Sun

Sans-Jones Sun Transforming Seamlessly

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The Connecticut Sun were 9-3 and two minutes from defeating the Seattle Storm for their tenth win of the season.

They were the one blemish on Las Vegas’s record, a convincing 94-77 home victory. First-year head coach Stephanie White was getting into a rhythm with the “Big Three” of Brionna Jones, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner.

And then everything changed.

With 1:08 left in the game, Bonner forced a jumper to beat the shot clock. Jones was on the perimeter and cut to the rim to get her fourth offensive rebound of the game and seal the win for the Sun.

Instead, she fell and reached back for her Achilles.

Jones’ season was over.

The Sun would have to alter their philosophy on both ends of the court.

Quick Turnaround

Surely it would take time, which is something they didn’t have. Two days later, on June 22, they were in Minnesota playing a Lynx team who had won four of its last six. During their six-game losing streak to start the season, the Lynx battled Connecticut to the end, but eventually lost 84-89.

To start the game, the Sun showed their first big shift in philosophy. Instead of moving backup center Olivia Nelson-Ododa into the starting lineup, White chose to start Rebecca Allen, the long guard from Australia.

This moved Alyssa Thomas up from power forward to center, and wing DeWanna Bonner would slide into the power-forward spot. Nelson-Ododa would continue to fulfill her role of coming off the bench to play center.

The Sun also shifted their philosophy to make up for the loss of Jones.

With a smaller lineup and more three-point shooters on the floor, the Sun opened up the floor and connected on a season-high 12 threes after averaging a little over six triples made per game over their first 13 contests.

The Sun won 89-68, and they were just getting started.

White called it “probably the most complete game we’ve played for 40 minutes.”

What did the Sun change to keep contending?

Sun Offense with Brionna Jones

Brionna Jones is a 6’3” traditional post in her seventh season with the Sun. She was coming off back-to-back All-Star seasons. She was the WNBA Most Improved Player in 2021, the WNBA Sixth Player of the Year in 2022, and was playing well as a starter this season.

Stephanie White designed sets around getting Jones the ball in scoring opportunities.

Two sets the Sun went to often were simple actions to feed Jones in the low post.

These sets typically ended with a one-on-one opportunity for Jones inside with her back to the basket. This is not her strength offensively. Her strength is her ability to finish inside with contact on rolls or from offensive rebounds.

The sets for Jones failed to highlight the abilities of Thomas, who was used as an off-ball screener, and Bonner, who was spaced in the corner.

A go-to set for White to get Jones on the perimeter was a backscreen followed by a ballscreen. This empty-sided pick and roll takes away the helpside, but again Thomas is not directly involved in the play.

These sets have four-out spacing concepts, but the problem is there are two non-shooters on the floor with Thomas on the floor with either Jones or Nelson-Ododa. This shrinks the floor for the defense, making it more difficult to find open shots.

Sun Offense Without Brionna Jones

In her introductory press conference, White’s vision of the offense was more modern.

“We want to be a fast-paced, up-tempo, free-flowing offensive team. You have a certain structure that can allow players spacing, they can allow them opportunities to be creative,” said White.

The unfortunate injury to Jones allowed White to implement her initial vision.

Designing actions that complement the games of two players instead of three has simplified Connecticut’s offense. Simplifying the gameplan and allowing a “fast-paced, up-tempo, free-flowing” offense unlocked the true potential of Thomas.

By playing Thomas at the center spot, she can be utilized at the top of the key to initiate offense. This five-out spacing creates a lot more room for everyone to operate and gets Bonner more naturally involved in the flow of the offense.

These sets allow freedom based on reading the defense. With nobody inside plugging up the lane, cutters are allowed to curl and backcut more freely. With Thomas’s court vision and passing ability, every cut is a scoring opportunity.

“I think it gives us better spacing offensively. It opens up the paint, so it opens up driving lines. It opens up cutting lanes. We can really spread the floor,” White said of the Sun’s small-ball lineup.

Although the Sun have seen a drop in free-throw rate and offensive rebounding (two things Jones brought to the table), their effective field-goal percentage and turnovers have improved.

This is attributed to the fact that they only have one non-shooter on the floor and are using Thomas as the fulcrum at the top of the key where she demands attention.

Defense

Jones was second-team All-Defense in 2021. Her size and strength make her a force inside. She doesn’t block many shots, but she alters them with her large wingspan and is a tremendous rebounder. She also has a knack for the ball and was averaging a career-high 1.8 steals per game.

While the offense has flourished in Jones’ absence, the defense has taken a small step back. The Sun are worse defensively in every one of the four factors except for free-throw rate.

One knock on Jones defensively was her tendency to get into foul trouble. In 13 games this season, she averaged 4.1 fouls per game. With the smaller lineup, the Sun defense is scrambling and switching more often. This helps make up for the turnovers and missed shots that Jones was able to create, but it has also decreased the amount of free throws their opposition has shot.

White spoke on the adjustment without Jones’s defensive presence on the inside.

“I think when we’re small we have a little bit more defensive versatility. I think we’re a little more mobile. So our stunt and recovers are really good. We’ve talked a lot about initial positioning, making sure we’re in the right spot.”

Despite the slight decrease defensively, the Sun are still ranked third in defensive rating at 99.2 overall (99.9 since Jones’s injury).

High Expectations

In the preseason, White said, “I think anytime you’ve tasted the WNBA Finals and being so close to a championship, your expectation is always ‘we want to win the championship’. You know, I think that’s the mindset that every team comes in with, ‘we want to win a championship.’ And as a new staff, it’s finding, you know, different ways to give yourself an advantage day in and day out.”

White and her staff are proving they can adjust and find ways to win.

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About Kenyon Wingenbach

High school girls' basketball head coach and educator at West Fargo Public Schools (North Dakota).

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