They started off 5-0, and even now, at 9-5 entering Sunday, are better than nine of the W.N.B.A.’s dozen teams. The Connecticut Sun also are, somewhat unexpectedly, atop the Eastern Conference standings. They made it to the league semifinals in the IMG Academy bubble last season, but weren’t projected to be a title-contending team in 2021.
Part of their sudden success can be attributed to chemistry, some of which has been in the making long before several players arrived in Connecticut.
“We played for years together,” the rookie forward Stephanie Jones said. “Like, me and Kaila Charles, we played for years, and then me and my sister for a year, and having the background there, we all know where each other comes from in Maryland.”
Jones is in her first year in the league after a college career with Maryland, where she played for four seasons alongside Charles. Her older sister, Brionna Jones, has been with the Sun for five years after playing at Maryland with Stephanie for one season and another with the Suns’ veteran forward Alyssa Thomas.
Thomas is out this season with an Achilles’ tendon tear, but she is one of the most notable Terps in the league when healthy. Her presence alone on the Suns’ bench has had an impact this year.
“Having a background with A.T., even just her being on the sidelines, like she understands where me and Kaila come from and what we’re doing,” Stephanie Jones said. “She gets what we went through those four years. Her communication with us makes our chemistry great.”
Jones didn’t find a roster spot right out of college and wasn’t in the W.N.B.A. last season. The Sun selected Charles in the second round of the 2020 draft with the No. 23 overall pick, and she made an impact right away, averaging 5.4 points and 2.6 rebounds over 17.9 minutes per game.
At Maryland, Charles was one of six players in the school’s history to crack the top 10 in career points and rebounds. She started all her games at Maryland, tying Thomas’s record of starting 135 games. Charles hasn’t played as much yet this season, with returning players and a deeper roster, but Thomas has still taken notice of her fellow Terps’ development.
“I haven’t been able to play with her yet, but watching her grow as a pro, seeing that in Florida, she’s done a good job,” Thomas said. “She’s having a good second year. There’s a lot more room to grow, but she’ll keep getting better each and every year.”
While Charles was forging a pro career, Jones was still looking to make a roster, spending her 2020 season in Poland. She signed a training camp contract with the Sun in March and played her way onto the final roster. She has appeared in seven of the Sun’s first 14 games, averaging 2.3 points in seven minutes per game.
Part of her comfort level has been playing with her sister.
“It’s one thing playing together in college, but in the pros, that was always a dream,” Brionna Jones said. “To get to the league and then play with my sister, that’s really special. I’m always in her ear trying to help her along, do everything I can to make the experience good for her and make sure she’s catching all the little nuances I missed out on my rookie season.”
Brionna Jones and Thomas also play overseas for the same team, USK Praha, so their connection has run through a few avenues.
“We can’t get rid of each other,” Thomas said. “We love playing with each other. We know each other’s game so well each and every night.”
She added: “I just love going out there and playing with her, and even off the court, we hang out all the time. We’ve had years getting to know each other.”
Thomas is Maryland’s career leading scorer and rebounder, whose record is unmatched in both the women’s and men’s programs.
Her impact on Maryland has almost certainly been one reason Coach Brenda Frese can recruit as well as she does, and Maryland has been a destination program in the last decade.
Charles and Stephanie Jones felt that impact, too.
“They’re always going to push you to be your best,” Charles said. “Like, Coach always talked about being comfortable being uncomfortable. And that’s one thing that really sets us up to play at the next level, because just to be able to develop your game, you have to not be comfortable and still be able to be successful.”
The Sun have been playing without Jonquel Jones, who could be a candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award and has been competing in the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2021 for Bosnia and Herzegovina. She has missed four games but could return soon.
The Sun’s first game without her and her 21.6 points per game was a loss to Seattle, the first Sun home loss of the season. Her absence leaves room for one of the young Terps, like Charles or Stephanie Jones, to step up.
Last season, it was Brionna Jones who took charge with Jonquel Jones out of the lineup after opting out of the 2020 season. Brionna became one of the Sun’s most consistent players, which has carried over to this season with 13.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game in more than 30 minutes per contest so far.
At this point, the group is used to playing without some of its best talent. Last season, the Sun found ways to still succeed; Charles was a part of that, her rookie year, and said she was still learning.
“This feels like year two of my rookie year,” she said. “Everything is kind of new still, playing in different arenas, adding the travel component to go with the game, having the fans back in the arena also makes things completely different than last year.”
The Sun have already proved they can contend when it’s unexpected, and perhaps the Maryland bond of the Jones sisters, Thomas and Charles is helping.
They certainly think so.
“As a team we like each other so much, and we get along off the court, too,” Brionna Jones said. “So I think that allows us to have success on the court.”
“It’s easy for us to talk to each other,” she continued, “to hold each other accountable, and I think that helped us a lot down the stretch last year. It allows us to be successful now. When you know people and care about them, you trust them. I think that makes it easier to succeed.”