all scores

The patient steps behind Brionna Jones’ meteoric rise in the WNBA

(Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)

A month before the start of the 2020 “wubble” in Bradenton, Fla., during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, All-Star center Jonquel Jones told the Connecticut Sun that she was opting out of the season to remain in the Bahamas. Soon after, head coach Curt Miller sat down with Brionna Jones, his backup center, and told her point blank that she needed to step up and fill the hole in the starting lineup.

Jones walked away from the conversation with a newfound purpose.

“I realized all my preparation was getting me ready for that moment,” she says.

When the 2020 season finally tipped off, Jones didn’t just step up in JJ’s absence — she stomped onto the court and left her footprints all over it. After averaging 3.1 points in 7.9 minutes per game across her first three seasons, in the bubble, Jones’ production jumped up to 11.2 points in 26.1 minutes on 60.5 percent shooting. The Sun finished the season seventh overall at 10-12 and advanced to the semifinals of the playoffs, where they lost to the Las Vegas Aces.

It was a successful season for Connecticut overall, considering their shortened bench and the complex playing environment. They came together as a team through adversity, becoming only the third squad in WNBA history to reach the playoffs after starting the season 0-5.

For Jones individually, the 2020 season was a coming out party that appeared to happen overnight.

“It might seem like a flip of the switch, but there were a lot of things that led up to it,” Jones says. “There’s a lot behind the scenes — like watching a lot of film, getting in the gym, working on my game. It was slow going.”

Jones’ basketball evolution didn’t begin in 2020, and it didn’t end there either. It’s an ongoing journey that she’s been working hard at every step of the way.

Jones shined for the Sun in her first season as a full-time starter. (Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

When Connecticut selected Jones with the eighth overall pick in 2017, Miller was looking to add frontcourt depth to an already stacked Sun team. Jones was a standout at Maryland for the better part of her career, averaging 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds as a senior, and Miller liked the potential he saw in her.

“I think the thing that stuck out, being in the Big Ten myself, was her efficiency. She was consistently at the top or in the top five in the nation in field-goal percentage,” Miller says. “I truly value efficiency, and I believe there are things that translate [to the pros]. The other thing is that I felt you saw growth, you saw development from the time she arrived at Maryland as a freshman to the time she graduated.”

Miller appreciated Jones’ work ethic and her ability to add different skills to her game. Most of all, he didn’t think she had reached her ceiling. At that point in the draft, it wasn’t about position or need. Miller believed Jones was the best player available on the board, and the Sun could give her the time she needed to learn and grow.

It ended up being the perfect situation for Jones, too.

“Coming straight out of college and playing as much as I did and as well as I was in college, it was a little shock coming into the league,” Jones says. “I was barely playing those first couple of years, trying to stay positive and also knowing there’s some things in my game that I needed to work on.”

The adjustment from the college to professional level can be difficult to navigate, even for first-round draft picks in the WNBA. The game is faster, the competition is tougher, the opponents are stronger, the systems are more complex, and not every player has the luxury of developing in the background since teams have to adhere to a tight salary cap.

With the benefit of time in Connecticut, Jones worked on improving her quickness in the paint and making better decisions with the pick-and-roll on offense and with her slide-and-help defense.

“Experience in these situations — they’re already making reads before I even knew what I was doing in the game,” she says. “I’m more of an IQ player, so knowing where things are happening and when it’s happening, I feel like that was the biggest adjustment for me.”

“The speed of the game impacts all the way from point guards to center, and overall athleticism,” says Miller. “[Jones needed to work on] speed and athleticism. She was a really big center in the Big Ten at 6-3. In the WNBA, that’s considered a short center. Playing against players clearly bigger than her height-wise I thought was an adjustment for her.”

When Curt Miller drafted Jones in 2017, he knew she had just scratched the surface of her potential. (Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As Jones sat and waited her turn, she worked on her quickness and post moves. She also focused on staying mentally ready and not getting down on herself. She wanted her Sun teammates to know she was there to support them, but also to learn and grow.

“For me, it was all about taking the opportunity when it came and just continue to get in the gym, still work on my game in practice, and show what I could do in practice,” Jones says. “I think that was big for me. Having that practice time helped me to see that I was still doing good things in practice, so when it came time to get on the court, I knew I’d be ready.”

Like a lot of players who don’t have immediate success in the WNBA, Jones went overseas. There, she was able to play the kind of minutes she wasn’t getting initially with the Sun, and compete against both top European players and WNBA talent.

Jones’ biggest leap came in 2019, when she joined EuroLeague club USK Praha in Prague. Former Maryland and current Sun teammate Alyssa Thomas had been with Praha since 2018 and pushed for them to sign Jones, who averaged 17.7 points and 10.8 rebounds that 2019 season.

