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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.

Clark, Martin Square Off in First Pro WNBA Matchup

Kate Martin #20 of the Las Vegas Aces and Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever look on during the game
Things looked a little different Saturday night as the former Iowa teammates went head-to-head in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa teammates Caitlin Clark and Kate Martin shared the court once again on Saturday, this time as professionals.

It was Martin’s Aces that got the 99-80 win over Clark’s Fever in Las Vegas. The pair's former coaches Lisa Bluder, Jan Jensen, Jenni Fitzgerald, and Raina Harmon were all in attendance to watch their Hawkeyes — Clark, Martin, and former national player of the year Megan Gustafson — take the court.

"It’s super special. It’s cool for our program, cool for Lisa, for Coach Jan, for all of them," Clark said in a pregame press conference. "They’ve known me since I’ve been 13 years old and now I’m 22 getting to live out my dream and they’ve been a huge part of that and helping me get here and helping Megan and Kate to get here too. It’s a great moment for them and I’m sure they’re not complaining about a trip to Vegas."

As for her college teammate, Clark had nothing but good things to say ahead of the showdown. 

"I’m just really happy for her and everything Coach [Becky] Hammon says about her is so true," she said. "Every person that played at Iowa and was around her knows that to be true. She’s the ultimate teammate, ultimate person, ultimate leader."

In the end, Martin stole the show with 12 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes, while Clark amassed eight points, seven assists, and five rebounds over 29 minutes of playing time. 

"It was weird," Martin admitted after the game. "I'm not going to lie — just looking out on the court and seeing her in a different jersey than me, it was obviously different. But it's really fun. We're both living out our dreams right now."

The Aces next meet the fever on July 2nd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Barcelona Beat Lyon to Win Back-to-Back Champions League Titles

Barcelona's Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas celebrating after beating Lyon at the 2024 Champions League final
Ballon d'Or winners Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas helped Barcelona to a second-straight UWCL title on Saturday. (Ramsey Cardy - Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Barcelona was crowned champion of the Champions League on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Lyon in Bilbao.

Alexia "La Reina" Putellas, who recently re-signed with Barcelona, came off the bench to score the team's second goal. Fellow Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí provided the team’s first. After the game, defender Lucy Bronze said Putellas was nicknamed "the queen" for a reason.

"Alexia is the captain of the team and she's the queen of Barcelona for a reason,"  defender Lucy Bronze told DAZN. "She's got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and it just sealed the win for us. It was amazing."

The victory marked Barcelona's first win over Lyon in a UWCL final, having previously gone up against the French side at both the 2019 and 2022 Champions League finals. It's also Barcelona's second Champions League title in a row.

"It's hard to win it once, but to do it back-to-back, Lyon showed how difficult it is and this team has finally done that," Bronze said. "I think we go down in history as one of the best teams in Europe."

This season, the team also secured a quadruple for the first time in club history, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. The win ensures that coach Jonatan Giráldez — who has officially departed the team to join the NWSL's Washington Spirit — leaves Europe a champion.

"It was an incredible game. I am really happy, it's one of the best days of my life for sure," Giráldez told broadcaster DAZN after the game. "We did an amazing job. I am very proud of all of them."

Following the win, Putellas said her team "can't ask for anything else."

"Our objective was to win four out of four," the Spain international told reporters. "We have achieved everything we wanted. Every minute of sacrifice has been worth the effort — and I'd say that not after the game, but before, just entering in the stadium, with all the support we had here, it was worth it."

2024 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Aitana Bonmatí said that the crowd support made it "feel like Camp Nou."

"I am on cloud nine right now," she said. "It is an historic day which we will remember forever."

Sun’s Alyssa Thomas Ejected After Flagrant 2 on Sky Rookie Angel Reese

Angel Reese said there were "no hard feelings" stemming from Alyssa Thomas's flagrant foul. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Angel Reese might have gotten knocked down on Saturday, but she got right back up again. 

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas was ejected from the Sun’s 86-82 win over Chicago following a flagrant foul 2 on Reese — the first of her career. While the two were battling for a rebound, Reese took a clothesline hold around the neck courtesy of Thomas before hitting the ground.

After the game, Reese told reporters that there were "no hard feelings" and she appreciated Thomas for playing her hard beneath the basket.

"I know she purposely probably didn’t do it towards me," Reese said. "But just being able to come out there and just be strong and stand on two feet, it was going to be a tough game and that’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game. So I was prepared for it."

She also didn’t buy into the idea that it was a "Welcome to the WNBA" moment, but thanked Thomas "sending a message" because it helped her get back up and "keep pushing."

"It’s not just because I’m a rookie. I’m a player. I’m a basketball player. They don’t give a damn if I’m a rookie. I mean, I want them to come at me every day. I want them to come at everybody," she added. "I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y’all know that. They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or because I’m a rookie."

Reese finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists over 33 minutes.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

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