As Ogwumike Re-Emerges, Jones Fades In Connecticut

 

By Patrick Ralph

 

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One of the breakout teams last season in the WNBA was the Connecticut Sun, who finished with the second-best record in the East and earned both a home playoff game and first-round bye in 2017.

However, with higher expectations coming into this year, the 2018 season has been a rollercoaster for Connecticut. After starting the season winning seven of their first eight games, the Sun then dropped seven of their next 10 games before winning two straight to right the ship.

One of the reasons for Connecticut’s up-and-down season thus far has been the struggles of Jonquel Jones. Last season, Jones was the breakout star in the WNBA as she earned her first All-Star Game appearance and was named the league’s Most Improved Player.

She finished the year with 20 double-doubles and corralled 404 rebounds to break the single-season record previously held by Tina Charles. She finished the season with career highs in points (15.4 per game), rebounds (11.9), blocks (1.5), field goal percentage (53.4 percent), and three-point percentage (44.6 percent), all of which were a team best last year.

Jones’ rebounding numbers were a league best, as her play during her second WNBA season put her firmly in the conversation for league MVP. She finished second in the league in three-point percentage, third in offensive rating, offensive win shares and overall win shares, fifth in player efficiency rating and in the top 10 in blocks, field goal percentage, defensive rating and defensive win shares.

But 2018 has not been kind to Jones. After averaging almost 29 minutes per game last year and starting in every game, Jones is now playing less than 20 minutes per game and has had to come off the bench several times for Connecticut. Jones’ points, rebounds, and blocks per game, as well as her field goal and three-point percentages, are all down this year. In fact, Jones’ field goal percentage is a career low.

Jones now ranks third on the Sun in both field-goal percentage (48.3 percentage) and three-point percentage (39.3 percentage), as well as fourth on the team in rebounds (4.9 per game) and sixth on the team in points per game (8.5).

So what has led to Jones’ disappointing third season in the WNBA? For starters, missing all of training camp and joining the team just one day before the season began did not help Jones’ cause.

But there’s a larger issue at play here for why Jones has not been the same player this season for Connecticut, and it is because of the player she replaced last season in the starting lineup.

After missing all of the 2017 season due to an injury, All-Star Chiney Ogwumike returned to the Sun healthy and ready to go this season. Ogwumike, who is expected to make the All-Star Game again this year, has played well in her return to the team this season.

Rather than Jones, it is now Ogwumike who leads the team in both points per game (15.0) and field goal percentage (60.3 percentage). She also ranks second on the team in rebounds per game (7.5).

Ogwumike’s field goal percentage and offensive rating rank first in the league, while her rebounding numbers, player efficiency rating, two-point field goals made, offensive win share, and overall win share all rank in the top 10 in the WNBA this season.

Essentially, Ogwumike has replaced in 2018 what Jones was doing in 2017 for Connecticut. She has taken a number of the touches and shots away from what Jones had last year, as Jones’ field goals attempted and made have both dropped this season.

Coming into the season, many were intrigued to see how Ogwumike would fit back into a deep and talented Connecticut team that many expected to take the next step this year. Seeing her play alongside Jones and Alyssa Thomas was a sight that many were looking forward to.

Instead, the fit with Jones and Ogwumike has not worked so far this season.

“The hardest part is combination of what and who [Jones] plays best with,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “Chiney, for a significant part of the season, has led the WNBA in field goal percentage. Chiney is a talented player around the rim. So that forces, when they play together, JJ to be perimeter-oriented more. So sometimes when she doesn’t have things going on the perimeter, it’s not always the best combination. Without training camp, without practice opportunities in this condensed season, those things are hard to figure out.”

Last year, Jones primarily played the center position with Thomas at the power forward spot. While she can play forward, Jones is a natural center due to her size who happens to be able to stretch the floor with her shooting.

On the other hand, Ogwumike is a natural center because of her ability to dominate the paint both as a scorer and rebounder. While she can play forward, Ogwumike has been an ideal fit at the five spot for Miller because she is not a threat to shoot along the perimeter like Jones is.

Therefore, either player is all but likely to play out of position when both are on the floor together. So far this year, Miller has given the lion’s share of minutes and opportunities offensively to Ogwumike. She has started in every game she has played this season.

Jones is playing out of position if she starts alongside Ogwumike and Thomas. It also means that she has to come off the bench in order to play that ideal role she fits into with the Sun. Needless to say, neither Jones nor Ogwumike are bench players.

With Jones’ ability to shoot, one could make the case for her to start at the other forward position for the Sun. However, the problem with that is Jones would likely get matched up defensively against a smaller, quicker wing player. Not to mention, at a time when teams are playing smaller and the pace of the game in the WNBA has increased, too much size on the floor could be a liability when opponents are looking to play fast in transition and get down the floor.

Given the lack of fit that exists there, it forces one to consider whether or not Connecticut is the best place for Jones to continue her career. As long as Ogwumike is there, it just might not be if the fit cannot be figured out.

The Sun would have no problem getting a good haul in return for Jones in a trade because of her potential on both ends of the floor. It is hard to find a player who can score, rebound, defend, and stretch the floor like Jones can.

The talent with Jones is clearly there. It’s not a question of whether or not 2017 was a fluke season for her. The question is whether or not Connecticut is the best place for Jones to develop into a star.