Sun

Sun Searching for the Right Pieces

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WNBA free agency is upon us, and after a relatively slow start, the moves are rolling in.

The first big trade of the offseason came by way of the Minnesota Lynx sending Tiffany Mitchell and the 19th overall pick in the 2024 WNBA draft to the Connecticut Sun in exchange for point guard Natisha Hiedeman.

This was the first of many moves for the Sun, who for the last few seasons have been searching for the right combination of players to propel them to the promised land. The core has remained mostly the same, with the exception of Jonquel Jones departing for the Barclays Center last offseason. With the three-headed attack of Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones, Connecticut is looking for the right complimentary pieces to fit alongside them.

Here’s a recap of what Connecticut has done thus far.

Getting the Band Back Together

For a few days, rumors were swirling about the futures of Bonner and Jones. Would they both be back? Or would just one of them be back? Following a litany of moves, which we’ll get to shortly, only one protected contract remained available. While it’s not unheard of for All-Star-caliber players to take an unprotected deal, it’s far from the norm. This had Sun fans worried.

Connecticut calmed those nerves on February 5th by signing Jones. While reports were out the same day that Bonner was also returning, it became official one day later. Both agreed to one-year deals. Jones comes in at $212,000, protected, while Bonner is at $200,000, unprotected. Bonner is just below the player maximum, taking a pay cut to return to Uncasville.

Securing the talents of these two was arguably Connecticut’s most vital offseason goal. Jones is returning from a heartbreaking 2023 season, in which she ruptured her Achilles tendon early on. Prior to the injury, the 2022 Sixth Player of the Year was on her way to being an All-Star. Bonner is coming off an All-Star season herself, where she averaged 17.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

The final piece of this three-headed monster is of course, Alyssa Thomas. The last time you saw her she was nearly averaging a triple double per game, with 15.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists. She finished second in MVP voting in one of the most controversial award races in recent memory.

For Connecticut to be successful, these three will need to excel. But this is a new era of the WNBA. These days, it takes more than a few stars to win a championship.

Lose One Tiffany, Gain Another

As previously mentioned, Connecticut’s first big move was acquiring Tiffany Mitchell from Minnesota, in exchange for Natisha Hiedeman and the 19th overall pick in this year’s draft.

Lost this offseason was Tiffany Hayes, who announced on December 13th that she was retiring from the WNBA. Hayes had a great 2023 season and she’ll be missed by the Sun. Mitchell has one year remaining before becoming a free agent and will make $139,050 this season. This move reunites head coach Stephanie White with one of her former players from her time in Indiana.

One of the biggest dropoffs that comes with losing Hayes and gaining Mitchell is the lack of three-point shooting. Connecticut sorely needed floor spacing and Hayes brought exactly that. Connecticut will need that even more this season with Jones returning to the court following her injury. Mitchell shoots from long range at a much smaller clip and percentage. Last season, she averaged 1.4 attempts per game, knocking them down at just 28.9%.

Similar to Hayes, though, Mitchell is at her best when she’s getting downhill, attacking the rim, and getting to the line.

Following this trade, a big question for Connecticut was at the point-guard position. Would Ty Harris take over the starting role, or would they look elsewhere at a trade to bring someone in? By this point, all the free-agent point guards were locked in, with Skylar Diggins-Smith and Natasha Cloud heading to Seattle and Phoenix, respectively. The answer to that question came a few days later.

A Husky Returns Home

With Cloud’s decision to make Phoenix her new home, the Mercury shipped former UConn Husky Moriah Jefferson to Connecticut for Rebecca Allen in a sign-and-trade deal. The Sun will without a doubt miss Allen’s length and floor spacing. The sign-and-trade deal likely means Allen was departing in free agency regardless, but with this deal, the Sun received a much-needed point guard in return. Jefferson’s contract is a two-year, protected deal. In 2024, she’ll make $141,500.

While Jefferson might have the edge in the point guard battle heading into training camp because of her veteran status, expect Ty Harris to compete for that starting role. Harris is coming off a great season, in which she led the league in three point shooting percentage, at 46.4%. Harris does a great job attacking the gaps and getting to her spots. Playmaking is one area of Jefferson’s game that gives her an advantage in this race.

Banham Bombs Are Back

On February 1st, it was announced that Rachel Banham signed a two-year, protected deal with the Sun, worth $95,000. Banham spent her first four years in the league with Connecticut before residing in Minnesota with the Lynx for the previous four seasons. Banham’s biggest strength is her outside shooting. Last season, she averaged 40.2% from three on 3.3 attempts per game. In theory, this is great news for the Sun, but Banham has never been a high-impact player. Over her career, she’s averaged 13.4 minutes and 5.2 points per game.

