2015 Regular-Season Record: 15-19 (T-5th in Eastern Conference)
Postseason: Did Not Qualify
The 2015 Connecticut Sun looked to many to be doomed from the start. Budding stars Chiney Ogwumike and Allison Hightower suffered knee injuries in the offseason that would require all of 2015 to rehab, and forward Kelsey Griffin was waived after tearing her ACL. Veteran guard Katie Douglas had also announced her retirement prior to the WNBA season, leaving a hole at shooting guard and in the locker room.
The Sun made a flurry of preseason moves in an attempt to make up for their injury woes, swapping a lottery pick and guard Renee Montgomery for a pair of veteran forwards in Camille Little and Shekinna Stricklen. A draft-day deal brought in guard Jasmine Thomas from Atlanta, and the Sun would also be getting 2014 first-round pick Chelsea Gray back after taking the previous season off to rehab a knee injury of her own.
Needless to say, the Sun looked a lot different than in previous seasons, but in what was the biggest surprise of June, they played like a team that had been together for years. Third-year guard Alex Bentley was ready to shoulder the burden of being the go-to option on offense, getting off to a torrid start and earning her first All-Star appearance. Center Kelsey Bone, too, was much improved. The burly Texas A&M product lived up to the potential she alluded to in college, giving the Sun a commanding presence in the frontcourt with finesse post moves rare for a player of her size.
The rest of the Sun’s young core showed flashes as well. The versatile Alyssa Thomas emerged as one of the toughest players in the league, ranking third in the entire WNBA in offensive rebound percentage and getting to the free throw line at an astounding rate (.611 FTr). Gray embraced her role off the bench as the team’s “instant offense,” giving the Sun a luxury in a player who can both create shots off the dribble while stretching the defense well beyond the three-point line.
The Sun’s 7-1 start was fueled mostly by defense, though, some of which was unsustainable. They were able to generate steals at a very, very high rate, masking their poor defensive rebounding ability and lack of depth. Granted, by season’s end they still finished near the top of the league in percentage of turnovers forced (16.5 percent), but it was clear by the All-Star break that the team was playing over its head. Season-ending injuries to Thomas, Bentley and promising rookie Elizabeth Williams forced coach Anne Donovan to go deeper into her inexperienced and offensively-challenged bench, and by the end of August the Sun had fallen into a hole that they were unable to get out of. They missed the playoffs for a third straight season, and Donovan resigned shortly thereafter.
Biggest Need Heading Into 2016: Coaching, Health
Obviously, Donovan’s resignation makes the head coaching vacancy something Connecticut management needs to address immediately. They won’t have a short list of interested candidates, however; so awful was the Sun’s injury luck that if they simply heal up over the offseason, they’ll instantly go from one of the WNBA’s thinnest teams to one of its deepest.
Basically, the amount of talent on a healthy Connecticut Sun roster is undoubtedly enough to make the playoffs, and with the high-variance nature of the WNBA postseason, a run could be surprisingly long. What an Ogwumike-Bone frontcourt lacks in floor spacing makes up for in physicality and defense; Chiney’s athleticism and nose for the basketball (she was second in the league in offensive rebounding her rookie season) will make a great complement to 2015’s Most Improved Player. With Williams and Little backing them up, the Sun might have the deepest frontcourt in the league in 2016, and the options for mixing and matching combinations. Williams provides excellent finishing around the rim and shot-blocking, while Little can stretch the defense as a power forward and give Bone or Ogwumike more room to work in the paint.
The rest of the team will get a boost from improved health as well. If Hightower returns, she’ll give the team a plus defender in the backcourt alongside Bentley, or she can come off the bench in favor of Gray, who showed that she can start and excel in the WNBA on little experience. Whomever the Sun’s next coach chooses as the team’s first guard off the bench will join a group of players in Williams, Stricklen and Little that should be able to hold its own against any second unit in the league.
What’s most exciting about this team’s future is that there’s so much of it. When the 2016 season begins, Bentley, Ogwumike and Thomas will be 25, Bone will be 24, Gray 23 and Williams just 22 years old…and that’s not even considering whomever they’ll pick at #3 in the upcoming draft. Yes, Donovan left a team that came off the rails, but for her replacement, there’s reason to believe that won’t be happening against next season. The future for the Connecticut Sun is quite bright.