UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Few outside of the Connecticut Sun expected much from them this season.
They finished 14-20 a year ago and returned a young and largely unproven core after Chiney Ogwumike sustained an Achilles injury last November while playing overseas. Many predicted the Sun to be a WNBA bottom-feeder. Even coach and general manager Curt Miller made no secret about circling 2018 and 2019 as the years he anticipated his team to really compete in the league.
But approaching the halfway point of this season, the Sun have emerged not just as a formidable threat but as one of the WNBA's top teams, one that could be headed to the organization's first winning season and playoff berth since 2012.
"They beat some of the best teams in the league and have proven that they're one of the best teams playing at a really high-octane clip offensively," Seattle coach Jenny Boucek said after the Sun beat her Storm 96-89 on June 29. "They're shooting the ball at a high rate, so they are a huge challenge defensively."
During its past 11 games, Connecticut is 8-3 with wins against Seattle, New York and Minnesota (it's the Lynx's only loss of the season). Only Minnesota and Los Angeles produced better records (10-1), but the Sun averaged a league-best 90.7 points per game in that stretch, and each of the Sun's five starters led the team in scoring in at least one game.
"Our shot distribution is really balanced across the board," Miller said. "One of the things I preach all the time is that the ball doesn't stick and that we're constantly trying to move the ball and move the defense so that everyone is an option."
Connecticut has arguably the most balanced offense in the WNBA. As of July 2, the Sun are one of just three teams in the league (along with New York and Los Angeles) to have at least three players in the top 25 in scoring -- Jonquel Jones ranked No. 15 (16.1 points per game), Jasmine Thomas was at No. 16 (15.4 PPG) and Alyssa Thomas No. 21 (13.9 PPG) -- but are the only team to do so without a player ranked in the top 10. Courtney Williams, who has started nine of 15 games this season, checked in at No. 26 (12.2 PPG).
The Sun's ability to beat some of the top teams in the league despite an injury ridden frontcourt is perhaps their most head-turning accomplishment this season. In addition to Ogwumike's absence, the Sun have had to play much of this streak without second-year forward Morgan Tuck (knee contusion) and veteran Lynetta Kizer (back injury).
Connecticut has struggled with foul trouble all season, and those losses -- particularly Tuck, who emerged early on as the team's top scorer -- could have easily paralyzed Miller's roster. Instead, Miller believes the adversity and misfortune of a depleted frontcourt helped the team hit the "jackpot" with its current high level of play.
"You can either feel sorry for yourself" because of all the injuries, Miller said, or reap the rewards of being forced to make changes to the lineup.
Without Tuck and Kizer, Miller moved forward Alyssa Thomas from the 3 spot to the 4, where she has excelled. The move gives the Sun an athletic, facilitating power forward (ranked No. 6 in the league with 5.1 assists per game) with the ability to stretch the floor and attack the rim from 15 to 20 feet. Since moving to the 4, Thomas is averaging 15.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
Shekinna Stricklen has filled the 3-guard position. After averaging 2.2 PPG and 1.8 RPG through the first five games of the season, the sharpshooter is now averaging 11.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game with increased minutes. Stricklen has further increased the Sun's ability to stretch the floor by shooting a career best 45.3 percent from the 3-point line, trailing only teammate Jasmine Thomas, who is shooting a mind-numbing 49.3 percent for players who average at least 4.5 3-point attempts per game.
"We still have a lot of unanswered questions, but we're really pleased with where we're at." Sun coach Curt Miller
Despite the adjustments, Jasmine Thomas and Jones remain the Sun's two anchors. Thomas ranks fifth in the league with 5.2 assists per game and scored a career-high 29 points (12 of 16 from the field) in the Sun's victory over the Storm. Thomas said maintaining confidence in her shot has been key.
"I'm just making sure to take the open shot when I have it and just trying to stay aggressive, in attack mode and making sure defenses have to guard me," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to do my part."
In the frontcourt, Jones has become one of the league's top young stars. The second-year forward leads the WNBA in rebounding and is averaging a double-double of 16.1 points and 12.3 rebounds. Her biggest improvement is mental; she has changed her approach to limit foul trouble, something the absence of frontcourt relief forced her to do.
Nothing illustrates Jones' improvement like her performances against Minnesota. In her first two games against the Lynx, Jones played a combined 37 minutes, plagued by foul trouble and the superior play of veteran forward Sylvia Fowles. But in the Sun's victory over the Lynx on June 17, Jones played 37 minutes, totaling eight rebounds and 16 points, including two crucial free throws with six seconds left to secure the win. And on Wednesday, Jones and Fowles were named the WNBA's Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Month for June.
Jones admits she's still trying to avoid doing "dumb stuff" on the floor. And while the Sun ride this current wave of success, they're also aware of multiple instances where they reverted back to the way they played early on, when they opened the season 0-4. In three of the Sun's eight wins this season, including as recently as July 1, they allowed teams to erase double-digit leads that almost ended in upset.
"We do a good job whether it's in the beginning of the game or late in games getting a good comfortable lead, and then we just lose it way too easily," Jasmine Thomas said. "Every game is not going to be a blowout, but teams can't have that confidence on us if they get down big they can still come back and get close. That's not a reputation we want to have."
As a GM, Miller is always focused on the organization's long-term success, but as a coach, he is focused on winning now. And while he's cautiously optimistic, he is happy to see his core coming into its own ahead of schedule.
"We didn't know exactly how good we were going to be with this young team after enduring another season-ending injury to Chiney," Miller said. "We still have a lot of unanswered questions, but we're really pleased with where we're at but we know the season is a long season. We have a long way to go."