“Having AT in my ear all the time definitely helped me a lot,” Jones says. “I’ve known her for a very long time. She was just giving me tips offensively, defensively that I could do and that helped me translate more when I returned to the WNBA.”

“Me and Bri go back all the way to college. When she joined our team, I had already known so much about her and her game,” adds Thomas. “Now we play every year together.”

Entering the bubble season with confidence, Jones emerged as one of the top players in the WNBA in 2020. The Sun subsequently rewarded her with a two-year, $120,000 contract extension. And in 2021, she backed it up, winning Most Improved Player of the Year and earning a spot on the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team and in the All-Star Game for the first time in her career. Back with USK Praha this past season, she finished second in scoring with 20.9 points per game during the regular season and was named to the All-EuroLeague Second Team.

Jones knew she was putting in the work and doing everything she could to grow her game, but until she saw the hardware, she couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else had noticed.

“It was everything to me to get recognized as Most Improved Player out of everybody that had changed their game that season as well,” Jones says. “For me, it was just the affirmation that, like, I put in all this hard work behind the scenes and I got to show for it at the end of the season.

“And then, I don’t want to end there. I want to keep working and keep getting better and still try to improve my game every season.”

Jones and Alyssa Thomas reunited in Connecticut and Prague after playing together at Maryland. (Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Stephanie Jones has always looked up to her older sister. They are the only siblings to play together on the same team at the middle school, high school, college and professional level, where they teamed up again on the Sun in 2020.

Stephanie remembers sitting next to Jones when she got the call about being voted to the 2021 All-Star team. They both started crying. “We just had a moment, like is this really happening?” Stephanie says. “I mean, we all saw it coming because she works so hard.”

Jones’ admiration for her younger sister runs just as deep. For as hard as she’s worked to get to where she is today, Stephanie’s WNBA moment in 2020 gave her a new appreciation of the journey.

“When [Stephanie] told me that she made the team [in 2020], I was more excited than her,” Jones says. “Because she didn’t have the same path as I did. She didn’t get drafted, so being able to see her work for that, go overseas and play and come in and make the team the next season, I was just so proud of her.”

This season, Jones has added more versatility to her game and is averaging 13.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game with a top-10 player efficiency rating of 23.0. She’s currently third overall in win shares with 4.6 and listed as one of the top 10 players of 2022 by Her Hoop Stats — all while coming off the bench and sharing the floor with JJ, DeWanna Bonner and Thomas. Making her second WNBA All-Star appearance earlier this month, she enters the second half of the season with a strong case to win the Sixth Woman of the Year award.

Miller drafted Jones knowing she had yet to reach her ceiling, and he isn’t surprised that she exceeded even his expectations.

“She is an elite basketball mind. That allows her to just see the game so clearly, anticipate and be a proactive defender. It’s just really impressive,” he says. “What you hope you get in a very short courtship as you get to know people, she’s an elite human also. She’s really a pleasure to coach.”

“I’ve watched her grow as a player and a person. Her confidence — each and every year she adds something to her game,” says Thomas. “I tell her all the time I’m her No. 1 fan, No. 1 supporter. I just think now people realize how good she is … I know she has so much to give.”

After this season, Jones will be a free agent and will most likely be courted by a handful of teams around the league. But she isn’t thinking about that right now. She loves her team, she loves Connecticut. And the Sun, Jones says, have unfinished business.

They entered the 2021 playoffs with the league’s best record at 26-6 and were eliminated in the semifinals by the reigning WNBA champion Chicago Sky.

“The way last season went and the way we were rolling into the playoffs, there was a lot of excitement and everything. And then having AT come back, it felt like everything was clicking at the right time,” Jones says. “It just didn’t work out.”

Jones thinks Connecticut has figured out what went wrong. In close games this season, the team doesn’t panic, especially on the road. And with a veteran group, there’s a different feeling in the locker room and chemistry on the court. Currently fourth in the league standings at 16-9, the Sun believe they have what it takes to finally get over the hump and win the first WNBA title in franchise history.

No matter what happens at the end of the season, Jones will take it in stride. She’s learned that it’s not going to be “all roses” playing in the WNBA. All she can do is stay the course and continue to put in the work.

The 2020 season showed her what was possible. And when Miller told her that she came through for them in the bubble, lived up to the team’s expectations and that’s why they drafted her, it was just another affirmation. Jones ended up with the right team at the right time, and it made all the difference.

“The Sun gave me the space to grow,” Jones says. “And I’m grateful for that.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.