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WNBA 2019 Team Preview: The Connecticut Sun (#4) looks to take next step as title contender

After going 21-13 in each of the past two seasons, the Connecticut Sun will have an opportunity to establish itself among the WNBA’s elite.

Jonquel Jones (right) promises to factor into the Sun’s title-contention plans.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

It was an up-and-down 2018 for the Connecticut Sun, though you could argue there were more ups than downs. A midseason stumble was sandwiched between a 7-1 start and a 9-1 finish, with Curt Miller’s squad finishing at 21-13 (No. 4 overall playoff seed) for the second consecutive season.

Also for the second year in a row, the Sun was bounced in the first round of the playoffs — at home, by the Phoenix Mercury. It was nothing we hadn’t seen before: Connecticut was unable to match Brittney Griner’s physicality in the paint and Diana Taurasi hit five three-pointers in a convincing second-half comeback.

The landscape of the WNBA has changed since then, though. Taurasi is one of many star players who will miss significant time in 2019, thus, opening the door for younger teams to seize the moment. While Connecticut hasn’t been without its own offseason disappointments, the Sun will likely remain one of the league’s better teams.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Sun to get over the hump:

Season outlook: The Connecticut Sun in 2019

Familiar faces

Arguably, the Sun’s greatest strength is its transition game. Alyssa Thomas has thrived under Miller as the team’s starting power forward; she’s very difficult to stop with the basketball in her hands and a full head of steam. Playing small ball lineups with her positioned at the four opens up a fast-break offense that not many defenses can handle. Despite her weaknesses as a half-court player (specifically, her glaring lack of a reliable jump shot), Thomas is such a matchup problem in other facets of the game that she’s a worthy player to build a team around.

Also primed to have big seasons are center Jonquel Jones and guard Courtney Williams.

Jones — who already has a fair amount of hardware as the WNBA’s 2017 Most Improved Player and 2018 Sixth Woman of the Year — should now get as many minutes as she can handle with Chiney Ogwumike getting traded to Los Angeles. Williams is another young Sun player who continues to improve; she’s become one of the WNBA’s top midrange jump shooters, and her level of athleticism suggests that she has even more room to get better.

Rounding things out are point guard Jasmine Thomas and forward Morgan Tuck. Thomas re-signed with the Sun for multiple seasons after receiving the team’s “core” designation. She has turned into the team’s vocal leader and figures to be in their long-term plans. Tuck will likely have an expanded and more defined role this season with Ogwumike no longer in the fold; the former lottery pick played a career-low 13.6 minutes per game last season, but she should now have more room to operate.

Notable newbies

Aside from re-signing Thomas, the Sun wasn’t very active in free agency. The team made most of its roster additions through the draft, selecting center Kristine Anigwe with the No. 9 overall pick, guard Bridget Carleton with No. 21 and forward Regan Magarity with No. 33.

Given Connecticut’s depth, it’s hard to see any of these players having a huge role right away, and it will be difficult for Carleton and Magarity to even make the team. Anigwe — who led NCAA Division I in rebounding last season — will likely be asked to focus mainly on that kind of dirty work as she gets adjusted to the speed of the WNBA game. Her length, athleticism and lateral movement make her a good fit on this Connecticut roster, but the transition from college to the pros is often a difficult one for low-post players.

Biggest obstacles

Here are the biggest challenges the Connecticut Sun will face this season:

  1. Who will be the Sun’s #1 option? For all its depth, talent and transition offense, Connecticut didn’t really have an established bucket-getter in 2018. When the pace of the game slows down and the Sun needs a basket in the half court, who will the team look to? Courtney Williams seems like an ideal choice here: Her explosive first step and leaping ability allow her to get a shot off against almost any individual defender. While this is usually a midrange jumper, not many players are better at it than Williams. According to Lynx Data, she shot well above the league average from 11-21 feet in 2018.
  2. How will they replace Ogwumike’s production? The Sun unexpectedly dealt former No. 1 overall pick Chiney Ogwumike to the Sparks, getting only a 2020 first-round draft pick in return. While the Sun has the frontcourt depth to absorb a hit like this, it won’t be easy for them to make up for the efficiency: In 2018, Ogwumike ranked fourth among qualified players in true shooting percentage while starting every game in which she was healthy. It’s a foregone conclusion that Jones will be replacing her as a starter, but she’s a much different player than Ogwumike and how the team adjusts remains to be seen.
  3. Will the Sun be able to win on the road? This may seem like an obvious point, but it needs to be made: Connecticut must be able to win on the road consistently if it’s to be an elite WNBA team. Mohegan Sun has long been one of the league’s toughest places to travel to, but the Sun hasn’t been able to take care of business away from home, winning exactly 50 percent of its road games over the past two seasons, combined. In contrast, the WNBA champions — Seattle in 2018 and Minnesota in 2017 — went a combined 25-9 on the road.

Game zone

Preseason opener

New York Liberty vs. Connecticut Sun

When: Monday, May 13, at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT

How to watch: To be determined

Notes: This will be the first of two preseason games between the Sun and the Liberty, with the latter being played on May 19. It will also be the first big chance for players like Carleton and Magarity to impress. The Sun went 2-1 against the Liberty last season, although New York will roll out a vastly different roster this year, especially in the preseason.

Season home opener

Washington Mystics vs. Connecticut Sun

When: Saturday, May 25, at 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT

How to watch: WNBA League Pass

Notes: The Sun split the 2018 season series with Washington at two wins apiece. Interestingly, Connecticut’s wins were by much bigger margins than their losses: They beat the Mystics by 24 and 26 points on June 3 and July 24, respectively, and dropped June 13 and June 26 contests by just four and 12 points.

Marquee matchup

Los Angeles Sparks vs. Connecticut Sun

When: Thursday, June 6, at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT

How to watch: WNBA League Pass

Notes: This will be Ogwumike’s first game back at Uncasville, one that’s bound to be emotional for players and fans alike. It could also be a playoff preview; the Sparks are looking like one of the best teams in the WNBA at the moment, and if they play to their level of talent, the Sun will have to go through them to win a title.