Sun begin their 16th WNBA season on Sunday with great expectations
Mohegan — Leave it to the loquacious Chiney Ogwumike, Connecticut's life-of-the-party, to provide an amusing take on the Sun.
“It’s funny — you look at us as a team, we look like a band of misfits,” Ogwumike said with a grin. “There’s no quote-unquote superstar, key player. That’s our strength, though. That’s our strength because you never know what to expect from us.
“One night (our leading scorer) could be Jas (Jasmine Thomas). One night it could be AT (Alyssa Thomas). One night it could be JJ. (Jonquel Jones). It could be any of us. That’s the beauty of our team.”
The Connecticut Misfits, er, Sun begin their 16th season on Sunday at 1 p.m. against the Las Vegas Aces at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Sun may not have starpower, but they're nonetheless expected to contend for the WNBA title because of their talent and depth.
Three-quarters of the general managers in their annual survey picked Connecticut to have the most regular-season wins in the Eastern Conference. A nationwide media panel picked it third in the Associated Press' preseason rankings.
The sky-high expectations for the Sun are in stark contrast to last season when the consensus opinion was that the worst four-year stretch in franchise history was about to be five.
A 21-13 record and fourth-place finish in the overall standings altered expecations, not that the Sun paid attention to anyone’s expectations but their own.
“It was our own belief in ourselves individually and as a team,” Sun point guard Jasmine Thomas said about last year’s success. “These are the standards we want to set here. This is the culture we want to build here. This is what you are good at individually and we want you to be the best at that. It (expectations) was all internal.
“I feel like when you’re a part of something that is driven from the inside, you should continue to succeed.”
Connecticut returns its entire starting lineup — Jonquel Jones (center), forwards Alyssa Thomas and Shekinna Stricklen, and guards Courtney Williams and Jasmine Thomas. The Sun are young (their average age is 26 years, two months). The Thomases and Jones were first-time All-Stars, and Jones finished fifth in league MVP voting.
The Sun are one of the WNBA’s deepest teams on paper. Ogwumike, the 2014 Rookie of the Year, returns after missing last season to injury. Guard Alex Bentley was a 2015 All-Star and has been as good as anyone at camp. Forward Morgan Tuck was the third overall pick in the 2016 draft and, despite being hampered by injuries the past two seasons, has proven her effectivness. Guard Rachel Banham (guard), the fourth overall pick in 2016, has shown improvement during the preseason.
“What I love about us is that we are returning our core again,” Jasmine Thomas said. “We talked about that last year, 'We’ve got a core group now.' This year, we’re still able to say that same thing and we’re more experienced.
“We’ve talked about (two-year veteran) Courtney Williams’ growth during the preseason. We were watching film, and the little things that she didn't really understood last year, she gets it (now).”
And now onto the concerns — Connecticut isn’t the only team that looks loaded on paper.
“The whole league is better,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “We have some very, very talented players coming back to the league, from Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta) to DeWanna Bonner (Phoenix) … (to) Liz Cambage (Dallas). The league from top-to-bottom is deeper.
“Without question, we could have a worse record and clearly be a more improved basketball team.”
Connecticut's first-half schedule is ridiculous. It starts with a three-game homestand before the Sun play of 13 of the next 16 games on the road. It could result in a slow start.
As Ogwumike noted, the Sun don’t have a star. That's been a must to win a WNBA title, and that kind of game-changer has almost always been a No. 1 pick and/or allocated to their team during the league's infancy.
Seventeen of 21 WNBA champions had at least one former No. 1 pick and/or an allocated player who played a major role in their team's success. And that's just 14 players in all (nine drafted, five allocated).
Connecticut has one No. 1 pick on its roster (Ogwumike).
This group hasn't won a playoff game together yet, either.
“I don’t worry about us this season,” Jasmine Thomas said, “as far as, can we be as good as last year? Can we make it to the playoffs again? Can we make a run in the playoffs? Can we win a championship?
“Of course we believe (we can do) all of that. That’s how we feel. That’s how we think. That’s how we treat this season. And I feel like us staying that way is important.”