New faces, teachable moments for Connecticut Sun
Overseas commitments create more opportunities to see players
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It took some time for nerves to shake off and for players to get in a good rhythm, but the first day of training camp had exactly what head coach and general manager Curt Miller was looking for: competition.
The Sun kicked off camp on Sunday with just 13 of their 22-player roster available. The team’s core group of veterans on guaranteed contracts will arrive late, along with Beatrice Mompremier, Brianna Fraser, and Kamiah Smalls, all on training camp deals.
“We're trying to create competitive environments so we get an opportunity to look at them,” Miller said following the team’s first practice on Sunday. “At the same time, there's tons of teaching in terms of terminology, the difference between collegiate and pro. … There's different rules. There's different styles of play, so we threw a lot at them. We're really trying to build our pillars, build our base at both sides of the ball, and despite not having a lot of people that will be on the opening day roster here currently, we felt it was important to really teach.”
The most experienced player on the court Sunday was 24-year-old Natisha Hiedeman, who’s entering her third year in the league, followed by second-year guard Kaila Charles, who is new to Mohegan Sun Arena after spending her 2020 rookie season in the Bradenton bubble.
Hiedeman spent the offseason playing in Israel for Ramat Gan and averaged 15.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. She said she spent time trying to elevate her game overseas by working on her leadership and being vocal.
“My first year, I relied on so many of the returning players, you know just asking them questions and feeling comfortable asking them questions,” Heideman said. “So I feel like for me, that's one thing that I try to be, you know, an outlet for players to feel comfortable and come ask me anything.”
On the offensive side of the ball, she’s been focusing on mechanics like her pull up shots, finishing, and her three-point game. She led the reserve players in minutes and points in the 2020 WNBA season and has four career starts.
“I feel like the energy starts and finishes with me. So my main focus is just, just bringing everybody energy and keeping everybody confident,” she said.
With a little more than one million dollars wrapped up in six protected contracts, the Sun have to fill their bench with young players on minimum training camp contracts. Miller has stressed the importance of a highly competitive training camp.
Experience will be valuable for a reserve squad that will be young no matter who makes the final cut, so Charles, Hiedeman, and Mompremier all have a leg up by already being familiar with the team and its system.
Miller has said that he expects nine players to return, barring any injuries or surprises, and the Sun can’t afford to carry 12 players — so there are likely to be only two spots for the 13 other competitors.
“I'm excited about the process,” Miller said in a pre-draft media call. “Sure, I know (you) look around social media and see some of the superstars in the league practicing with other teams and we’re practicing in the beginning of training camp with a bunch of inexperienced players, but I love what that provides us an opportunity to do in training camp. Then [the less experienced players] will be up and running when we infuse our veterans back into it partially through camp, and we’ll cram like crazy to be ready for opening day.”
Miller knows he wants someone who can be an offensive spark plug off the bench. The Sun finished the 2020 season with an average field goal percentage of 42.7, the third-worst in the league, and the team struggled behind the arc and at the free throw line. But he’ll also be looking for players who learn quickly and have a great attitude and give full effort throughout camp.
After the first day of practice, Miller said that everyone on the team had their moments, including the team’s three draftees — who he said showed flashes of potential throughout the day, but will have to acclimate to the speed of the WNBA game. Dijonai Carrington’s physicality and impact on defense, Micaela Kelly’s strength, and Aleah Goodman’s instinct on the court all impressed Miller.
“It was very physical … we're really all still learning, but it was super fun to be out there and just to kind of get that first day out the way,” Carrington said. “The first half hour you could tell that everyone was just kind of really tight, but we all took a deep breath and I had fun.”
The rookies will have their work cut out for them competing against the Sun’s 10 free agent players. Miller pointed to 26-year-old guard Feyonda Fitzgerald as someone who stood out among the free agent group.
Fitzgerald, who was drafted by Indiana in the second round of the 2017 draft, returns to Connecticut after a two-game stint with the Sun in 2017. She played in just under eight total minutes with three rebounds and no points. She’s since played overseas, and most recently led Maccabi Haifa in Israel with 20.8 points and 4.6 assists a game.
“She is a little bit older,” Miller said. “She's been in training camp. She played for us, as brief as it was. She played at probably the pace that you could be most successful at.”
Kamiah Smalls will be late to training camp, but has the most WNBA experience out of the free agents on a training camp contract. The Fever drafted Smalls in the third round in 2020, but cut her before the season began. Smalls rejoined the team toward the end of the season in August, and appeared in Indiana’s final seven games.
She displayed loads of potential in her professional debut, going 4-for-4 from the floor (including 2-for-2 from the free throw line, and 3-for-3 from deep) for 13 points, four rebounds, and two assists in 17 minutes. Her remaining performances were more lackluster though, averaging just 2.3 points in the last six games of the season.
With a young and inexperienced group on hand, there was plenty that Miller and his staff had to spend time teaching, but Miller said he’s happy with the energy and effort from his group on the first day.
“A little bit sloppy, a lot of nerves, but a lot of energy at the same time and a lot of competition,” Miller said. “A practice that we typically probably could squeeze in a two-hour window, with all the teaching that was necessary, ended up turning into almost a three-hour window.”
Carrington said the team practiced coming off ball screens and learning to make good reads, an area she’s prioritizing in her development this training camp.
“Another thing I was talking with coach Brandi (Poole) about is just playing really, really physical defense without fouling,” she said. “Just doing something that other people can’t do. Trying to find my hook, that thing that is going to set me apart.”