No team embodies more of what 2020 has been like in the WNBA than the Connecticut Sun, whose momentum following a gripping five-game Finals series against the Mystics in 2019 was followed up with a daring offseason that saw them overhaul a starting lineup that was the best unit in the WNBA. That, of course, was quickly followed by a shutdown in March that put the season in jeopardy and ultimately convinced 2019 MVP third-place finisher Jonquel Jones to opt out of the season.
The Sun are still in the mix at the top of the league but will be hard-pressed to replace Jones, who will instead spend the season with her family back home in the Bahamas. The underrated DeWanna Bonner joined the Sun from the Mercury this offseason, signing a maximum contract that allows her to finally be properly compensated and move out from the shadow of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner in Phoenix. Gone is fan favorite and 2019 playoff standout Courtney Williams, who was traded to Atlanta to give more control of the offense to Jones and Bonner. Like the league itself, Connecticut was set to capitalize on hype coming out of 2019 but now finds itself having to recuperate on the fly as the WNBA gets set to tip off this weekend.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
DeWanna Bonner: The big offseason acquisition is the obvious answer here, especially with Jonquel Jones out. In Phoenix last season, with Diana Taurasi injured, Bonner absorbed a 26.7 percent usage rate and had one of the least efficient seasons of her career. It was ugly. There is some reason to believe Bonner will look better with Connecticut, but this Sun roster will struggle to space the floor like Phoenix did, and doesn’t have a lot of obvious play-making talent. It’s likely Bonner will once again have to operate out of position as a point forward (though coach Curt Miller has said her “true position” is at the 3, where he’ll try to play her most often) and create offense for a team of aging vets and unproven role players. If the 32-year-old Bonner rediscovers her 2018 form, the Sun offense can avoid slipping too much, but otherwise, Miller’s team is in for another year in which it struggles to score.
Bria Holmes: One of the most athletic players in the league will have a big opportunity to contribute for the Sun this season as she enters her prime. Connecticut is also replacing sharpshooter Shekinna Stricklen, who will join Williams with Atlanta this year. That means Holmes, who finally upped her deep shooting to a respectable level in 2019, will be the spark plug of an interchangeable wing rotation. Miller has said Holmes could play the 2 or 3, and she also reportedly grew a couple inches this offseason at age 26, meaning at 6-3, she could even fill in as a small-ball power forward. Between Mosqueda-Lewis and Gemelos, the Sun don’t need Holmes to step up to have a good season, but she has one of the highest ceilings on the roster and is a ton of fun to watch.
It’s hard to know. January and Bonner both struggled badly with the Mercury in 2019, while there is reason to believe Alyssa Thomas could be even better now that she’s (hopefully) fully recovered from a double shoulder injury that caused considerable pain throughout the playoffs last fall and caused her free-throw percentage to plummet below 50 percent. It will be a balancing act of finding the right players to pick up the scoring load without suffering on defense, but Miller is one of the best and most consistent coaches in the league. With a bit of luck, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Connecticut challenge for a championship again.
Alyssa Thomas: We know Miller’s recipe is to coach up a versatile, physical defense and score through his system, so in this case, the X-Factor is Thomas, an individual player rather than a part of the box score or a broader narrative. As Ben Dull noted in his Floor Game preview of the Sun, Thomas could very well lead the league in minutes played. Connecticut doesn’t really have a traditional backup for her, with the primary options being a smaller player like Holmes or Bonner, or a plodder like Brionna Jones. While Thomas has averaged 30 or more minutes the past two seasons, she is in her prime and could probably surpass that in a season where she’s sorely needed. If Thomas is recovered from the shoulder injuries and playing heavy minutes, her play-making on offense could be the missing link for the new-look Sun.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
If you’ve read this far, you know what I’m going to say: Who fills the play-making void? I have faith Miller can coax enough rim protection to make up for Jones’ game-changing interior defense (expect Brionna Jones to step up there), but until Jones broke out as a scorer in 2019, Miller had struggled to put together an elite playoff offense as a WNBA coach. With the smooth-scoring Williams also gone, several players will need to pick up that slack if Connecticut has any hope of a redux of their Finals run.