Is 25-year-old Jonquel Jones ready to take the Connecticut Sun to new heights after close playoff losses the past two seasons?
Curt Miller has done the math. He’s at an experience disadvantage. While the last four WNBA champions have averaged five players in their 30s, the Connecticut Sun head coach, now in his fourth season, has yet to coach even one 30-year-old player. As his team navigates its third straight regular-season near the top of the standings, the Sun dream of avenging consecutive first-round playoff losses, but it won’t be veteran savvy that leads them toward a championship. No, Connecticut is led by one of the most exciting young superstars in the league, a fourth-year Unicorn big who is ready for that job.
Jonquel Jones has been waiting. Drafted in 2016, an All-Star in her second season, and Sixth Woman of the Year the next season, she’s now an MVP candidate.
Together, they’re trying to break through for a franchise that has never won a championship. And they’ll need one another to make it — the thoughtful, creative coach and the young superstar who’s gotten better every year.
The past two seasons, it’s been the Phoenix Mercury and Elimination Game Diana Taurasi who’ve stood in the way of their postseason dreams. The Mercury are on the other side of the age spectrum from the Sun, full of veterans they can lean on in the WNBA’s tough, single-game first and second round.
“In a one-game playoff, their experience is daunting,” Miller admitted before the two teams faced off in Phoenix this week. “In those games, when they needed a big basket, they have these GOATs that they can play through.
“There’s something to be said in a playoff game, in crunch time, playing through that dominant player. So we’ve come up short. We’re not afraid to be back in that situation and we’ll relish the opportunity to be back in that position.”
Can Jones be that player, in that high-stakes spot? The kind who, when basketball turns into a brilliant, unpredictable fencing match, can be the difference?
The numbers will tell you yes, resoundingly. Jones’ development as a rim protector has turned the Sun into the third-best defense in the WNBA. Her improved playmaking and decision-making are making life easier on offense. But the shots from deep aren’t going in this season, and Connecticut’s offensive efficiency has taken a dip.
Last year, Jones was second in the league in 3-point shooting at 46.7 percent. This year, it’s all the way down to 27.9 percent. That’s one reason why Connecticut’s offense has fallen from 110.8 points per 100 possessions to 100.5.
“She’s missed some she’s capable of making and also they’ve guarded her better out there,” Miller says of Jones’ shooting, admitting he’s given her more of a green light. “She’s gotta give up the ones that are too contested.”
Says Jones: “I’m trying to put extra shots up, but it’s not falling. At the end of the day, my mindset is the same. I know I can make that shot, so I’m shooting them thinking the next one’s going in. I think that’s the biggest thing, and my teammates trust me to shoot that shot.”
Sitting courtside while Jones warmed up pregame, Miller insists no one relishes the challenge more or wants to make up for past failures as much as Jones and her teammates. He doesn’t lower his voice when she shoots nearby. He’s not worried she’ll hear the criticism or praise. She already knows.
Jones has learned a lot from close playoff losses in 2017 and 2018 as well. Experience is experience, she says.
“We have those losses under the belt. It’s playoff experience regardless of whether it’s one game, two games, three games.”
Like many of her teammates, Jones is in the final year of her contract. Miller and the Connecticut front office won’t use these playoffs as the sole determining factor on new contracts for the team’s core but sitting second in the WNBA standings, expectations have to be high. Jones feels that pressure.
“This team probably won’t look the same next year in terms of people going different places,” she said after a victory over the Mercury pushed Connecticut to 17-8 with nine games remaining to solidify seeding. “We really like each other, so if we’re going to separate, we want to separate in a good way….So that’s one of the things we realized is time is very short, and things can change very quickly.”
In particular, Jones’ relationship with starting power forward and fellow All-Star Alyssa Thomas turned the non-traditional frontcourt into an advantage for Connecticut in a hurry. Thomas is a crafty playmaker and nasty interior presence on both ends who makes up for many of Jones’ shortcomings.
Miller loves being able to make the first move in the chess match that plays out in the paint each night as opposing teams try to account for Jones, who pulls bigs to the perimeter with her shooting ability. But Thomas is not a jump-shooter and is a hazard at the free-throw line these days.
“The teams that have the physical enough 4 player, or length from the 4 player that can guard JJ, it’s been a unique chess match that we’re trying to counter,” Miller says.
The two friends have grown close over four seasons together and that relationship helped their chemistry on the court. “I mean, we live in Connecticut, so we have to be kind of close,” Jones jokes. The Sun are plus-8.2 per 100 possessions when Jones and Thomas share the court compared with the team’s overall plus-4.1 mark for the year. Though as Ben Dull of High Post Hoops noted this week, Connecticut struggles to space the floor when Jones has the ball in the post. Defenses leave Thomas to send extra attention toward Jones and turn her into a passer. The partnership is a work in progress.
“AT just makes it easy to play with her because she can facilitate so well,” Jones says. “Attacking the basket, I don’t think there’s anyone that’s better than her in terms of just putting her head down and getting where she wants to go.”
Thomas isn’t the only player Jones has learned from. In another symbol of her place in the game and development as pro, Jones joined the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg this winter, the EuroLeague mainstay that Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird turned into a powerhouse. Despite passport troubles that limited Jones to seven games for the team, she was able to learn from Mercury center Brittney Griner, a WNBA champion and six-time All-Star. It was the simplified efficiency of Griner’s game that opened Jones’ eyes in Russia (though Griner told The Athletic it was all the shots by Jones that Griner blocked).
“Her mentality to just be efficient in the areas where she’s good,” Jones says. “Just being confident in the things that you know that you can do well and understanding that they may have a scout or a gameplan, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for them to stop you in terms of doing what you do.”
For Jones, that’s splitting defenses pulling defenses apart with the pick-and-pop and protecting the rim on defense. The Sun have already shown what they’re capable of the past three regular seasons. They’ll be measured by their playoff success this fall, and to be at their best, Jones will need to emerge as their leader. Thirty is a long way off for the All-Star, but she’s on her way.
Miller expects growth from his team over the final nine games of the year so they can hit their stride come playoff time. Maybe, he hopes, they could buck the trend of veterans dominating the WNBA playoffs. Watching his team go through warmups in Phoenix just a few feet away, Miller peers toward his players and raises his voice a little bit when he acknowledges Connecticut’s hunger:
“We realize that to do what we need to do, there’s a high probability that we’re going to be in a one-game playoff situation again. This group is motivated to try to make amends, but we have a lot of things to improve on these last 10 games.”