State of the Sun

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve hit the midway point of the WNBA season. The Connecticut Sun, who looked vulnerable in the absence of Jonquel Jones as recently as our latest Power Rankings nearly two weeks ago, are back to their winning ways. After a three-game skid, they’re back on course, winners of four in a row. Now at 12-5, they’re just a half-game behind both the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm, who both pace the league at 12-4.

The Sun entered the season looking to—again!—defy expectations, before cementing themselves—again!—as one of the WNBA’s top teams. Why, after being the league’s runner-up in 2019 and one of its final four last year, did Connecticut have to brush off the “disrespeCT” card? Let’s go back a few months and figure out how we got here.

A Narrow Margin for Error

When Connecticut acquired DeWanna Bonner ahead of the 2020 season, fresh off their second-place finish, the roster looked unbeatable. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the Jonquel Jones–Alyssa Thomas–DeWanna Bonner trio take the floor together because Jones opted out, citing COVID-19 concerns at the height of the pandemic. (To that point, no league had accomplished what the WNBA would go on to do, in terms of player safety within a sports bubble, a success few leagues rivaled.)

Again, the stars failed to align in 2021, as Thomas ruptured her Achilles while playing overseas in the Czech Republic for ZVVZ USK Praha. The Sun did right by her, signing her to a contract so she would continue to get paid while rehabbing. As a team whose top four contracts—Bonner, J. Jones, A. Thomas, and Jasmine Thomas—accounted for $797,000, or 58.9 percent of their total cap space, they could only afford 11 players. With AT on the shelf, that number was really 10. When a team slips to nine, a hardship exception is triggered, allowing for an extra player to come in as a short-term addition. To contextualize, every injury (like Briann January’s ankle ailment) or miscellaneous absence (like JJ’s EuroBasket commitment) put the team in a compromising position.

“We knew, by keeping AT on the roster, in a unique situation where she was hurt overseas, we signed her knowing she was hurt. It put us in a different situation than some of the players around the league that get suspended,” head coach Curt Miller told Winsidr. “Because of the timing of her injury, [we knew that]we were gonna have to play with 10. For us, to be where we’re at and for the players to have the years that they’re having logging these types of minutes, just truly happy for our group. Happy for our All-Stars.”

Sin City? More like Sun City

The Sun’s two healthy stars were no-brainers for the All-Star festivities in Vegas. In a few weeks, Bonner will make her fourth appearance, JJ her third. Would they be joined by their young center, who continues to improve exponentially each season?

“We were all on pins and needles,” Miller said. “We know how much we value Bri Jones. We know how much she anchors what we do on both sides of the ball. So, there was a genuine nervousness, genuine anticipation walking through the airport wondering after DB and JJ had heard from the league office, if Bri Jones would be recognized.”

Bri Jones is a team favorite for all the hard work she puts in, and she has taken yet another leap this season after making a large jump last season. Her 15.5 points per game (PPG) and 6.7 rebounds per game (RPG) are both career-highs, and she’s been even stronger than that of late. During JJ’s five-game EuroBasket absence, Brionna Jones stepped up, putting up averages of 18 PPG on 61 percent shooting, while corralling 7.6 RPG. Connecticut dropped its first three games but salvaged the final two to kickstart their current win streak. 

Breezy’s performance those last few weeks might have been what pushed her over the edge.

 “I was just so excited that Brionna got the All-Star nod,” Bonner told Alexa Philippou following shootaround. “I think that was the highlight of everyone’s day.”

After last night’s game, in which she scored a career-high 34 points, I asked Bri Jones how she found out about her nomination, and her reaction speaks for itself:

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Doing the Dirty Work

Let’s back up a beat. Just how has this Connecticut Sun team that entered the season with +1200 odds firmly entrenched itself as a contender? It starts on the boards. While the Sun rank just fourth in rebounding (36.9 RPG), they hold opponents to only 28.6 RPG, nearly five boards better than the Minnesota Lynx, who are second in the statistic. Their net rebound advantage of +8.3 is far and away the best mark in the league. The Aces and Dallas Wings are tied for second, each at +3.0. The Sun secure 55.9 percent of available rebounds, again setting the tone for the W.

Rebounding Averages during the 2021 Season
Team Rebounds Opponent Rebounds Net Rebounding
Connecticut Sun 36.9 28.6 +8.3
Las Vegas Aces 38.8 35.8 +3.0
Dallas Wings 37.8 34.8 +3.0
Minnesota Lynx 35.0 33.2 +1.8
Chicago Sky 36.7 35.3 +1.4
Seattle Storm 37.0 36.6 +0.4
Indiana Fever 33.9 33.5 +0.4
Phoenix Mercury 35.8 35.7 +0.1
Atlanta Dream 33.9 35.9 -2.0
Washington Mystics 34.0 36.4 -2.4
New York Liberty 34.0 38.0 -4.0
Los Angeles Sparks 29.7 41.1 -11.4

 

Jonquel Jones’ 10.3 RPG pace the league, though you’ll also find JJ on most other leaderboards as well. Bonner’s 7.4 RPG rank 11th, while Brionna Jones’ 6.7 put her into 17th place. Only Las Vegas has produced a trio of players (A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage, and Dearica Hamby—386 total rebounds) that has pulled down more boards than the Jones/Jones/Bonner triumvirate. 

The largest result of Connecticut’s rebounding dominance is that opponents are often limited to single-shot possessions. The Sun surrender just 7.8 second-chance PPG, far below the league average of 10.5. This, paired with running the league’s slowest pace, allows Connecticut to yield a slim 74.4 PPG to opposing teams. (For further context, the Sky are second at 77.7 opponent PPG, and every other team concedes between 80 and 88 opponent PPG, according to the WNBA’s Advanced Stats page.)

No team in the WNBA is more methodical than the Connecticut Sun. Miller has called their system the “monotony approach,” which has allowed his team to control games and put his 10 healthy players into the best position to win. “We’ve got really good team camaraderie, and we’re locked in,” Jonquel Jones said. “There’s a lot of good stuff for us to build on.” And, at 12-5, there’s no arguing with the results.

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