It has been less than a month since the Connecticut Sun fell 3-1 in the 2022 WNBA Finals to the Las Vegas Aces.
Soon after watching the Aces celebrate the championship on their home court, Alyssa Thomas, Brionna Jones, Jonquel Jones and Curt Miller hopped on planes to head halfway around the world for the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup in Australia.
Almost immediately upon deplaning Down Under, A. Thomas assumed the engine role for Team USA, earning Best Defensive Player honors as she helped to fuel the Americans’ sprint to the gold medal. B. Jones proved her easy Breezy self for the champions, serving as a solid and sound post presence when called upon. J. Jones, in contrast, encountered a less enjoyable Australian trek, as she was tasked with carrying an overmatched Bosnia and Herzegovina team.
The trio will now turn their attention and energies to their overseas squads, with A. Thomas and B. Jones to again be teammates with USK Prague while J. Jones will be joined by DeWanna Bonner in suiting up for Çukurova. Nia Clouden and Joyner Holmes also have started their overseas seasons for UMCS Lublin and Dinamo Sassari, respectively. Other Sun will remain stateside this offseason. Natisha Hiedeman recently was named Director of Player Development for Penn State. DiJonai Carrington and Courtney Williams may again participate in Athletes Unlimited.
As has been the case for most of the WNBA, the Sun have had no choice but to move on from the 2022 season, pressed by the propulsive women’s hoops calendar to maximize opportunities to earn additional income and/or gain alternative experiences. Yet, there is no doubt that the Sun brass eventually will take time to reflect on what happened in 2022 to figure out what could happen in 2023.
Here’s our analysis on the state of the Connecticut Sun heading into the offseason.
Sun statistical ranking (per game)
- 1st net rating (9.5)
- 3rd scoring (85.8)
- 2nd offensive rating (105.8)
- 2nd scoring defense (77.8)
- 2nd defensive rating (96.3)
- 2nd field goal percentage (46.2)
- 7th field goal percentage defense (43.9)
- 11th 3-pointers made (6.4)
- 3rd 3-point percentage (35.4)
- 7th 3-pointers allowed (7.3)
- 2nd 3-point percentage defense (32.8)
- 2nd free throw attempts (19.9)
- 1st personal fouls drawn (18.9)
- 6th free throw percentage (78.9)
- 6th personal fouls (17.1)
- 3rd opponent free throw attempts (16)
- 1st offensive rebounds (10.2)
- 2nd offensive rebounds allowed (6.9)
- 1st total rebounds (37.1)
- 8th turnovers (14.4)
- 6th opponent steals (7.7)
- 1st turnovers forced (15.5)
- 1st steals (8.8)
- 12th blocks (2.7)
- 7th opponent blocks (3.6)
- 3rd assists (21.1)
- 3rd assists allowed (19.3)
Analysis of statistical rankings/offseason goals
Scanning the Sun’s 2022 statistics, there is not much to complain about. Claiming the league’s best net rating, which traditionally correlates with team quality, indicates that Connecticut was one of the league’s best teams. Its run to the Finals, in short, was not a product of luck.
The stats also reflect the degree to which the Sun were an aggressive, intimidating force all over the floor. They owned the interior by cleaning the glass on offense. They also consistently disrupted things in a good way by drawing fouls on one end and grabbing steals on the other.
Yet, despite these numbers, as well as the fact that the Sun advanced to the Finals, it seems that some things need to change. The sense remains that the Sun were less than the sum of their parts and that — for all their excellence — they could have been even better.
Connecticut’s offense, in particular, could use further optimization, as the overall numbers obscure how it too frequently devolved into a sludgie struggle. While the hoped-for full health return of Jasmine Thomas will help solve some of these issues as she is the seasoned floor general the Sun were missing in 2022, she will not necessarily rectify the most glaring problem with the offense: 3-point shooting.
In modern basketball, the 3-pointer has been established as the skeleton key to not simply a great offense, which the Sun were, but also a resilient offense, which the Sun were not. While sporting a solid 3-point percentage, Connecticut ranking 11th in 3-pointers made per game, and 11th in attempts per game, capped their offensive upside. More than putting an extra point on the scoreboard, making, and just the threat of taking, 3-pointers can unlock an offense, creating space for actions to unfold that can lead to smoother scoring opportunities in the paint.
