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Sun ready, and nervous, for WNBA season

Jasmine Thomas, the point guard and co-leader of the Connecticut Sun, has been able to work out at home during the COVID-19 pandemic having converted half of her garage into a makeshift gym.

Thomas had been unable to work on her game until recently coming to Connecticut to prepare for the upcoming, and abbreviated, WNBA season.

"My first few shots and dribbles back (on the court) were very uncoordinated and concerning," Thomas said with a laugh.

The WNBA announced plans last week to hold an abbreviated 22-game season starting in late July at the facilities of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The regular season had been scheduled to start on May 15 but was postponed indefinitely in April due to the pandemic.

Players had to decide this week whether to opt of out of the season or play in a state that has been ravaged of late by the virus.

"I want to go down there and give it a chance and see what it's like," Thomas said. "The things that went into my decision were obviously seeing how the league planned to run everything and the medical procedures and protocols to keep it safe because COVID-19, first and foremost, is still definitely present and out there."

"A lot of people are going down there to give it a try," Sun wing Bria Holmes said. "A lot of people didn't want to opt out just to opt out. Everybody is looking forward to a season this year. We're getting one now, but it might not be what everybody is expected."

The WNBA, like the NBA, plans on putting its teams in a virtual bubble to limit exposure to the virus. Regardless, it's still a very tough decision for players to make. In the case of Holmes, she has a two-year old daughter, Diona, to think about.

Holmes plans on bringing Diona with her. Asked if she was nervous about bringing her, Holmes said, "Kind of, sort of. If I didn't bring her, then I wouldn't go. ... I just feel like since I'm in the states, why would I leave her home? I'm trying to spend as much time with her as I can, and I'm missing some of those moments when I'm going overseas (to play)."

Most WNBA players play overseas during the offseason to supplement their incomes as they don't make anywhere near what their male peers do. It means that they play nearly year-round and see their families and friends very little.

"It's a tough decision to make for a lot of people," Holmes said about the decision to play or not to plauy. "Playing 22 games in basically two months and doing playoffs in October, that's a lot."

Another big reason why Thomas will play this season is because of the league and the Sun's initiatives to fight racism. Connecticut announced this week that it had formed, "Change Can't Wait," which seeks to fight racism and inequality across Connecticut and New England.

"The league and our players union are really working together to make sure we all come up with something that helps us all still feel like we're making a difference while we're in this bubble," Thomas said.

"We had conversations (about recent events in America) just as a team through our team Zoom calls that were just real raw, open, emotional, vulnerable conversations, and those are the types of conversations that need to be happening everywhere. But when it's happening within the organization that you proudly represent and you feel that genuine support and that they're listening to you and back you in whatever you say or do to advocate for Black lives, that feels good. You feel good about being a part of that."

A few WNBA players have already opted out of this season, the most notable being Sun post Jonquel Jones. She announced Monday that she wouldn’t play this season due to concerns about the virus.

Jones' absence will be a huge loss for Connecticut. She earned All-WNBA second team honors last season and was an All-WNBA Defensive first-team pick. She also started every game for the Sun, led them in scoring (14.6 ppg), and also led the league in both rebounding (9.7 rpg) and blocks (2.0 bpg).

"Missing JJ is an obvious void that we're going to have to fill," Thomas said. "There aren't many players like her. ... We're always going to be our best team with JJ.

"We're close up here in Connecticut. ... She shared her concerns with us, and we shared ours with her, so we support her fully. We love her. We're going to miss her and that's a decision that we respect if any player makes. I just hope that fans and everyone can understand that as a true fan you respect whatever the decision a WNBA player makes to play or not."

Veteran reserves Brionna Jones and Theresa Plaisance will play more in Jones' absence. The Sun also signed rookie post Beatrice Mompremier on Tuesday.

"We have Bri Jones, who was a monster overseas who I played with in Prague," said Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, the team's other leader who will also play this season.

"She hasn't seen a lot of time in her career, and finally she'll have the opportunity to be on the floor. I think a lot of people will be surprised with what she can do. I'm just excited for her to have this opportunity."

The Thomas' are the Sun's only returning starters. Wing Shekinna Stricklen signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Dream during the offseason. Guard Courtney Williams demanded to be traded closer to home and was sent to Atlanta as part of a three-team deal.

Connecticut acquired veteran guard Briann January from the Phoenix Mercury in that deal. She has played in three WNBA Finals, including starting for the 2012 world champion Indiana Fever. She had been an All-Defensive first team selection in 2012 and 2014-16, and second-team in 2013 and 2017.

The Sun landed one of the biggest free agents in forward-guard DeWanna Bonner. She was the league’s fifth-leading scorer last season (17.2 ppg) and ninth in rebounding (7.6). She’s a three-time WNBA All-Star, a three-time WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year and won two WNBA championships with Phoenix.

Connecticut also acquired former UConn standout Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis via a trade with the Seattle Storm.

"(Jones) definitely will be missed from our team, but we have champions here," Jasmine Thomas said. "We have DB. We have Briann January (and) Kaleena. We have champions. They'll bring that culture to the Sun and we'll do the best we can down there."

• The Sun signed Jacki Gemelos on Thursday to fill out their roster at 12 plaeyrs. She had previously been signed to a training camp contract with the Sun but was released due to the league roster cut-down date.

Gemelos, a 6-foot guard from Southern Cal, was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in the 2012 WNBA Draft. She officially signed with the Chicago Sky in 2015 where she appeared in 17 games. She played this past season for Olympiacos in Greece. She averaged 13.5 points, shot 65.8% from the field, 43.5% from behind the arc and added in 4.5 assists in 19 games.

Gemelos was highly recruited when she graduated from St. Mary’s High School of Stockton, Calif., in 2006, but was dogged by five ACL tears in six seasons between her high school and college career.

"Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jacki was playing some of the ​best basketball of her career,” Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said. “She is a veteran guard that adds versatility and depth to our backcourt."

"In this unique and uncertain season, you can't undervalue the impact a positive player with a reputation as a uniter can have on a team. I truly appreciate Jacki's history of fighting through adversity and gratitude through these unprecedented times. She is someone I want in the foxhole with us in Florida.”

n.griffen@theday.com

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