Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas was one of the most notable names not in attendance at the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game played this past weekend in Minneapolis. The do-it-all forward’s production warranted legitimate consideration, but Thomas missed 10 games earlier in the season due to a shoulder injury.
Thomas’ shoulder popped out during a June 13 game at home against the Washington Mystics. The Sun went 3-8 from that point until her return to the floor.
A look at how Connecticut has fared in 2018 with and without Thomas, who Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller has often referred to as their MVP and “best player to play through” with the help of Hashtag Basketball’s ‘Next Woman Up‘ tool:
Let’s start with what we’ve seen from the Sun with Thomas on the floor. According to WNBA.com, they’ve posted a 109.3 offensive rating and a 93.8 defensive rating with her on the floor in 2018. Very few players in the league come close to approaching that two-way dominance, save for each of the Seattle Storm’s starting five. (By the way, guess who’s fifth in net rating of the players that actually play a lot? Ariel Atkins!)
The 15.5 net rating is a flashy number, but some of that is just noise. The Sun crushed the Las Vegas Aces, playing with half their team, by 36 on opening day. The 38-point June win in Chicago over the Sky? No Allie Quigley or Stefanie Dolson. A 24-point June 3 win in DC over the Mystics? No Elena Delle Donne.
When Thomas went down, Connecticut as a collective took a huge hit. The largest and perhaps the most visible void was shot creation. Many of the Sun’s best shooters no longer had the team’s best creator there to set them up. Shekinna Stricklen connected on just 33 percent of her three-pointers in 10 games without Thomas compared to 46 percent with her.
The same goes for the three-point shooting of Morgan Tuck (41 percent with Thomas versus 36 percent without), Rachel Banham (41% with, 33% without) and Jasmine Thomas (32% with, 28% without).
Something that cannot be forgotten in these talks: Jonquel Jones has not been the same player coming off an All-WNBA season. She has spent a great deal of time in foul trouble this season and only managed to play 19.8 minutes per game in the 10 games that Thomas missed. Jones’ three-point rate has shot up from 16.5 to 37.9 percent, and her free throw rate has taken a nose-dive (48.7% down to 28.0%).
Miller is in an interesting spot with his roster. Chiney Ogwumike has successfully returned to All-Star form coming off a torn Achilles, but questions still need to be answered with their frontcourt rotation. Ogwumike has been a very efficient finisher and post scorer this season. The Sun can tap further into her skill set when Jones spends more time beyond the arc — something Miller is wary of — to open up the paint.
Connecticut can throw a ton of length onto the court to bolster their defense when they want to with Jones, Ogwumike, Thomas, Thomas and player five to be named later. When the game slows down on the other end, though, it’s been clear that Alyssa Thomas has been impacted when another big needs to play closer to the basket.
There just isn’t as much room for her to size somebody up from the nail and meander into post ups that will either eventually lead to a shot at the rim or a kick out for an open jumper — the improvisation the Sun thrived on in 2017 in a halfcourt setting.
Just for Jones to approach last season’s average of 28 minutes per game, somebody on the perimeter will need to kiss some minutes goodbye. Jasmine Thomas has been the team’s steadiest two-way guard, but the ball is not going in the basket enough after last season’s impressive showing beyond the arc (40.3% on 134 attempts).
Stricklen is one of the league’s premier three-point shooters that adds a layer to their offense that no one else on the roster can replicate. Courtney Williams is arguably the team’s best one-on-one creator, bringing some much-needed balance with her ability to score efficiently from the midrange.
The available minutes when Alyssa Thomas was out were sprinkled among four reserves that each bring something a little different to the table — Brionna Jones, a more traditional backup center; Betnijah Laney, a slashing two-way wing; Banham, a good three-point shooter who has flashed more and more versatility to her jumper; and Morgan Tuck, a versatile forward quietly putting together the best shooting season (48.8% FG, 38.3% 3PT) of her young career.
Playing bigger with Alyssa Thomas at the three cuts into the minutes of the starting wings (Williams and Stricklen) and their backups (Banham and the newly acquired Layshia Clarendon, who already has shared some time with Jasmine Thomas in addition to taking on backup point guard duties). It remains to be seen how much Laney, Jones and Tuck will play now on a regular basis.
Thomas playing more alongside two bigs would open up just enough time for Tuck to regularly get something beyond a few token minutes each half. After battling some nagging injuries last season, Tuck is healthy and moving like the player many expected to create matchup problems for opponents on a nightly basis. Her 20-point performance last month in Vegas, though the Sun came up short, was a great example of what she can add to goose the team’s spacing issues. The benefit in finding more time for Tuck is that her overall game won’t be impacted as much as Jones appears to have been by spending more time out on the perimeter.
But once again, we’ve run into the same issue: Where will all the minutes come from?
The Sun ultimately need to decide what kind of team they are. Alyssa Thomas’ usage is down from last year, as are her assist and turnover percentages. That’s to be expected with Ogwumike back in the fold. The bigger concern is Thomas shooting about six percentage points worse from the field on fewer shot attempts and continuing her year-by-year decline at the free throw line (on fewer attempts) after switching to her right hand.
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The Sun come out of the break at 14-12 overall, but are 11-4 in games played with Thomas at full strength. Though there are flaws in citing their net rating in those 15 games, the Sun would not be wrong to continue to hang their hat on that record. Thomas is their best player.
Every game down the stretch will begin to feel like a playoff game for the Sun and the army of teams that could end up anywhere from two seed to out of the playoffs entirely. But Connecticut is healthy now, and their roster is better than last year’s. Missing the playoffs would be a disaster, even with the sudden spike in talent that has appears to have completely leveled the playing field.
The Sun close with six of their final eight games at home. The condensed schedule has not been kind to anybody, but for now, Connecticut needs to find a way to make it in as they continue to explore the endless combinations that Miller can piece together on any given night, with Thomas right at the center of it all.