At the Athletes Unlimited closing ceremony on February 27, 2022, DiJonai Carrington looked locked in, still wearing her game face despite the season’s end. She remained as such—applause for the success of AU’s inaugural season filling the arena—until the announcement came that she made the league’s All-Defensive team. Then, Carrington lit up, flashing a smile at her fellow teammates and competitors, and flipped her hair, finally at ease, able to perhaps relax and bask in the success she had so rightly earned during the brief but exciting AU season.
Unlike her explosive premiere in AU, Carrington played a relatively quiet role with the Connecticut Sun during her 2021 rookie campaign, appearing in 24 games (one as a starter) and averaging a discreet 2.8 points per game (PPG) on 32.9 percent shooting. She also showed up briefly in two of the team’s playoff games, for a total of two minutes on court.
Recently, I had the chance to talk with DiJonai about her experience as a second round pick, and the inherent challenges in trying to make a WNBA roster:
“I know for myself, it was just trying to be confident in what I do. At the end of the day, it’s the same ball, the same basket, and everyone has to just come out there with confidence. I think that’s like the biggest thing. Especially for someone who went in the second round and went a little bit lower than expected; it’s just to remind yourself that you have to stay confident, and that doesn’t mean that you’re any less than the people who went before you.”
Fast forward to 2022, and it’s safe to say that confidence has paid off. Carrington made her presence known during the AU season, placing seventh overall in the player standings. In stark contrast to the nine minutes per game she averaged in 2021 with the Sun, Carrington averaged over 37 minutes on court, including a season best 55 minutes in her last contest. She was also second in field goals made, fourth in three-pointers made, second in total rebounds, and tied for seventh in assists.
What was different between the WNBA and AU formats? According to DiJonai, it was the relaxing and supportive environment that allowed her to flourish:
“[The AU] was so much fun. First off—and I think that as an athlete, especially as a professional athlete, we all have the skills and the talent—you play best when you’re just playing fun, playing free, and that was really the biggest thing for me.
My rookie season in the W was very up and down as far as my personal playing time and my percentages when I was out there. So, it was a really good thing for me at AU to get my confidence back, and just remind myself of my capabilities and prove myself right.
It’s not so much for me to prove haters and doubters wrong; I just wanted to prove myself right and remind myself that I do belong in the W, and I do belong in professional sports, and I do have the skills and the talent and the work ethic and all those different things.”
Putting a microscope on Carrington’s AU season, it’s easy to see that she made a number of leaps in her game (especially on the offensive end). During her rookie season with the Sun, Carrington shot 50 percent at the rim in transition, and 37 percent around the basket (according to Synergy), placing her near the bottom of the league in both categories. The same data isn’t available for the AU season, but the eye test shows that she had no discomfort taking shots near the basket.
— Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports) February 6, 2022
— WNBA Got Game (@wnbagotgame) February 10, 2022
Carrington also looked more comfortable from distance, though there’s still work for her to do to be considered a threat in either the AU or WNBA. She had the second most attempts from beyond the arc during the AU season but connected on only 32 percent of those shots. However, it’s a drastic improvement from her WNBA debut season, where she shot only 14 percent from three.
Of course, any mention of her growth in AU would be incomplete without mentioning that she was one of the best defensive players in the league, finishing the season first in steals and second in rebounding.
According to DiJonai, hearing her name selected to the AU All-Defensive team was the culmination of all the time and effort she had put in during her time with Baylor and the Sun:
“That was special. That’s something I have tried to hang my hat on this last year in the W because we had so many dynamic scores on our team, and I also had Briann January and Jasmine Thomas. As far as guard defenders, they are still two of the best in the league. So, being able to learn from them all season, and then getting my opportunity during AU to put those tools that I learned before into action—it was super special for that to be recognized and put on display.”
All in all, Carrington’s performance in Athletes Unlimited has reminded a lot of people (this writer included) of the confident and dynamic player who left Baylor in the spring of 2021 to make the jump to the WNBA. That year, as a graduate transfer for the Bears, she earned the Big 12 Conference Sixth Woman of the Year award and was the offensive spark that helped lead Baylor to the Elite Eight.
And though her rookie campaign was pretty quiet, she fought to make a team roster as a second round draft pick, which, in the current WNBA, is often an uphill battle.
We have seen Carrington use her aggressive offensive and defensive style of play to quickly adapt to her new environments, which should leave fans optimistic about her role on the Sun going forward. A roster crowded with talent, though, leaves questions about where Carrington—and the talents she displayed on the AU court—might fit.
So where does DiJonai see herself on the 2022 Sun roster?
“I’m really interested to see how I fit into this team. We have a very similar team to last year. Obviously final rosters haven’t been released yet, but we have everyone (besides Briann [January]) coming back to training camp from last year. We have added Courtney Williams, and so I’m interested to really see where I can make an impact. I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but I definitely do want to make an impact more so than I did last year, and my goal is to be in that conversation, for Most Improved Player.”
Connecticut is trying to find their way back to the playoffs after their 2021 campaign fell short against the eventual champs Chicago Sky. What the Sun lacked most in their times of struggle was outside shooting, as well as a secondary option on offense to carry the load when stars like Jonquel Jones were on the bench or struggling with their shot.
To remedy the ails that cut short their playoff run, the Sun brought in offensive firepower by way of Courtney Williams, giving the current roster six players who have earned an All-Star appearance. The team also drafted Nia Clouden, who was named All-Big Ten each of her four seasons at Michigan State, Baylor guard Jordan Lewis, and Florida guard Kiara Smith.
In short, there doesn’t appear to be a clear path towards Carrington taking the reins of this offense any time soon. However, based on last season’s offensive struggles, it’s not a stretch to imagine Carrington called upon to flash the energy and transition scoring she demonstrated during the AU season.