'We looked like a team today': Connecticut Sun build toward the season opener

Cuts reduce group fighting for final two roster spots

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The Sun’s training camp has looked a little different than most team’s since the first day on April 25. 

Connecticut began camp with a full 15 players on the court, the maximum allowed in training camp, but only had two returners from last year — third-year guard Natisha Hiedeman and sophomore Kaila Charles — to lead the group of 10 free agents on training camp contracts and three recent draftees. 

By the fifth practice of the week, the Sun returned its first two starters to camp —Brionna Jones on Wednesday and DeWanna Bonner on Friday. 

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the young group of players competing for one of two expected roster spots. There has been a lot of teaching over the last week, and practices have run longer than expected. Pace and turnovers have been an issue, but just having Bonner and Jones’ presence on the court has immediately made a difference for the team. 

Miller said the veterans have had an unbelievable effect on the group since players in camp now benefit from seeing everything from Bonner and Jones’ execution and tempo to hearing them lead huddles and be vocal in practice. 

“It's a totally different look now in camp when we have more veterans but (Bonner) led throughout, she huddled the team multiple times, everything slows down,” Miller said after Bonner’s first practice. “It changes everything about our practice. We looked like a team today. For the first time, we looked like a team, and a lot of that is a credit to Bri Jones and DeWanna.”

Despite Bonner’s being the Sun’s most experienced veteran in camp by a wide margin, the Sun’s unique training camp environment is completely different than what she’s used to. Miller believes this gives her an even bigger opportunity to let her leadership shine. 

“Without (Briann) January, Jasmine Thomas, and Alyssa Thomas on the court … This is the first opportunity to have DB in a real training camp setting,” Miller said. It's really fun to watch her leadership. All those years she was surrounded by (Diana) Taurasi and (Brittney) Griner, and (Candice) Dupree. She doesn't get the credit that she probably deserves for what kind of leader she can be. And maybe it's been asked of her more in our camp than throughout her career, but I’m really pleased with DB’s leadership.”

Bonner said she’s had an interesting first few days of camp as the leader of such a young and inexperienced group, but she’s trying to have fun and bring a different vibe to practice to help the other players feel more relaxed.

“It’s an interesting approach for me this year, for sure, to come out and bring that energy,” Bonner said. “The 33-year-old has to be the one to bring the energy — dancing, laughing, screaming, talking — because they’re so focused on getting the plays right or not messing up or making the team, so I can loosen up a little bit.”

“Hopefully I make the team this year so we'll see,” Bonner joked. 

High Expectations for Brionna Jones and Beatrice Mompremier 

Beatrice Mompremier returned to the team on Tuesday, and Bri Jones joined camp on Wednesday. Jones, a fifth-year center who re-signed with the team on a two-year deal in February, was an instant all-star in camp. Miller said she was “unstoppable” on her first day back, and said she looked like the stud she was last year. 

“I expect her to have a monster year. She has to have a monster year. If we can keep her healthy, she'll play a ton of minutes. If we can keep her out of foul trouble, she’ll play a ton of minutes,” Miller said. “Bri Jones proved to be a great starting center in the league last year, and she's going to have to be again this year. But really, I don't have enough good things to say about her.”

Jones played with USK Praska in the Czech Republic with Alyssa Thomas last year and averaged 21.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. She’s heading into her fifth year in the WNBA off a career year in 2020 after filling in for Jonquel Jones all season. 

Last year, Jones was one of the most efficient players in the league and averaged a third-best 60.5 percent from the floor. According to Her Hoop Stats, she ranked in the top ten in points per play and steal rate and was the third-best rebounder on the offensive end in the league. But where Miller thinks she really shines is on defense. 

“I will say this until I’m blue in the face,” Miller said. “(Bri Jones) is so underrated defensively in so many areas of the game. … Bri Jones will always be one of the high-steal centers in the league. She's just really smart, so she really anchors our defense. She understands the game, the game flows down for her, and she sees things around her and she just helped so much defensively.”

Mompremier is only in her second year in the WNBA, but her veteran status on the team has made her another valuable player in camp. Mompremier played her first season overseas in Hungary with UNI Gyor, where she averaged 17.0 points and 11.7 rebounds. Miller spoke very highly of Mompremier’s development overseas. 

“I think with the added strength, the added weight that she brings back into the season, that you're going to see that in stretches,” Miller said. “Her challenge will be the consistency night in and night out at the offensive end, but we're really excited.”

