Sun having a quiet offseason
The Connecticut Sun have all their cards in order.
Head coach and general manager Curt Miller hopes they produce a winning hand.
It’s been a relatively quiet offseason for Connecticut by pro sports standards. The Sun needed to re-sign All-Star point guard and leader Jasmine Thomas, and did so last week, giving them 12 players under contract, the maximum number a team roster can carry during the regular season.
Those 12, barring the unforeseen, will comprise Connecticut’s 2019 lineup.
“It’s really exciting that this early we have 12 people under contract,” Miller said. “I think if you look around at the NBA and the WNBA, you watch teams that have been able to dig in with their core and really allow their core to have time to grow together.
“You watch those teams have success, but you also watch at times where teams can get complacent and take for granted what it takes to be successful.”
Connecticut’s 12 are center Brionna Jones, forwards Jonquel Jones, Chiney Ogwumike, Alyssa Thomas and Morgan Tuck, wing Shekinna Stricklen, and guards Rachel Banham, Lexie Brown, Layshia Clarendon, Bria Holmes, Courtney Williams and Thomas.
Miller, over his first three seasons, has said that the franchise’s best days were in the future as they collected young talent.
Theoretically, that future could become the present as the Sun begin their fourth season under Miller. They're the only team to finish in the top four of the overall WNBA standings the past two seasons. But they also went one-and-done in the playoffs both years, losing both times at home to the more experienced —and more star-powered — Phoenix Mercury.
“I don’t think we’ll shy away from talking about being a very competitive team positioned to play for a potential championship if we can stay healthy and have the right chemistry that you need to be a championship team,” Miller said.
“We were right there (with Phoenix),” Miller said. “We took the lead with under three (minutes) to go and didn’t get to the finish line. Throughout the year, we had a few hiccups on who to play through (to close out games), although I thought by the end that we got comfortable with that.”
The final image of Connecticut’s 2018 season was its disappointing 96-86 playoff loss to Phoenix.
There’s reason to be optimistic about the Sun’s future, though. They were ahead of schedule when they made the playoffs in 2017 after losing five of their first six games.
Connecticut finished 21-13 in 2018 and was seeded fourth in the playoffs. That it reached 21 wins was remarkable after a stretch in which it lost 10 of 15 games. During that stretch, it lost starters Alyssa Thomas (who began the season playing at an MVP-level) and Chiney Ogwumike to injuries (10 and one game, respectively), while starter Courtney Williams missed four games due to an alleged physical altercation with teammate Alex Bentley (who was later traded), and played 10 of those 15 games on the road.
The Sun won nine of their last 10.
Statistics also show just how well Connecticut played last season. It finished near the top in numerous categories, including rebounding (first), points-per-possession (first), effective field goal percentage (third) and defensive points-per-possession (fifth).
The Sun were also the only team to have five players average double figures (Jones, Ogwumike, Williams and both Thomases). They also had the league’s highest-scoring bench (31.8, nine over the league average).
“Our depth is a double-edged sword,” Miller said. “Everyone wants to play, and everybody deserves minutes.”
The team’s biggest loss was assistant Steve Smith leaving to take an athletic director’s job at a high school in Los Angeles. He’d been with Miller for three seasons and was a calming, father-like figure to the players who countered Miller’s intensity.
The Sun shouldn’t have too many players arrive late to training camp due to overseas commitments, something that plagues all WNBA teams.
Ogwumike works at ESPN and thus doesn’t play overseas, where players earn far more money. Williams’ Italian team folded due to financial difficulties and she opted to return home. Stricklen has recently been working out in Connecticut.
Miller said there’s been more interest from free agents, which has been a perennial problem for the Sun as the league’s only team not located in a major city.
“I think there’s an interest because we have a winning culture right now,” Miller said. “I think another aspect is that we play a fun style. The third, and most important, is that we have a lot of talented young people that the league understands enjoys playing here.
“There’s more chatter about Connecticut than ever before, but the free agents know how many people we have under contract. If they don’t, then other clubs will point that out.”