However, team morale is very important and no one brings the good vibes quite like Banham. She’s always a fan and team favorite. Here’s an example of the good vibes, in the form of her iconic pregame Banham Bombs.

Additional Moves

Returning to the WNBA for the first time since 2021 is Astou Ndour-Fall.

Ndour-Fall signed a one-year, $125,000 protected contract with the Sun. Although it may take some time for her to get re-acclimated to the physical play of the W, she brings much needed depth to the Sun front court. Standing at 6-foot-5, she’s tied with Olivia Nelson-Ododa for the tallest rostered player. Additionally, with Thomas, Jones and Nelson-Ododa all lacking an outside game, Ndour-Fall is only player at the power-forward or center position who adds any semblance of floor spacing. While she’s far from an effective three-point scorer, she’s not someone to be completely ignored on the perimeter the way teams might with the other three.

The Sun announced on February 2nd that they signed Rennia Davis, Sydney Wiese and Kianna Smith to training-camp contracts. Wiese has the most WNBA experience of the three, but the last time we saw her in 2021 she struggled. Davis is an intriguing prospect. After dealing with an injury her rookie year, she never really got a fair shake. A standout at the University of Tennessee, she was a bucket getter who rebounded the heck out of the basketball. She’ll have another chance here at a roster spot. However, it won’t come easy.

Fighting For a Spot

With all the aforementioned moves and all the players that are currently rostered, the Sun are essentially out of cap space. If the Sun were to cut one player on a minimum contract, they’ll be able to afford one more minimum contract to replace it. Unfortunately, Leigha Brown may become a victim of the salary cap. She wasn’t a part of the rotation last season and the Sun will want to give that spot to someone who they think has a shot at being a rotation player. The only other unprotected contracts on the roster are Bonner, Harris and Nelson-Ododa. The latter two aren’t going anywhere just based on team needs. So Brown is the odd woman out.

Any of Davis, Wiese, or Smith will be in the mix for that spot. Not to mention Connecticut’s 10th overall pick in the draft. It will depend on which players declare, but this draft class is expected to be a strong one. Connecticut should be able to snag a solid prospect at number ten.

Areas of Need

One of the biggest needs for Connecticut has remained the same: floor spacing. Thomas and Jones are stellar basketball players, and there’s many valuable things they can do on the court. However, shooting the long ball isn’t one of them. Jones is mostly paint bound, and Thomas will step out to initiate offense, but she isn’t even looking at the basket when she has the ball outside the paint. In a combined 17 seasons, Thomas and Jones have attempted a total of 31 three-point field goals.

Thankfully, Bonner provides some of that much-needed spacing. That was also a benefit of Hiedeman’s game in this offense. With that now gone, where might the Sun turn to give their bigs room to operate down low?

Both point guards in Jefferson and Harris will need to be guarded at the three-point line. Newly acquired Tiffany Mitchell has her strengths, but she’s never been a high-volume, long-distance shooter. Banham could provide some cushion here as well, but that will depend on how much she’s actually on the court. Connecticut may look to give that last spot to a sharpshooter.

In recent years, the Sun have been very guard heavy, with Thomas shouldering (no pun intended) much of the load for the bigs. The roster looks similar this year, although the addition of Ndour-Fall may prove to be a great one for this reason. Because of that lack of big depth, a lot was asked of Bonner last season following Jones’ injury. There’s no world in which DeWanna Bonner should have to guard Breanna Stewart. But that’s what had to happen last year. Of course, Connecticut isn’t planning for another catastrophic injury, but that last spot may need to go to a big who can play the four or five position to provide some depth down there.

The Last Hurrah?

One year remains on Thomas’ contract. She’s been a member of the Sun since she entered the league in 2014, but if the Sun come up short again, this could be the end of her tenure in Uncasville. As a matter of fact, Thomas, Bonner and Jones will all be free agents following this season. It won’t be surprising if this is the final season we see all three in Sun uniforms together.

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of chatter about Connecticut’s championship window. According to fans, it’s closed a few times. And yet, the Sun always find a way to be in the mix at the end of the season, despite always coming up just short. With these three returning, it’s remaining open, but it won’t be for long.

*All stats and contract details courtesy of herhoopstats.com*

About Kayla Dos Santos

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