Sun

Sun Forge Ahead Despite Jones’ Absence

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Here we are once again. The Connecticut Sun are almost halfway through their season, and they’re in the position where they need to reinvent the wheel due to an injury to a key piece.

This time, it’s star center, Brionna Jones. She went down with a right Achilles rupture on June 21st in Seattle.

If the Sun want to break the “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” curse that they’ve dealt with every season since 2019, they’ll need to find a way to compete with the league’s best without her. Let’s take a look at how Connecticut and head coach Stephanie White have responded since the injury.

Rebecca Allen, Come on Down

When Jones went down, there was some discussion about who would slide into the starting lineup. Some assumed it’d be second-year center, Olivia Nelson-Ododa. White decided to go in a different direction. The Sun have been running out a “small ball” lineup, as Rebecca Allen has started every game since the injury.

Now, Allen is no Shannon Bobbitt. She’s listed as 6’2, just one inch shorter than Jones, with a wingspan that feels like it goes on forever. But still, Allen is more of a traditional big wing, thanks to her shooting prowess. So now, the Sun have a starting lineup without a true center.

There are a couple benefits that come with this lineup. The big one is that it allows Connecticut to space the floor a lot more. Alyssa Thomas and Jones are both primarily paint bound, so this simply gives the Sun another shooter on the floor and gives Thomas more room to operate where she excels. Additionally, this smaller lineup has kept them out of foul trouble, which was something the team struggled with early on in the season. White spoke on this following their win against the Chicago Sky on June 25th.

“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.”

That wingspan of Allen has also come into play with some monster blocks. She recorded a career-high five blocks against New York. In the four games since she was slotted into the starting lineup, Allen has recorded a total of 11 blocks. For reference, in the 13 games she played this season, Jones had just seven blocks, per Her Hoops Stats.

Easing Into It

Luckily, the two games that immediately followed the injury weren’t against any of the top teams in the league. In these two games against the Lynx and Sky, Connecticut showed it can still compete with those middle-of-the-pack teams, even without Jones.

After a dominating 21-point win against Minnesota, White called it, “Probably the most complete game we’ve played for 40 minutes.” The Sun received a balanced attack from everyone, with Tiffany Hayes doing exactly what the Sun hoped she would when she was acquired. She notched 21 points and went 4-for-8 from deep. DiJonai Carrington, who seems to want to make a case for Sixth Player of the Year, knocked in 17 points. White credited her guards for all chipping in on the glass, which was a big emphasis for the team now playing without their All-Star center.

In a heartwarming moment, the team FaceTimed Jones, who was still in Seattle, from center court after the win.

The next game against Chicago was another convincing victory. This one by a margin of 24 points. The Sun had five players in double figures, with DeWanna Bonner leading the way with 26 points. Carrington once again scored 17 points. Postgame, Bonner was asked about Carrington’s development into solid contributor off the bench.

“DiJonai has been my little project since she got here. You know, we kind of play the same position. She’s just grown so much in her game. She works pretty hard every day after practice. To see her just building confidence.. I think a lot of it is just confidence and knowing exactly what she’s doing. And also Coach White challenging her to be that sixth person off the bench.”

These smaller lineups worked flawlessly against Minnesota and Chicago, two teams who aren’t known for a dominating post presence, but the toughest challenges were right around the corner.

Facing Off With the League’s Best

The Sun responded well to the adversity of losing Jones. But the big test — pardon the pun — came on Tuesday evening and Saturday afternoon. Connecticut had back-to-back games against the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces. These are the two teams that contain superstar post players.

Against the Liberty, Connecticut did all it could. It ended up being an eight-point loss for the Sun, but it was a battle all night long. Bonner received arguably the toughest assignment in the sport: guarding Breanna Stewart. It was clear that Bonner was overmatched at times. Stewart recorded 25 points and nine rebounds, shooting 11-for-17 from the field. The Sun were also out rebounded by six. In the midst of a tough season, the Liberty’s Jonquel Jones scored 14 points and pulled down 11 boards.

Despite the loss, Connecticut received career nights from Carrington and Nelson-Ododa. They scored 23 and 14 points, respectively. A team who, in recent years, didn’t receive many bench contributions, is finally showing some depth. That depth was even more prominent when Allen was able to come off the bench prior to the injury to Jones. The emergence of Nelson-Ododa could be huge for this team, who’s trying to figure out its post identity. Following the game, she spoke about how she feels she can contribute after the loss of Jones.

“It’s not necessarily thinking I have to score this way, or I have to defend this way, or be like Breezy or anything like that. It’s just trying to contribute as much as possible and keep it simple as that. So whatever we need at the moment or at that time, I’m just trying to play that part and help my team.”

Aces Are Wild

Unfortunately, the Sun next ran into the buzzsaw that is the Las Vegas Aces and lost back-to-back games for the first time since June 22nd, 2022. Vegas’ only loss this season came to Connecticut on the backend of a four-game roadtrip in three different cities. Who knows if Jones would have been that big of a difference maker in this game, as the Aces led by as many as 29.

But she certainly would have helped. A’ja Wilson went off for 23 points and 13 rebounds in the 18-point win. In Vegas’ loss to Connecticut on June 8th, Wilson was held to just 13 points and two rebounds.

A big part of Vegas’ scoring offense comes from their perimeter players — Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young — and that was no different on Saturday. Plum scored a game-high 25 points. That probably doesn’t change with the addition of Jones.

But one eye-popping statistic that was greatly impacted by the loss of Jones was the rebounding numbers. The Sun were out rebounded by 18. They’re not used to being outdone by that number in that category. You can’t replace size, and Connecticut misses Jones’ size. In this game, the Aces grabbed 11 offensive rebounds against the undersized Sun.

Time to Reset

Connecticut is getting a much-needed break, as the team will have had four days off to prepare for their Thursday night clash with the Storm at home. White pointed out after the Aces game that the Sun have played more games than any team in the league thus far.

“We gotta regroup, we gotta get some rest. And I know from a schedule standpoint we’ve played more games than anybody else. So we finally have an opportunity to get some rest and recover and come back refocused and re-energized.”

Looking at the schedule ahead, the Sun are, mercifully, done with the Aces and will see the Liberty twice more late in the season. That means they still have a lot of games against the bottom part of the league. Even without Brionna Jones, Connecticut’s still right there in a tier below the top two. An argument can be made they’re still the third-best team in the league, with AT leading the way and playing at an MVP level.

To achieve the ultimate goal of being the last team standing, you have to go through the best. The Sun will need to do that as an undersized underdog. But if the last few years have taught us anything, they’re up for the challenge.

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About Kayla Dos Santos

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