The Connecticut Sun are 3-0 and have come out the gates swinging in the WNBA’s 27th season, staking their claim as a team to respect. That seems like a no brainer considering the Sun are coming off of a competitive Finals appearance, but given the roster turnover, particularly fulfilling former MVP Jonquel Jones’ trade request to the Liberty, there were questions about where the Sun would land in the league’s hierarchy this season.
Through the first week of the season, the Sun certainly seem to still possess much of what’s made them one of the best teams in the W over the last half decade, but with different layers as they have an entirely new coaching staff and five new rotation players,
Franchise star Alyssa Thomas was already an MVP frontrunner heading into the year, and that case only appears stronger in the early throes of the season; heightened pace and better spacing has created a more open and flowing offense.
“It’s just fun offensively. We have so many different options, you’ll see us in many different positions, it’s not just a one-dimensional offense where you pass it from side to side and it’s fun what we’re able to do and other teams don’t know what we’re doing,” said Thomas after an 88-81 win over the Mystics on Tuesday, before laughing with Brionna Jones that the Sun don’t always know what they’re doing either yet.
“We’re still working out the kinks, but once we get it and start clicking, it’s gonna be really scary.”
Particularly on the defensive side of the ball, the Sun have more length and athleticism in the guard and wing group than they have during the last few seasons. They used that to their advantage on Tuesday, deploying a trapping defense against Mystics’ star Elena Delle Donne to try and change the pacing of the game, throw her off rhythm, and take advantage of some of Washington’s other personnel.
They’ve been comfortable throwing out hedges, switching more, and relying on communication to play a more aggressive style of defense than they did last season, which asks even more from their bigs to be versatile. Second year pro and first year Sun player Olivia Nelson-Ododa, acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks in the offseason, has brought a new dimension to the team that players and coaches alike have praised.
“I love what Olivia’s been bringing these last few games,” said Jones. “She’s given us great minutes defensively, offensively she’s made some great moves. I’m excited to see her grow with us.”
Nelson-Ododa is a different kind of presence for the Sun, capable of altering and deterring shots around the rim with her length and positioning. Standing at 6’5 with a significant wingspan, that’s been felt in earnest by opposing offenses. Her deterrence extends out to the perimeter, however, part of what separates her from other bigs with shot-blocking skills.
Connecticut’s staff is in experimentation mode early this year, and they’ve gotten crafty with Nelson-Ododa’s versatility. They allow her to switch if a screen is well set on guards, especially on the sides of the court where she can use the baseline as an additional buffer. They’ve played her in a higher drop, allowing her to use her length and mobility to stop drives before they get deep into the paint.
Her help principles and ability to recover to the rim are showing real high level flashes.
While Elena Delle Donne ends up besting Nelson-Ododa with the putback in this clip, the process is good. That’s one you live with when you’re facing an all-time great who has a wealth of counters at their disposal.
Against frontcourt players with shiftier handles and face-up games, Nelson-Ododa has shown a keen ability to ride out drives and use her length to challenge, contest, and outright smother attempts.
She showcased her defensive potential last season as a rookie, but with improved strength, something she said was a focus during her W offseason when she played overseas in the WNBL, that potential is parlaying into positive production. Sun head coach Stephanie White was excited about Nelson-Ododa as soon as the trade happened, and has been impressed early with how she’s stepped up.
“I keep telling people, there’s no substitute for experience. She just needs time, she needs reps in this league, but she gives us something that we haven’t had in a rim protector, that’s something we’ve needed,” said White.
She hinted that Nelson-Ododa’s skill set will continue to develop on the offensive end with more playing time; the fruits of her work in Australia have already been felt, putting together face-up moves with more polish and coordination than last season or in college.
She struggled at times last year as a rim finisher or on post-ups, deterred by stronger bigs. With her own improvements in that department, her heightened physicality has paid off early; it’s a small sample size to be certain, but she’s gotten to the line 15 times already through three games. It won’t hold or look as wonky in another week or so, but she has the second highest free throw rate in the league at present. Improvement in playing with force and through contact will be worth tracking all season.
“In the meantime while that (development) happens, she makes the right play,” White said. “She’s good with the ball in her hands, she understands the reads that we’re trying to get. I wouldn’t call her a surprise, but she’s been able to come in and play longer periods of minutes strung together than what we anticipated. … She’s got a bright future ahead of her, I’ve been really pleased.”
The season is young, the Sun are still figuring out what a more concrete rotation pattern will look like, but Olivia Nelson-Ododa has quickly asserted herself, showcased her improvements, and appears to be on an enticing path towards unlocking her potential while opening new looks for a team looking to build off of a Finals run.