Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.
After a hectic WNBA offseason saw reigning Defensive Player of the Year Candace Parker leave the Sparks for the Sky, two-time All-Star Chelsea Gray join the Aces and a multiteam, blockbuster trade involving the No. 1 pick in the draft, perhaps the most impactful move was simply the return of one of the WNBA’s best players: Jonquel Jones.
The two-time All-Star with the Sun, who sit atop the Eastern Conference at 7–2, might not garner the same amount of attention as some of the W’s other top bigs, in part due to the market she plays in. But this season, she has been every bit as good as—if not better than—everyone she’s gone up against. The 27-year-old forward is averaging career highs in points (20.6), rebounds (10.1) and three-point percentage (48.8%). For her efforts thus far, Jones, who sat out all of last season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month in May. Maybe most importantly, she anchors a Sun team that leads the WNBA in wins.
Jones said coming into this year, following an MVP-caliber 2019 season, that her confidence has never wavered, but that the “mental part of the game” is “one of the biggest aspects that’s changed.”
“It’s not necessarily anything that’s been done crazy off the court,” she recently told reporters. “But just being able to be mentally prepared and just understanding that I can get to the places where I want to get to on the court and just having extra confidence in myself.”
That additional preparation has certainly paid off early on, as Jones has been a force on both ends of the court. The Sun’s offense averages 109.5 points per 100 possessions with her on the floor, compared with a paltry 78.4 with her off it. The team’s defense, which is currently ranked No. 1 in the league, is also, not surprisingly, better with its 6' 6" forward patrolling both the paint and perimeter.
Early on this season, no trio in the WNBA has played more together than Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner. That group is +20 per 100 possessions, a mark topped by only Seattle’s trio of Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, and another Sun trio of Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Jasmine Thomas.
After not playing together last season, no duo has played more alongside each other than Jones and Bonner, who have found particular synergy. The two have played more than 260 minutes alongside each other, and when paired up, defenders appear unable to leave the 6' 4" Bonner to help contain the Sun’s emerging MVP candidate.
“When I’m playing down low they can’t sag off of DB,” Jones said. “They have to play her honestly, because if I kick it out to her and she’s open, it’s going to be a made basket.”
It’s why the team’s acquisition of Bonner in February 2020 was so appealing.
Single-covering Jones has also been a troubling tactic for opposing defenders this year, as while Connecticut struggled from three last season, Natisha Hiedeman, Thomas, Bonner and Jonquel Jones are all shooting better percentages from deep this year. Add Brionna Jones, and the Sun are shooting nearly 42% from three with those five players on the floor.
Even without star Alyssa Thomas, who in past seasons has been among the team’s leading engines, don’t expect the Sun to slip. In part due to the team’s high-quality depth and the MVP-level play of Jones, Connecticut should continue its recent run of success as it moves through its 32-game schedule. While Seattle and Las Vegas both eye Finals appearances this fall, don’t be surprised if the Sun, who have already held their own against both this season, make their second Finals appearance in three seasons. And perhaps alongside a WNBA championship, Jones will receive some additional hardware as well.
Notes from around the WNBA
In 2018, the last of her 11 seasons as a player, Noelle Quinn took on what she described as a “player-coach” role with the Storm. She helped the team’s veterans, worked with its young players and provided a committed leadership presence throughout Seattle’s title run.
“Never ever would I have imagined that I would be here just a short time later,” Quinn told reporters Monday. “To be sitting as the head coach, it wasn’t even on my radar, honestly.”
Quinn takes over for Dan Hughes, who announced his abrupt retirement Sunday following a career that spanned nearly 600 WNBA games. In moving to the lead chair, Quinn, who transitioned to a full-time assistant role with Seattle in 2019, becomes just the 19th Black female coach in WNBA history and the first Black woman to lead the Storm.
During her introductory press conference Monday, she reflected on that, making sure to recognize the Black women who were head coaches before her.
“They crawled so I could walk,” Quinn said, after pulling out her phone and reciting the nearly two-dozen names of women who preceded her. “I sit on those shoulders. And for me, it’s important that I’m not a woman, I’m a Black woman. I sit with that every day. And sometimes that can be a double negative for me, to be a woman and to be Black. But I’m empowered in that. There’s value in that. My experience in that, it shapes me. It has molded me, and that is who I am.”
Quinn, who acted as the head coach in Seattle’s win last week over the Sun while Hughes attended his son’s Air Force Academy graduation, takes over Seattle, which is more than capable of repeating as champion this season. The Storm are off to a 6–1 start and possess the league’s No. 2 offense in terms of points per 100 possessions and a roster that is No. 3 in net rating. Expectations again remain high.
“We all trust her,” 11-time WNBA All-Star Sue Bird said Monday of Quinn. “We all have great relationships with her. She’s beyond ready, and we’re already off to a great start.”
After losing their first two games, the Dream have rattled off four consecutive wins, all of which came in impressive fashion. Key to the team’s recent uptick has been the stellar play of its talented, and deep, backcourt, headlined by Courtney Williams, who was named the AP Player of the Week. In her last four games, Williams averaged just under 20 points per contest. Her 31-point barrage against the Liberty on Saturday included the game-winning shot in overtime. “Confidence is never lacking. I wanted the big shots,” Williams told reporters.
Longtime Dream star Tiffany Hayes has seen an increase in her production this season, averaging 19.5 points over her last four games. Second-year guard Chennedy Carter, who has averaged nearly 16 points in the same span, has again looked like one of the most dangerous players to stop in the league.
Carter left Saturday’s win over New York with an elbow injury that has potential to limit the team’s short-term ceiling. But besides her injury, it’s been a promising last two weeks for Atlanta, which has new ownership, a new GM and an interim head coach, and is moving in the right direction.
The Lynx are off to a slow start this season, having won just one of their first five games. But while the team has struggled—at least by its standards, as Minnesota has made the playoffs in 10 consecutive seasons—center Sylvia Fowles has regained the form that made her a league MVP in 2017. Fowles is currently averaging 19.2 points per game, her highest total since 2011, as well as 9.2 rebounds.
Before sitting out most of last season with a calf injury, Fowles had not missed a game since joining Minnesota midway through the 2015 season. While she remains the only player from the 2017 Lynx team that won the WNBA championship, she again looks like an important part of the team’s present and potentially near-future.