Jones had only been at practice for one day when Mompremier spoke to the press on Wednesday, but Mompremier said having Jones in camp has already made an impact on the two areas that Miller wants Mompremier to focus her development on  — building her confidence and increasing her offensive consistency. 

“I get to play with Bri Jones — getting more reps on her, defending her, her defending me. Just taking my time in the post. Moving out, not rushing,” Mompremier said. “If I can score on Bri Jones, then I can pretty much score on anybody in the league.”

Sun waive five players to whittle the competition down to eight

The Sun waived Kai James, Vionise Pierre-Louis, Sydney Wallace, and Teana Muldrow on Wednesday, and then waived Connecticut native Tanaya Atkinson on Sunday. That leaves five free agents and three draftees competing for an expected two roster spots. 

“I think they all have stretches where they look like they belong, and then they've all had stretches where the game looks too fast and they're thinking so much, Miller said. “But they’ve all had stretches. (I’m) pleased with all of them.”

“That group that got through our first wave: Stephanie Jones, like Brionna (Jones), picks up things really quickly. Very good basketball mind and is just really solid; Morgan Bertsch has a fast explosiveness about her game. She can also pick and pop and give you a spacing post player; … Feyonda Fitzgerald is running that second unit a lot. There’s great individual battles with her and Natisha Hiedeman. They’re really challenging each other.”

Kamiah Smalls made her training camp debut on Sunday and instantly added a perimeter shot to camp. Miller said she quickly became the best three-point shooter in camp.

“For someone that is just learning through film and not been able to join us yet, I thought Kamiah did an excellent job at practice one,” Miller said. “She made some threes for us, helped us space the floor. She's the person that when she takes a three-point shot you just don't expect it to miss. So she brings us an immediate and excellent additional three-point shooter.”

Smalls has somewhat of an edge in camp since she is the only player among the newcomers to have WNBA experience. She finished last season with Indiana and appeared in their final 12 games. She said her short time in Indiana gave her a chance to experience the faster and more physical play in the WNBA and pinpoint what she needed to improve to make it in the league. 

“Whether it was getting stronger in the offseason, working on stronger finishes around the basket. I'll be going to be against, taller players, a lot of bigger players so, you know, adding more pump fakes into my game, adding a floater game to my game,” Smalls said. “Indiana really just set me up to really prepare me to prepare my game for the next level.”

The Sun now have 13 total players available in camp, and will finalize the opening day roster by no later than 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, May 13.

Sun are “a long way” from having all starters back in Connecticut

Jasmine Thomas, Briann January, and Jonquel Jones are not in camp yet, and the team is “a long way to getting the three starters back,” Miller said on Friday. 

“Essentially we're running camp without four starters, with AT’s injury, and three starters who may or may not make it back by their first game,” Miller said. “We’re just trying to build a chemistry with who we have here and do the best we can.”

Thomas and January are still playing in league championships overseas, and Jones is taking a mental health break after returning to the U.S. after an undefeated season with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. 

Fenerbahçe, Thomas’s team in Turkey, has made it to the league championship, but it hasn’t begun yet since the other semi-finals series was delayed because of COVID. Miller said he had hoped January would be in camp sooner, but her team’s final series in Hungary is taking longer than expected. 

While the Sun is anxious for their starters to return, Miller also said that he was concerned about physical and mental fatigue for players who don’t get an offseason before reporting to camp.

“What I worry about is the mental fatigue, and that's what we speak of with JJ and giving her some mental health days to take a deep breath and be able to transition from her Russian league championship, her Euroleague championship, and be able to come in and be in a good place mentally,” Miller said.

With only 11 days until the Sun’s season starts, Miller doesn’t know how much time he’ll get with his core group before opening day but did say Jonquel Jones will be eligible for the first game against Atlanta on May 14.

Sun’s first scrimmage will serve as another teaching opportunity

Connecticut will meet the New York Liberty for a closed scrimmage at 6 p.m. ET Monday night at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Sun will close out the preseason schedule in Dallas for a preseason game on Saturday, May 8. 

A scrimmage differs from a preseason game in that teams can do what’s best for each other. Miller said the teams will play a true first half, and more than likely play a true game through the first three quarters, before playing shorter segments for the teams to try different scenarios and work on things they both want to work on. 

Miller plans to play some of his veterans, but the scrimmage will serve as another opportunity for the coaching staff to teach their young group of players fighting for a final spot on the team. 

“As a coach it sounds funny, but you truly hope to be exposed in some areas so you can get back into the film room and be able to talk about things that exposed you,” Miller said. “The best thing about exhibition is the teaching tape that comes after it.”