2017 WNBA Preview: Connecticut Sun building on 2016 success

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 18: Jonquel Jones /

It is easy to construct a doomsday scenario for the 2017 Connecticut Sun.

After all, the 2016 team finished 14-20. And Curt Miller’s group had exactly one player with more than three win shares—Chiney Ogwumike, who will miss the entire 2017 season due to injury.

Disaster, right?

Well, a number of intelligent league observers think otherwise, and it is equally possible, and from this view more accurate, to see the Sun as a team capable of making the playoffs for the first time since 2012. How long ago was that? Tina Charles and Kara Lawson led Mike Thibault’s team. That’s how long ago.

UNCASVILLE, CT – MAY 27: Kara Lawson and Tina Charles.
UNCASVILLE, CT – MAY 27: Kara Lawson and Tina Charles. /

But the strength of a young roster put together by Curt Miller, buoyed by the expected growth from a trio of 2016 WNBA draft picks, put the Sun in the playoff discussion, after Connecticut finished 2016 winning eight of their final 12 games.

“I do think they’re a playoff team,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo told The Summitt. “They don’t have a superstar, but I like the way they play. I like their chemistry. I like the veteran guards that they’re bringing back, Jasmine Thomas and Alex Bentley both signing in the offseason.”

Of course, Lobo is right. That backcourt will be the foundation for the Sun. In Thomas, the Sun experienced a breakout season in 2016. She increased her shooting percentage from below 33 each of the past two years to north of 40, elevating an offensive rating in the 80s to a robust 101.

And in Bentley, the Sun have a former all star who Curt Miller described as having bought into what the Sun will be running. That will be key, as will a rebound from what was a difficult 2016 for Bentley, seeing her player efficiency rating drop from 17.3 in 2015 to 11.2 in 2016.

UNCASVILLE, CT – JUNE 10: Rachel Banham
UNCASVILLE, CT – JUNE 10: Rachel Banham /

Something the Sun will have this season in the backcourt are fallback options. A healthy Rachel Banham is something all of basketball deserves to see. Playing effectively on one knee, Banham shot 35.1 percent in her rookie season. Courtney Williams, acquired midyear for Kelsey Bone, impressed with her athleticism and shot creation off the bench.

Williams and Banham are part of the larger story in how this roster is constructed. Together with Morgan Tuck and Jonquel Jones, they represent 50 percent of the 2016 draft’s first eight picks and 33 percent of the Sun’s roster. It is commonplace for players to improve significantly from their first season to their second campaign. Add in that Tuck and Banham are now healthy, and that potential growth gets even bigger.

Tuck did many of the things that made her the third overall pick, scoring, rebounding, passing well at her position and seldom turning the ball over. She’s been at another level in preseason, and while that can be misleading, she certainly has the pedigree to leave her rookie season far behind.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – SEPTEMBER 4: Sylvia Fowles, Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones.
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – SEPTEMBER 4: Sylvia Fowles, Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones. /

As for Jones, well, consider this: last year’s top five in player efficiency rating were Nneka Ogwumike, Elena Delle Donne, Maya Moore, Jonquel Jones and Tina Charles. Yes, the four best candidates for MVP and Jonquel Jones. 6-10? Sylvia Fowles, Breanna Stewart, Emma Meesseman, Chiney Ogwumike and Penny Taylor.

Essentially all of the monster numbers Jones put up at George Washington not only translated, but actually improved. She scored hyper-efficiently. She rebounded. She blocked shots. Now with Ogwumike out, the Sun need to rely on her even more. The numbers suggest they won’t be disappointed when they do. Expect Jones in Seattle for the 2017 All Star Game.

Nor is Jones the lone player holding down the frontcourt. Lynetta Kizer, an effective finisher around the rim, and Alyssa Thomas, a versatile four, will also feature for the Sun.

“A player that really impressed me when I went to watch them in the preseason is Alyssa Thomas,” Lobo said. “She looked like a different player to me. She looked really good in transition. You forget how big and strong she is until you see her up close.”

UNCASVILLE, CT – MAY 2: Brionna Jones
UNCASVILLE, CT – MAY 2: Brionna Jones /

And then there’s Danielle Adams, who has battled conditioning issues throughout her career, but in back in uniform with Miller’s Sun, hitting threes and reminding everyone of the high school legend she was back in Kansas City. They also added Brionna Jones, who by many measures was the best big available in the 2017 draft.

So the Connecticut Sun are to be dismissed at your peril. What Miller (and, let’s not forget, the work of Chris Sienko before him) have built in Uncasville is a team capable of entertaining more than just the seniors who wander in after an evening of gambling and Neil Diamond.

A team that gave many opponents fits down the stretch in 2016 could be even better in 2017. What that means for 2018, when Ogwumike returns, is a potential contender. For now, though, it probably means a campaign that doesn’t end when the regular season does.