DimeMag

The Connecticut Sun Look Like The WNBA’s Team To Beat

The Connecticut Sun are the WNBA powerhouse everybody should’ve seen coming. Led by MVP frontrunner Jonquel Jones, All-Star wing DeWanna Bonner, and a fleet of impressive rotation players, the Sun have quickly emerged as the team to beat three weeks into the season. A convincing 74-67 win over the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday should frighten the league.

Nine games into a 32-game regular season, Connecticut is 7-2 with a pair of wins over both the Aces and Phoenix Mercury. Each win has come by two or more possessions including three double-digit blowouts. The team’s only two losses both came in overtime to the Minnesota Lynx and reigning champion Seattle Storm.

Fans, media, and even the league’s general managers largely overlooked Connecticut. That’s probably because Alyssa Thomas, the Sun’s defensive anchor who led the franchise to a five-game semifinals series to the Aces last season, tore her Achilles overseas and won’t play in the WNBA in 2021. Bonner and Jones had also never shared the court prior to this season as Jones opted out of the 2020 bubble.

There was plenty of reason to be cautious picking Connecticut to win it all, but the Sun are showing why you should buy into them now. Bonner, Jones, and forward Brionna Jones make for one of the most intimidating interior units in the world. Their combination of quick foot speed, long arms, and towering height are a nightmare for opposing guards and bigs at the rim.

The fancy stats agree: According to Synergy Sports, the roll-man in pick-and-rolls has scored just 18 points on 43 tries against the Sun. Good freaking luck getting a clean look over 6’6 Jonquel Jones, or through the outreach of 6’4 Bonner. In 25 put-back attempts, opponents have also scored just 18 points. Connecticut leads the league in both categories while ranking second in defending the rim in non-post-up situations.

To stand a chance against Connecticut, you’re going to have to shoot a tremendous percentage from distance or run them in transition. Overall, Synergy pins Connecticut as the second-best team in halfcourt defense in the league. That’s translated to a defensive rating that’s more than five points per 100 possessions better than last year. Their 94.2 points per 100 possessions allowed leads the league, and would rank second-best of all teams in the last seven years.

All of those numbers are to say this: Connecticut is disciplined, quick, skilled, and has a gameplan to cut off a few elite options even if one player gets their numbers. Take Tuesday night for instance — while Liz Cambage poured in 28 points on 11-for-17 shooting mostly through post-ups, the rest of the Aces scored 39 points on 17-for-47 shooting. That’s just 36.2 percent.

It also helps that Jonquel Jones is inevitable, and it’s becoming clear no team can stop her. Jones was the league’s Most Improved Player in 2017, and in four short years, she might be the most hard-to-guard two-way player in the WNBA. The 6’6 center is averaging 20.6 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting — including making 21 of her 43 attempts from three — with 10.1 rebound, three assists, 1.7 steals, 1.2 blocks, and 2.9 turnovers per game.

She’s also doing very normal center things such as euro-stepping floaters through the lane and launching back into contested three-point shots. (Read: that’s not normal. Only unicorns make those types of shots.)

The question is no longer what Jones could be, because she already is. The WNBA has a limited supply of players tall enough to match her, and those that have the size rarely have the athletic gifts to follow her every move. In two games against reigning MVP A’ja Wilson’s Aces, Jones scored 42 points on 13-for-26 shooting. Against reigning Finals MVP Breanna Stewart’s Storm, she scored 28 points on 10-for-19 shooting.

In so many cases, a defense’s best option is to hope she misses. Jonquel Jones is the key to the Sun continuing their winning ways.

Jones’ play has had a positive impact on Bonner, too. In the Wubble, Bonner proved she was more than an historically great sixth woman, leading the Sun with 19.7 points per game and falling just one game short of the WNBA Finals. But her numbers are improving in 2021, which should come as no surprise now that Jones is luring away some of the defensive attention.

She’s had a rough time finishing around the basket, but Bonner has made 18 of her 42 three-pointers, raising her effective field goal percentage by nearly two percentage points. Last season, she made just 27 out of 107 tries. With Bonner conserving a bit of energy next to Jones (her usage rate is down 2.9 percent, and she’s taking 3.4 fewer field goal attempts per game), she’s having a stellar defensive season, too.

In 86 possessions guarding the shooter, she’s allowed just 52 points (17-for-70 shooting), according to Synergy Sports. Of all players who’ve defended 40 or more shooting possessions, only four players have allowed fewer points per possession.

It’s super early in the season, even if we are nearly one-fourth of the way through most WNBA teams’ schedules. The Chicago Sky haven’t settled yet with Candace Parker and Allie Quigley each playing in just one game so far, the Mercury are without Diana Taurasi for a month, and the Washington Mystics haven’t had Elena Delle Donne on the court yet. The Aces will get another chance to play Connecticut in August, too.

Right now, though, the Storm, who beat the Sun in the second week of the season, look like their biggest challenger. Seattle’s lost just one game and sits atop the league by percentage points at 6-1. Even after losing two starters from last season in Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, the Storm are rolling behind the big three of Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, and Stewart. Plus, they got the best of Connecticut in their first matchup by three points in overtime.

Leave your calendar open. We’ll see those teams play again on June 13.

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