WNBA

Jonquel Jones is having a historic season for the Sun

The Connecticut Sun traded Chiney Ogwumike to the Los Angeles Sparks for a first-round pick knowing full well Jonquel Jones was in their back pocket. How could they forget Jones’ breakout campaign in 2017, when Ogwumike suffered a season-ending Achilles injury? Or 2018, when Jones moved to the bench to make room for a healthy Ogwumike and proceeded to win Sixth Woman of the Year? As such, Jones was voted fourth on the WNBA preseason general managers survey for MVP.

That prediction, in hindsight, sold her short. Now, Jones is amidst a historic season. She could be the first WNBA player to sport a Most Improved Player Award next to an MVP. She is likely to join a list of four players to have averaged a double-double in multiple seasons. Jones is also likely to lead the WNBA in rebounds a second season (10.7), a feat only accomplished by five others. No, Jones is not breaking the scoring record, but the title “most well-rounded big” belongs to her. Jones is swatting 2.3 blocks per game, on pace to shatter the seven-year league-leading streak held by Brittney Griner.

Asked by WNBA.com about her league-leading seventh double-double of the season in a losing effort to the Chicago Sky, Jones responded: “Honestly, I really don’t care. I just want to win. I’m sorry, I just want to win. I think there were a lot of ways I could have been better. And that’s what I’m thinking about to be honest.”

And here the Connecticut Sun are, second in the Eastern Conference at 9-4. While past Sun teams brandished a deep attack — last season, Chiney Ogwumike had the lowest average of any team’s leading scorer (14.8 points) — this season’s Sun revolves around Jones. Her usage rate is higher than Ogwumike’s ever was in her three healthy years as a Sun. If anything, shifting last season’s Sixth Woman of the Year into the starting lineup is the main reason their league-best offense has cooled.

Inserting Jones into the starting lineup, however, has elevated the ceiling of Curt Miller’s modern system. She is posting the highest “morey-ball” rating — percentage of shots attempted in either the restricted area or from 3 — in WNBA history (68.9 percent), per WNBA.com. Amanda Zahui B and Jones are making the most 3-pointers per game (1.5) since Lauren Jackson in 2010. Though she’s far from a flawless finisher — shying away from contact too often — Jones is at least efficient inside.

At first glance, Jones is the fifth-tallest player in the WNBA (6-foot-6), but despite the height advantage, she plays like a guard. Thanks in part to shedding the weight she added last offseason, she can keep her dribble alive even as she crouches to the floor and regularly deploys a jab-step, step-back combination. Overall, the forward’s Synergy profile is well-rounded, but she rates better at running off-screens and spotting-up than posting-up or rolling to the rim. Off-ball, she uses pin-down screens or floppy sets seemingly designed for teammate Shekinna Stricklen to get buckets.

The above play starts with a ball-screen — a decoy of sorts — and flows into a pin-down screen for Jones. What places Jones in rarefied air — among the Elena Delle-Donnes, DeWanna Bonners, Nneka Ogwumikes, and Breanna Stewarts of the world — is not only her ability to snipe 3, but weaponize it to slither past overzealous defenders.

Though taking defenders off-the-bounce makes her ultra-versatile, improving in traditional categories such as post-ups and the pick-and-roll is the next step. Per Synergy, she is just “good” at post-ups and “average” in the pick-and-roll.

When screens aren’t set for Jones to bomb 3s, they are used for her to “flash” in the post. The commonly-utilized flash is meant to switch a smaller defender onto the post-player. The problem is Jones prefers fadeaways to drop-steps, post-hooks, etc. As aesthetically-pleasing as her fadeaway is, it’s never an easy shot, especially over lengthier defenders.

But the fadeaway is a tool commonly leveraged to score buckets, too. Not only does she make it occasionally, but also leverages it to wiggle to the cup.

Similar to posting-up, Jones avoids contact after setting ball-screens. She is one of the only bigs to prefer popping to rolling. Considering she scores more points per possession rolling to the hoop, she should look for more opportunities in doing so. To negate their height shortcomings, Jones is used in lineups with Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams. While both have quick triggers (often to their detriment), they specialize at maneuvering in traffic and threading the needle when available.

On the first screen, Tiffany Hayes fights over-the-top of the ball-screen. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Williams, “hedges” the ball-screen. Look closer and watch as Jones signals for a second ball-screen, this time with her as the ball-screener and Shekkina Stricklen, the ball-handler. On the next ball-screen, the Atlanta Dream deploy the same tactics. Not many players can make the reads at the rate as Jonquel Jones, who ultimately slips the ball-screen and scores.

Whichever way you put it, Jones is currently the frontrunner for MVP. That distinction isn’t to push down the outstanding seasons of DeWanna Bonner, Natasha Howard, Elena Delle Donne, all of whom can creep to the front as the season progresses. What keeps someone such as Tina Charles from having a fighting chance is the lack of success around her, though.

On that note, if the Connecticut Sun can’t sustain their success, Jones will suffer as a result. Games like last — where the Sun lost to the Mystics 102-59 and Delle Donne outplayed Jones in any sense — for example, don’t help her case. There is more precedence, too: past seasons’ scorching starts have flamed out to early-round exits.

Next: The Chicago Sky’s transformed defense has their rebuild ahead of schedule

The one positive is Jones isn’t the only Sun having a notable season. Shekkina Stricklen is on track for historic shooting marks. Alyssa Thomas has been doing a little bit of everything on either side of the floor. The main worry is the lack of bench production. It’s nigh-impossible to replace the punch Jonquel Jones packed off the pine last season.

Jones, who has been named player of the week honors three consecutive weeks, doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Think of the next two games as a litmus test to the legitimacy of her MVP case. After the week off due to July 4 festivities, her next challenge comes against Sylvia Fowles, and then on Wednesday, against Jessica Breland, who was all-defensive first-team last season. In a league dominated by bigs with a variety of skills up their sleeves, there are simply no days off. It begs the question: Can Jonquel Jones keep it up?

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