COLUMN: The Connecticut Sun have arrived ahead of schedule

Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller has long circled 2018 as the date of maturity for his Sun team’s rebuild.

But the level of play from the Sun of late has scrambled all the timetables, and in the best possible way.

“Well, the group has confidence. And they have a drive to make the playoffs this year,” Miller said, standing in the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room at Madison Square Garden Friday night after a 94-89 win over the New York Liberty. “My GM hat still knows our best days are ahead of us. But it’s a fun run that we’re on.”

The Sun won six of seven before Sunday’s loss to Dallas, but it was as much who they beat and how they did it that has revised popular opinion about the Sun across the league.

In a nine-day span from June 14-23, they beat the Liberty twice—a rout in Connecticut, and a the win Friday night, in which Connecticut raced out to a 21-point third quarter lead, gave it all back, then executed late to pull out a big win on the road, finishing as they did to saddle the Lynx with their only loss this season on June 17.

The Sun are winning in ways that suggest more than just a hot streak is afoot. Team-wide, the offense is producing at the fourth-best efficiency in the league, thanks to a top-four level in turnover and rebounding percentage. Over the last 15 days, that’s improved, the Sun putting up 115.3 points per 100 possessions, best in the league over that time.

Jonquel Jones is elite

Central to all of it is Jonquel Jones. Her stats during her rookie season suggested enormous promise. But she’s gotten better in virtually every category, even as she’s been asked to carry far more of the load.

UNCASVILLE, CT – MAY 13: Jonquel Jones

“She’s a tremendous offensive rebounder,” Miller said of Jones. “She can score in a lot of phases—off the dribble, from the three-point line, back to the basket—and she’s only going to get better. I don’t think she had her best game in the low post tonight, but she got us big putbacks. And when on a night she doesn’t have her best game, she still gets us 21 and 7, that’s a poor night? We’ll take it.”

Her versatility was on display Friday night. She continued grabbing boards at the rate that has her leading the WNBA in rebounding percentage, but against a team with Tina Charles and Kiah Stokes, Jones found her offense in a variety of ways—drives from the elbow, a spectacular stepback three, even jumping into passing lanes and taking the ball the other way herself.

“They really congested in the paint, so it naturally opened up the perimeter, for us to get more open shots,” Jones said, matter-of-factly explaining a diverse game from a 23-year-old who clocks in at 6’6.

I asked around the league a simple question: if you were starting a WNBA team, how many players are you taking ahead of Jonquel Jones? Nobody had a list longer than seven people on it, and several WNBA talent evaluators had her top five. Considering she was the sixth pick in the 2016 draft, that’s quite a leap forward.

It creates a trickle-down effect of mismatches, starting with Jones, a player for whom most other teams do not have answers. The Sun, though, have plenty more challenges, whether Alyssa Thomas’ all-around game at the four, or Courtney Williams’ impossibly high leaping ability and confidence, or Jasmine Thomas’ continued strength running the offense and finding her shot.

UNCASVILLE, CT – MAY 26: Connecticut Sun Guard / Forward Shekinna Stricklen (40) and Courtney Williams (10) discuss a play during the game as the Connecticut Sun host the Minnesota Lynx on May 26, 2017 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Minnesota defeated Connecticut 82-68.(Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

And this is all happening without Morgan Tuck, still recuperating from her recent knee injury, who was precisely the body Connecticut needed on Sunday afternoon against Dallas to take on Karima Christmas-Kelly. Tuck’s addition closes the last loophole to slowing down the Sun, giving Miller a pair of wings capable of scoring inside and out, defending in the post or out to the perimeter.

Nobody in that Sun locker room sounded surprised about the team’s recent play—Jasmine Thomas pointed out she’d been predicting this was a playoff team “since our Media Day”, and Williams, a second-year guard with a veteran’s self-belief, wasn’t a bit surprised Miller called her number so often down the stretch. It worked, too—a pair of baskets stretched the Sun lead from 82-79 to 86-79. Then, after the Liberty tied it, Williams sank a baseline jumper, skied above all the taller Liberty players to grab a defensive rebound, glided up the court and fed Jasmine Thomas for a game-clinching three.

“Coach always told me he has confidence in me, my teammates have confidence in me, and I always have confidence in myself,” Williams said, her Georgia drawl proceeding at the pace she takes up and down the court. “I never get nervous.”

The collective result is akin to what Miller sees as an ideal offensive scenario, with plenty of options to take late shots, but no emphasis on one particular shotmaker to do so.

“What is common across the board is the number of people we’re putting in double figures,” Miller said. “We’re not playing through one or two people. Again, five people in double figures tonight. A sixth player, Alex [Bentley], came back with nine points. I like when you have five players hunting for shots.”

UNCASVILLE, CT – MAY 26: Connecticut Sun guard Alex Bentley (20) calls a play during the first half of an WNBA game between Minnesota Lynx and Connecticut Sun on May 26, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Minnesota defeated Connecticut 82-68. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Is it 2018 already for Connecticut Sun?

The real question is what it all means for the Sun here in 2017, in year T-minus one of the Curt Miller rebuild. Miller pointed out the difficult stretch ahead, telegraphing the loss to the Wings, another young team achieving beyond what many expected.

“We’re in a tough stretch,” Miller said Friday night. “Tonight starts five of nine—now, four more in the next eight days. So we’re tired, we’re going to be stretched, and it can turn just as easy as we started winning.”

Even with the loss, the Sun are 6-5, putting them squarely in the group of six teams, all of whom have between 5-7 wins and losses, and just 2.5 games back of Los Angeles for the coveted second seed in the playoffs, with the accompanying double bye. They get a chance to test themselves against those Sparks on Tuesday, then the Storm on Thursday, both in the friendly confines of Mohegan Sun Arena.

A couple of wins, and the evidence pointing to the Sun as not just a playoff team, but a championship contender, will only grow. Neither Jasmine Thomas nor Courtney Williams dismissed a championship in 2017 as an unrealistic goal.

So I asked Jones: are you ahead of schedule?

“I think so, but I think we have to take it one step at a time. I think first we have to get to the playoffs.  I don’t think we should jump ahead of ourselves. This franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in a long time. Once we get there? Anything’s possible.”