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Preview: Atlanta Dream, Connecticut Sun aim to open season with a win

Beset by a combination of injuries, absences, unfamiliarity and uncertainty, the Atlanta Dream and Connecticut Sun enter the 2021 WNBA season without high expectations. However, with a strong opening game, especially with strong performances from their respective rookies, the Dream or Sun could quickly change opinions about their upside.

Minnesota Lynx v Atlanta Dream
Rookie Aari McDonald runs the show for the Atlanta Dream during a preseason game.
Photo by Dale Zanine/NBAE via Getty Images

It appears the Atlanta Dream and Connecticut Sun both have challenging seasons ahead.

After importing a number of new players during the offseason, the Dream are without the two figures who oversaw this roster reconstruction, as the organization fired then-president and general manager Chris Sienko before then-head coach Nicki Collen departed for Waco, Texas, accepting the head coaching position at Baylor University.

The Sun not only must navigate this season without the services of Alyssa Thomas, who is out for the season after injuring her Achilles while playing overseas, but, because of a number of well-compensated veterans, Connecticut also is a top-heavy team that lacks reliable depth.

A strong start to the season thus is important for both squads. On Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET (Twitter), they meet for the inaugural WNBA game in Gateway Center, the Dream’s new home in College Park, Ga.

The contest also will feature the WNBA debuts of two of the stars of this year’s NCAA tournament — the Dream’s Aari McDonald (formerly of Arizona) and the Sun’s DiJonai Carrington (formerly of Baylor).

Due to Connecticut’s aforementioned lack of depth, Carrington could emerge as an integral contributor. She possesses the size, strength and athleticism to survive, and even thrive, at the WNBA level on the defensive end, thus helping Sun maintain a top-five defensive rating. And while her penchant for steals certainly will not compensate for the absence of Alyssa Thomas, always an absolute freight train in transition, Carrington’s aggression can help Connecticut translate defense to offense.

More encouragingly, she flashed the ability to generate positive offense in the half court in the Sun’s lone preseason game, scoring 16 points in just under 25 minutes. Even with the return of Jonquel Jones, the Sun could again struggle to score against set defenses. If Carrington emerges as a consistent shooter, her presence will make things easier for Jones and DeWanna Bonner.

So, don’t be surprised if Carrington is critical to the Sun’s successes on Friday night.

In contrast, although she was a much higher draft pick, Aari McDonald may not contribute nearly as much to the proceedings. With her spectacular play throughout Arizona’s run to the national championship game, McDonald showed she has the combination of spirit, speed, scrappiness and shooting to be a WNBA star. However, the Dream have an incredibly crowded backcourt. Even though Tiffany Hayes will not play, as she has just returned from her overseas obligations in Spain, Atlanta’s available guard corps includes Chennedy Carter, Courtney Williams and Odyssey Sims.

It will be interesting to see how many minutes interim head coach Mike Petersen allocates to McDonald. In Atlanta’s preseason game against the Washington Mystics, McDonald played 17.3 minutes, with seven points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal. However, Sims, McDonald’s primary competition for playing time, was a team-high plus-17 in a team-high 18.9 minutes.

As securing the win is the number one priority, Petersen and company likely will rely on the Dream’s more experienced guards ahead of McDonald.

Game Information

Atlanta Dream (0-0) vs. Connecticut Sun (0-0)

When: Friday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: Gateway Center in College Park, GA

How to watch: Twitter

Key to the matchup: Jonquel Jones. The Bahamian Beast is back! Last time we saw her on a WNBA court, Jones dropped 25 points on the eventual-champion Washington Mystics in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals. Against Atlanta, Jones has the opportunity to reintroduce herself to the WNBA with authority. However, expect Cheyenne Parker to do her best to make things difficult for Jones. Parker brings a needed spiciness and feistiness to the Dream frontcourt. All the while, Elizabeth Williams remains a solid positional defender at the 5. Containing Jones will be a tough, intriguing opening test for the Parker-Williams pairing.

Dream injury report: Tiffany Hayes (out; overseas)

Sun injury report: Briann January (questionable; health/safety protocols), Jasmine Thomas (out; overseas)

Highlights: Re-live Jonquel Jones’s performance in the 2019 WNBA Finals