season-best six assists. Coming into 2021, Hiedeman had hit double figures in points just five times in 42 games; in six games so far this season, she’s scored 10+ on four occasions.
A lot of Hiedeman’s growth on the offensive end comes from an increased assertiveness that matches her extended court time. With 76 points scored on 77 possessions, Hiedeman ranks in the 70th percentile for offense, according to Synergy. However, the lefty has excelled when shooting jumpers; in those situations, her points per possession (PPP) climb to 1.132, good for the 82nd percentile. This is largely due to her three-point prowess: while Hiedeman’s 39.5 percent from deep this season is right in line with her career average of 39.2 percent, she’s been shooting with much more frequency.
According to Across the Timeline, Hiedeman’s career long-range makes versus attempts are 1.06/2.71; so far this season, she’s making 2.50 of 6.33 looks. In fact, nobody in the WNBA has attempted more than Hiedeman’s 38, and her 15 makes put her in a four-way tie (with Ariel Atkins, Bonner, and Sami Whitcomb) for second behind Sabrina Ionescu’s 18 triples.
A majority of Hiedeman’s volume comes from the right wing, where she often initiates the pick-and-roll with Jonquel Jones. If defenses go under the screen to try and contain JJ, Hiedeman has been aggressive with her shot. For Connecticut, who ranks second in the W (behind only New York) in both three-point makes (53) and percentage (40.2 percent), Hiedeman should continue to have a green light.
Competing on Both Ends
While Hiedeman’s offensive play continues to ignite conversation, she’s also been giving opponents fits on the other side of the court. “It’s tremendous, it’s incredible to see the confidence she’s come out with,” Jasmine Thomas told Winsidr. “We’ve always known she can be shifty and a scorer, but what needs to get more attention is her defense. She’s up near the league leaders in steals.”
To this point, Hiedeman ranks fifth in the W in that category, tied with teammate Jonquel Jones with 1.8 steals per game. She leads the Connecticut Sun in defensive win shares, edging out Jones. Synergy is less bullish on Hiedeman’s on-ball defensive numbers, but she jumps passing lanes like Ed Reed in his prime. Take a look at these three steals from the May 19th tilt against the Fever, each of which paid immediate dividends.
“Having her in training camp without Briann January and Jasmine Thomas has really given her confidence that she can run this team,” Coach Miller told Alexa Philippou of the Hartford Courant after that game.
That’s a huge difference from 2020, when Hiedeman got a late start to the Bradenton bubble after recovering from COVID-19. “Being able to be a part of a training camp this year, I just feel more confident going into games,” Hiedeman said. “Just having that time to practice and really get better. I think that is helping me a lot.”
Miller has mentioned several times that Hiedeman’s swag is back.
With so many pieces coming in late, then an extended three-city road trip to Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Seattle limiting practice time, Hiedeman’s superb play has helped take pressure off the team’s top-billed stars. Last night, in the second half of Tuesday’s overtime loss to Seattle, Hiedeman left with a calf injury, but it’s not believed to be serious. While Jonquel Jones is the name being (rightly) mentioned in all-too-early MVP discussions, Hiedeman has been an unsung hero for the surging Sun.