Black Hole Sun: How Connecticut’s Pace Swallows Opponents

The Connecticut Sun have catapulted into sole position of first place in the WNBA standings. As of August 26, the Sun are on a league-best six-game winning streak (excepting the Commissioner’s Cup exhibition hiccup that didn’t blemish their record).

All season long, we’ve highlighted just how the Sun have found success, from the inimitable Jonquel Jones to the growth of rotation pieces like the ever-confident Natisha Hiedeman and the ever-improving Bri Jones. This is a tight-knit group that has fully bought into the tenacity and physicality preached by Curt Miller and his coaching staff. 

As a reminder, they’re dressing just 10 each night, due to some top-heavy cap hits and the Achilles injury sidelining star Alyssa Thomas. This lessens their margin for error, in terms of off-nights or injuries, and increases the weight carried by their starting five. The entire quintet—Jones, Jones, DeWanna Bonner, Briann January, and Jasmine Thomas—plays north of 30 minutes per game. To put that into context, just three teams (Minnesota, Phoenix, and Washington) have THREE players averaging above the 30-minute threshold, let alone five.

So, it should be no surprise that Connecticut lags behind all the other teams in pace of play. In fact, the 11th-ranked Mercury are closer to the fifth place Mystics than they are the Sun. 

“There’s an intent to play slower,” Miller said. “It lessens possessions, and we have to play a different style than maybe we all would like, but it’s the smart way to play, pace-wise, this year.” Despite their deliberate gameplan slowing the action, the Sun’s efficiency has them fourth in offensive rating. 

 

Year Pace-per-40 minutes Rank League Average Pace-per-40 minutes*
2021 76.0 12th 79.5
2020 79.8 9th 80.1
2019 80.2 4th 78.8
2018 80.7 5th 78.8
2017 81.4 2nd 78.4
Note: * League Average Pace stats courtesy of Kurtis Zimmerman, Across The Timeline

 

A team’s pace is the rate in which the game is played, and it’s calculated by taking the amount of possessions each team has in a given game to establish the tempo. 

And why does pace matter? Look no further than how Connecticut fares on the glass. Counting stats in a vacuum might not match the eye test if not given the qualifier of pace. Upon first glimpse, one might note that the Sun rank just fourth (behind the Aces, Mercury, and Storm) in total rebounding. However, if you adjust for the pace of their games, Connecticut leads the way in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage, which limits opposing possessions while adding more attempts of their own. Only the Mercury take fewer shots on a nightly basis than the Sun’s 65.9 field goal attempts (FGA), but Miller’s squad only allows 63.5 FGA from opponents. This is because of the totality of the Sun’s rebounding dominance: just as they led the league in securing both ends of the glass, no team is better at limiting opponents from snagging boards.

Throughout the season, the gritty methodical approach has begun with the Jones/Jones frontcourt. Brionna Jones, playing the 5, often gets the more physical assignment, boxing out the Cambages and Griners. Her box-out ability, which doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, often allows the 6’6” JJ to collect rebounds in space, and it contributes to the MVP candidate’s league-leading 11.2 rebounds per game (RPG). During Connecticut’s current six-game win streak dating back to July 9, Jones is averaging 17.5 points per game (PPG) and 13.0 RPG.

“JJ’s amazing,” Thomas said after their recent 72-60 victory over the Lynx. “She gets us extra possessions on the offense and she ends the possessions on defense.’”

 

See Also

Team Rebounds Per Game Opponent Rebounds Per Game Difference
Connecticut Sun 36.6 28.5 +8.1
Las Vegas Aces 38.8 35.6 +3.2
Dallas Wings 36.3 34.0 +2.3
Minnesota Lynx 34.2 32.5 +1.7
Phoenix Mercury 37.1 35.8 +1.3
Seattle Storm 37.0 35.7 +1.3
Indiana Fever 34.8 33.8 +1.0
Chicago Sky 35.7 36.2 -0.5
Washington Mystics 34.8 37.1 -2.3
New York Liberty 33.7 36.7 -3.0
Atlanta Dream 33.7 37.5 -3.8
Los Angeles Sparks 30.5 39.8 -9.3

 

Why, then, if they’re pulling down north of eight boards over opponents in each contest, do the Sun average just 2.4 more shot attempts a night? Coming off the month-long hiatus, Miller broke down where his team still struggles.

“We’ve put together a roster that plays extremely hard. So some of our markers of execution, when you look at all our analytics, we grade out really well at the defensive end,” Miller said. “On the offensive end, we’re top four in efficiency in a lot of categories, but our turnover ratio is 11th in the league. As dominant of a defensive rebounding team as we are, we’re last in the league in fast break points.”

That lack of easy buckets and propensity for turnovers is somewhat a byproduct of the desire to play through the post, which gets clogged up with extra attention. During each of the past five seasons, the Miller-led Sun have slowed games down (with point-forward Alyssa Thomas’ injury being a contributing factor to this year’s steep decline). This is a team who knows its identity and sticks to their defensive principles.

Unsurprisingly, the Sun’s ability to muck up the game’s flow has them surrendering just 71.5 PPG, leading the W by a large margin. Only two other teams, the Sparks (78.9 PPG) and Lynx (79.9), keep opposing teams below the 80-point threshold. 

“Defense is the main thing we do best,” Jonquel Jones said. “When we do that, everything flows better for us. It’s an emphasis coming into every game.”

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