The Sun began to shine a year early

Connecticut Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller, who expected his young team to turn the corner in 2018, was pleasantly surprised by the Sun’s playoff run in 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Connecticut Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller, who expected his young team to turn the corner in 2018, was pleasantly surprised by the Sun’s playoff run in 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Mohegan — The Connecticut Sun occupy a more comfortable seat this year, certainly more cushy compared to this time in 2016.

"At this time last year, when we finished the regular season, there was tons of optimism going into year two," second-year Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said. "We had the third-best record the second half of the year. There was momentum. So we felt good.

"And then the mustard seeds of doubt started to come in in November when Chiney (Ogwumike) got hurt (a season-ending Achilles injury). … I know things happen, and so I'm never going to get too high or too low through this all."

Noted, but the vibes got considerably better around the Sun this season. They had their first winning record since 2012 and the WNBA's fourth-best record during the regular season (21-13). They succeeded with a young core that should only get better and persevered through numerous injuries and absences to end their four-year playoff drought.

"(As a GM), I always had the '18 and '19 seasons circled," Miller said. "We thought with our youth, those were the years we could turn into something special. I think we overachieved. I think we reached the playoffs, and where we finished in the regular season, a little bit quicker than any of us could've expected.

"Credit to the players that they never shied away, even after Chiney's injury, from wanting to be in the playoffs. ... They thought they'd be a playoff team this year."

Ogwumike's return will bolster a frontcourt that was thin this season. Morgan Tuck, who began the season starting at power forward, missed 12 games to a knee contusion. Lynetta Kizer's back flared up and forced her to sit out 14 games. Rookie Brionna Jones needed time to get acclimated.

Second-year center Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas handled the brunt of the interior work with Kayla Pedersen being the most reliable reserve.

"There were nights where we were like, 'Wow, we're truly missing Chiney,'" Miller said. "We had the least amount of blocks in the league, and it wasn't by a close margin. We didn't have much rim protection when JJ was out of the game. And even when JJ was in the game, she's not as prolific a shot blocker as other people her size (6 feet, 6 inches). … Another big post player could really be utilized by our franchise.

"The two best teams in the league this year (the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx) both play a three-post rotation. … I'm hopeful that Morgan has gotten over the hump with her injuries and will be healthy. It's fun to think about Chiney being back into that mix of our post rotation."

Miller believes the Sun could use more depth at small forward. Thomas started the season there, but shifted to power forward when Tuck got hurt. Connecticut caught fire after that move, so Thomas stayed put and reserve Shekinna Stricklen became the other forward.

The Sun drastically improved their shooting this year as they finished fifth in field goal percentage (44.8). They made over 40 percent of their 3-pointers for the majority of the season before cooling off and finishing third (36.5).

"I'm not totally sold that we're a great shooting team," Miller said. "Our two off-guards (Courtney Williams and Alex Bentley) are not 3-point shooters, they're more pull-up shooters.

"The thing I think we missed the most is a guard who can get themselves to the foul line. AB and Courtney are pull-up shooters. Stricklen is going to take 75 percent of her shots from three. Rachel (Banham) is more of a shooter than a slasher. … We don't have that player that night-in and night-out can consistently go get to the foul line six to 10 times a game."

Connecticut must re-sign Alyssa Thomas. Reserve post Danielle Adams, Kizer, Pedersen and Stricklen are all free agents, too.

Ideally, Spaniards Leticia Romero (guard) and Alba Torrens (forward) would be in training camp next season. Their status is unknown because both play for their country's national team, and the FIBA world championships are next year.

Connecticut drafted Torrens, one of the top international players, in the third round of the 2009 draft. She's never joined them, and Miller said "it's probably unlikely" she'd do so in 2018 because of worlds.

n.griffen@theday.com

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