The Connecticut Sun have developed a knack for exceeding expectations in the face of adversity. From the team’s 2019 WNBA Finals run to its gritty performance in the 2020 bubble and now a 14-6 record at the 2021 Olympic break, the Sun just keep forcing their way into the conversation, even in spite of the absences of key players.
When a team is missing such players — in this case, Jonquel Jones (2020) and Alyssa Thomas (2021) — in-house improvement and/or a “next man up” mentality is typically required for the team to sustain its level of player. For the Sun, look no further than Brionna Jones — a player who, when Connecticut was aching to replace the production of its stars, seized the moment to keep her team afloat while leveraging her play into some big-time individual accomplishments.
Jones, a 6-foot-3 center, was entering her fourth season with the Sun in 2020 when it was learned that perennial All-Star and uber-talented big Jonquel Jones would not be joining the team in the Bradenton bubble. For Brionna Jones, this meant not only a move to the starting lineup, but a hefty increase in minutes on a team that was far from the WNBA’s deepest.
Jones responded by posting by far the best numbers of her young career, more than doubling her typical total playing time while averaging career-bests in scoring (11.9), rebounding (6.9) and steals (1.7). It was a remarkable jump for someone who had become accustomed to playing behind star-level talent, and Jones was rewarded with a new contract during the ensuing free agency period.
Just as Jones used her previous opportunity in 2020 to go from a sparingly-used bench player to a consistent, full-time starter, she’s once again elevated her game in 2021, this time to that of a player whose strengths are catered to in her team’s gameplans.
“When you have [Alyssa Thomas] that can help create tempo, at times we didn’t slow down and play enough through Bri Jones,” Connecticut head coach Curt Miller said of previous Sun teams. “[Jones] was always capable. With the loss of Thomas, we knew we’d have to play at a slower pace and analytics back that up.”
It’s true: Jones’ fingerprints are all over Connecticut’s 2021 success. The team has slowed its pace considerably, choosing to play more through Jones in the post and play deeper in the shot clock than in previous seasons, which is reflected in the Sun’s WNBA-fewest 76 possessions per 40 minutes. Those possessions, as Miller alluded to, are emphasizing Jones more than ever: she’s currently attempting a career-high 18.3 field goals per 100 possessions which, in turn, has led to another jump in scoring (15 points per game).
Jones has also made a significant impact on the glass — which, for those familiar with her game, is likely less surprising. While it’s Jonquel Jones who currently leads the WNBA in individual rebounds (11.1 per game), Brionna Jones’ presence — usually felt with strong box-outs — is just as crucial as that of her teammate’s. With Brionna Jones on the court, the Sun are securing 76.5 percent of available defensive rebounds; when she’s on the bench, that number drops down to 70.4 percent.
In plain English: The Sun have been winning thanks largely to their advantage in the paint and on the boards, which happen to be Jones’ two biggest strengths. That isn’t a coincidence.
People around the WNBA have taken notice of Jones’ improved play, too. She was named an All-Star for the first time in her career, earning the final coaches’ selection after a preliminary fan, player and media vote. The honor went a long way in a league dominated by its bigs; center is the most stacked position in the WNBA, and Jones has carved out her own niche among the best of the best. That is something to admire.
Can the Sun’s formula of slow-paced, gritty basketball win a championship? Stranger things have happened. Connecticut might seem outgunned by some WNBA teams with bigger names on their roster, but the Sun have already defeated the Las Vegas Aces (who are currently a half-game ahead of Connecticut in the standings) twice by successfully “junking up” the game. Even if the Sun fall short of their ultimate goal this season, there will be renewed hope for the immediate future: Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas will all finally be active at the same time, and they’ll be joined by Brionna Jones, who has quietly but steadily become one of the WNBA’s most effective centers.