The Connecticut Sun in their current iteration are a stark juxtaposition from the group that just made a Finals run last season.
They still lay the foundation with tough defense (2nd in defensive rating in the W), but after star center Brionna Jones’ season-ending Achilles injury early in the year, the Sun have fully leaned into a 4 and 5 out approach, a far cry from how they ran their offense last season.
Last season’s halfcourt offense was predicated by pounding the paint through the post, attacking with high low, and a more methodical approach. This season, Connecticut plays with more motion.
They have a deeper bench and rotation. There’s more shooting across the roster, opening up cutting and driving lanes that didn’t exist with the same consistency last year.
Fully leaning into Alyssa Thomas’ one-of-a-kind skillset as a playmaking hub, Sun wing DiJonai Carrington is amidst a breakout season in her third year.
Can't say enough about how much I've enjoyed DiJonai Carrington this year. Feel like I've seen her swipe and score a hundred times this year like this pic.twitter.com/NVhddqgeyn
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) July 20, 2022
Since becoming a mainstay in the rotation, playing double digit minutes in every game since June 11th, Carrington is averaging 11.5 points per game, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.5 assists.
37.6% of Carrington’s shots come at the rim, the largest percentage on the team in the active rotation. 65.3% of her total attempts come within 10 feet of the basket, the highest amount on the team outside of Alyssa Thomas and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
For context, the next closest player to Carrington listed as a guard in rim frequency is Courtney Vandersloot at 33.2% according to basketball reference.
As All-Star and leading scorer DeWanna Bonner put it with a grin: “We are VERY different, because I am NOT going in there like that! I think she’s the most aggressive attacker we have on our team. No matter who is in front of her or what is in front of her, she is gonna get to that basket.”
Carrington is shooting 45.2% from deep over that span as well (13 games), something Head Coach Stephanie White noted as Carrington’s largest improvement this season in her eyes, finding more consistency from deep.
“She’s been making the right plays, finding the right pass, knocking down three-point shots,” White said. “…She’s been in the gym.”
Much of Connecticut’s offense is playing outside-in, reading and reacting the defense to attack with cuts, drives, and continuous offense to poke and prod for better openings with motion.
The team is still learning the system during the season, ironing out reads, sharpening how they see the game, and letting it come to them, something Thomas elaborated on in prior pressers with a laugh.
“The defense doesn’t know what we’re running, but sometimes we don’t either,” Thomas said.
Carrington says that at first, she didn’t have a full grasp of White’s vision for the offense.
“Now, I see the spacing she wants and what she’s looking for; read-and-react, driving, attacking close-outs and making the right read,” Carrington said. “It’s definitely been very good for my game and I think that’s why I’ve been able to thrive as I’ve gotten more comfortable in it.”
She’s always been a strong and forceful downhill driver, but this season, she’s found an extra gear, an added ability to slow down, which in turn makes her power pop even more.
Carrington has taken a new approach in watching film this year, pausing possessions when she gets into the paint, breaking down what she did, and how she can adjust in the future.
“I can see, OK, now I’ve drawn one, two, three defenders and I can see where the kickouts are,” Carrington said. “It’s kind of hard to see in live action, but you go back and watch it and you can really see what’s open, and I can take that into the next game and next practice.”
Carrington currently carries the highest assist rate and lowest turnover rate of her career, a direct attribute to her improved ability to scan the second and third level of the defense.
The reads are simple, but routine effectiveness in simplicity is huge, especially in establishing consistency as a young player.
These weren’t reads that were always available to Carrington last season. With more space and room to operate, her skillset hits differently for Connecticut.
Bonner says that teams are guarding Carrington more tightly because of her improved shooting in volume, in turn opening up more opportunities to get downhill.
“I’m just very proud of her reading (the court),” Bonner said. “I think she took a huge step this year in reading the game more and finishing at the basket. That’s the type of aggressiveness we need from her.”
That aggression has always been there, but the refinement, as Bonner mentions, has been pivotal.
What I'm getting at: that jump into/out of the gather is the big difference for me
Was more of a line drive her first two years, but has added a little change of pace and some refinement in how she tries to finishes and that nuance matters a ton pic.twitter.com/y8SJDhzmXN
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) June 30, 2023
Carrington has embraced contact more this season. Getting to the rim has never been a problem for her, but finding more confidence as a finisher has been huge for her growth, an understandable barrier coming off of an off-season knee surgery, her sixth, including three reconstructive surgeries.
“I think before, I was taking my steps further out, because I was trying to fade a little bit,” Carrington said. “Now, I’m more confident in my body and in my strength, so I’m going into the contact more. So it looks more sturdy and my steps are starting a little bit later… it’s not that I’m seeking out contact, but I’m encouraging it.”
To start the year, she didn’t have confidence in her knee. She felt uncertain about it in playing through physicality.
But, through getting more reps in practice and in-game, along with extra individual work with former teammate, now assistant coach, Briann January, Carrington has literally and figuratively found her stride.
“Earlier in the season, I know that there was some frustration on her end, but she was working back from injury, and I think that she really got intentional about her rehab and her pre-hab before a game as her activation — everything that she has to do to get her body ready to go out there,” White said.
“DiJonai has progressed every single year and positioned herself to not just come in and give us an impact because of her energy, but because of her impact and production, and we need that.”