As previously discussed, the example of the Las Vegas Aces, the team that vanquished the Sun in the Finals, is instructive. In 2021, the Aces were a great offense, with a paint-centric and free throw-heavy profile that resembles the 2022 Sun. Vegas’ 2022 offensive rating was not demonstrably higher than the 2021 rating; however, how this slightly higher 2022 rating was achieved made a demonstrable difference. The Aces’ unabashed 3-point bombing spread out opponents and opened up space for A’ja Wilson, in particular, to dominate. By shooting more 3-pointers, the Sun similarly will not sacrifice or stunt the productivity of their bigs, but, instead, establish an environment in which they can thrive.
Under contract for 2023*
- DeWanna Bonner ($234,350, protected)
- Alyssa Thomas ($212,000, protected)
- Jonquel Jones ($211,150, protected)
- Jasmine Thomas ($190,000, protected)
- DiJonai Carrington ($69,053, unprotected)
- Nia Clouden ($67,634, unprotected)
Unrestricted free agents
- Bria Hartley
- Brionna Jones
- Odyssey Sims
- Courtney Williams
Restricted free agents
- Natisha Hiedeman
- Joyner Holmes
10, 22, 34
Analysis of players/offseason goals
Over the offseason, the Sun will have the opportunity to tweak their personnel in order to craft a roster better suited to embrace the 3-pointer and produce a more consistent, resilient offensive attack.
Unless Curt Miller and the Connecticut Sun front office can conjure up some cap space magic, Brionna Jones, due for a contract that approaches the max, no longer will be a member of the Sun. Losing the 2021 Most Improved Player and 2022 Sixth Woman of the Year is, of course, significant. But, if the Sun can make other smart maneuvers, the loss can become a gain.
Despite some success with jumbo lineups where B. Jones shared the floor with J. Jones and A. Thomas, the Sun mostly could not play their three best players together. While the Sun will not be able add a new third-best player this offseason, they should aim to sign (or trade for) a player or two who will allow their two best players to be the best versions of themselves.
In 2019, the last time the Sun advanced to the Finals, the team took the most 3-pointers per game in franchise history, fueled by Shekinna Stricklen’s almost six attempts per game. Miller thus knows how to utilize an elite spacer. Stricklen, however, was a weak point on the other end as subpar defender.
Fortunately for the Sun, the current free agent crop includes players who can replicate Stricklen’s shooting without sacrificing as much on defense. In fact, one such player is restricted free agent Natisha Hiedeman, who the Sun should prioritize re-signing. With J. Thomas back on the floor, Hiedeman can shift into the starting shooting guard role or serve as an off-the-bench shooter, pivoting away from the playmaking responsibilities she was forced into assuming this season in favor of functioning as a high-volume 3-point shooter. Although not a plus defender because of her slight size, Hiedeman at least can bring energy and activity on that end.
Among unrestricted free agents, some interesting names that Connecticut could target include Alysha Clark, Sami Whitcomb or Kia Nurse. The Sun could also consider bringing back the likes of Lexie Brown or Rachel Banham. All of these players also are more than just shooters, with Clark possessing her throwback post-up game and the others capable of offering secondary ball handling and playmaking.
The most intriguing option is Nurse, which might seem odd since she is coming off a season-long ACL injury and is the most inconsistent shooter of the bunch. However, she offers the most upside, and not just because of her UConn pedigree. 27 years old when the 2023 WNBA season begins, Nurse, at least before her injury, possessed the kind of size and athleticism that suggests she would be a seamless fit for the Sun defense. If she regains her speed, she also would further augment the Connecticut transition attack. And, even if she is not a great 3-point shooter, she is unafraid to fire them off, averaging five attempts per game for her four-year career.
Coming off a down year with the New York Liberty, Whitcomb also is worth watching, especially if the Liberty make bigger moves (insert eyeball emoji) that could prevent them from re-signing her. In 2021, she was one of the league’s most dangerous 3-point markswomen, taking six 3-balls per game and swishing 42.5 percent of them. On defense, Whitcomb is pesky enough. She also would bring championship experience from her seasons with the Seattle Storm.
In order to add multiple 3-D players, the Sun could decide against retaining Courtney Williams. Williams brings off-the-bounce scoring juice, but her infatuation with mid-range jumpers, while mesmerizing when the shots are falling, limits her offensive efficiency and often contributes to the Sun’s struggles. Alternatively, with J. Thomas back, Williams could be encouraged to discover a shot diet that features more 3-pointers. During the 2019 playoffs, when Williams arguably was playing the best basketball of her career, she took 3.6 3-pointers per game, shooting 41.4 percent.
In sum, the Sun has not set on Connecticut’s championship hopes, especially if they make moves that suggest they are ready to broaden their offensive horizon.
*All contract details courtesy of Her Hoop Stats