Sun preparing for life without Chiney
Mohegan — Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller was about to board a plane back in 2016 when he got word that All-Star post Chiney Ogwumike had injured her left Achilles while playing overseas.
“My kneejerk reaction was not a positive one,” Miller said Monday.
Connecticut, after four straight losing seasons, lost its first four games in 2017. … and then caught fire. It finished with the league’s fourth best record thanks to its young talent stepping up.
The front office isn't happy it was forced to send Ogwumike to the Los Angeles Sparks on Saturday for a 2020 first-round pick, fearing that she might sit out if she wasn’t traded and allowed to play with her older sister, Nneka. Miller isn't thrilled to lose last year's team leader in scoring and rebounding. He wasn't pleased to lose one of the league’s most efficient and effervescent players, either.
Connecticut has been down this road before, though. And thrived.
“I think there’s unintended consequences,” Miller said about the deal. “I’m a big unintended consequences person.”
Post Jonquel Jones was thrust into the starting lineup in 2017 and set a single-season record with 403 rebounds (Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx bettered that with 404 last season). Alyssa and Jasmine Thomas both had career seasons and, along with Jones, were chosen to play in the All-Star game. Jones was also named to the All-WNBA second team.
“(Ogwumike’s) injury gave Jonquel Jones an opportunity to blossom into one of the next superstars; show the league that she had the potential to be one of the next superstars in the league,” Miller said.
“We will step up again. It’s our job (as coaches) to put players in position to be successful. Our veterans are really excited about the opportunity that this provides to someone like (center) Bri Jones (the eighth overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft), who they believe has been the ultimate team player and bided her time, and who is coming off a second consecutive outstanding international season.”
Ogwumike helped the Sun finish first overall in both offensive and total rebounds last season. She’s been a top eight finisher in all three of her seasons.
“I thoroughly enjoyed coaching Chiney,” Miller said. “There’s a premium on a player that you know what you’re going to get. We got a very positive locker room player and someone that played really hard on a daily basis on the court, but it’s also exciting to know you’re coaching a player that really wants to be here.”
Ogwumike has missed two full seasons to injury since being the No. 1 pick in 2014 and missed three games last year to injury.
“I think this (trade) now shines a light on why we were so crazy ecstatic on draft night that we were able to draft Kristine Anigwe,” Miller said. “Chiney’s motor will be missed. We feel that we get that in Anigwe.”
Anigwe, the No. 9 pick overall pick, led college basketball in rebounding (533 total, 16.2 per game). She was also the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
“She’ll have growing pains as any rookie does,” Miller said, “but I’m excited to work with someone through the ups-and-downs of her rookie campaign.”
Miller said that everyone will be in training camp by May 7 (camps open on May 5), so the Sun will have to make cuts early to adhere to the 15-player roster limit for training camps.
“We have more players in town earlier than ever,” he said. “Morgan (Tuck), Strick (Shekinna Stricklen), Layshia (Clarendon) and Bria (Holmes) ... we have a third of our team back.”
The trade also opens up at least one spot on the 12-player regular-season roster. It’s a safe bet that the following 11 will make the team — guards Jasmine Thomas, Courtney Williams, Clarendon, Holmes and Rachel Banham, wing Stricklen, forwards Alyssa Thomas and Tuck, and posts Anigwe and both Jones.
Many teams across the league have issues, too. Defending champion Seattle lost 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart to an Achilles injury she suffered playing overseas this month.
Minnesota Lynx catalyst Maya Moore is taking a sabbatical this season and Lindsay Whalen retired.
Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury will miss nine-to-11 weeks after having back surgery last week.
Liz Cambage, who could’ve easily won league MVP honors last year, has demanded the Dallas Wings trade her to Los Angeles. Teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith is pregnant and, at best, should miss part of the season.
“I think a lot of the season's success is can you stay healthy, and then when you do have that injury, how does the team adapt because we all have to deal with a that unfortunately every year,” Miller said.
“A lot of this comes down to luck.”
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Then there’s Friday night, an official biggie for the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, where dashes of old and new get sprinkled into the stew, creating some intrigue.