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As the 2023 WNBA playoffs begin, teams are still dealing with a number of injuries. Take the Washington Mystics, who will be without Shakira Austin for the first two games of their first-round series against the New York Liberty.

Just Women’s Sports is keeping tabs on the most notable WNBA injuries and, where possible, providing the timetable for the player’s return. This report also includes athletes who are missing the 2023 WNBA season due to pregnancy or maternity leave.

Injured WNBA players who could return this season

Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics

Second-year center Shakira Austin went down on June 25 with a hip strain. An MRI revealed that the injury doesn’t require surgery, but she missed nearly two months as a result.

Austin returned in mid-August in a win over Chicago but has remained limited in her minutes. Weeks later against the Aces, she re-injured the hip that had kept her out nearly two months. She will miss at least the first two games of the Mystics’ first-round series against the New York Liberty.

Candace Parker, Las Vegas Aces

The two-time WNBA MVP will be out indefinitely after undergoing surgery to repair a left foot fracture, the Las Vegas Aces announced in July.

Parker has been playing on the fracture all season, according to the team, but a recent consultation with doctors revealed that surgery was the best option to return to health and to avoid further injury.

After signing with Las Vegas in the offseason, Parker started the first 18 games of the season for the Aces, averaging 9.0 points per game.

WNBA players who have returned to the court

Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

The two-time WNBA MVP injured her left ankle on July 9, but she returned on Aug. 18. The 33-year-old started this season fully healthy for the first time in almost three years after dealing with back issues that kept her sidelined for a significant amount of time.

NaLyssa Smith, Indiana Fever

A stress fracture in her left foot was expected to keep the 22-year-old forward out for at least two weeks, the Fever announced on July 11.

Smith made her returned on Aug. 8 and has been instrumental for Indiana since then, including a career-high 30 points in the team’s overtime win over Dallas on Sunday.

Layshia Clarendon, Los Angeles Sparks

Clarendon returned on July 22, appearing for the first time since June 9. A partial tear of the right plantar fascia ligament in their foot had kept Clarendon off the floor.

Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury

Brittney Griner had been out since June 13 with a hip injury but made her return against the Storm on June 24, putting up 11 points and 6 rebounds through 20 minutes.

Ruthy Hebard, Chicago Sky

Hebard gave birth to her son, Xzavier Reid, in April. The Chicago Sky forward returned just 12 weeks later.

“All this has just shown me how much I love the game,” Hebard said one week before making her return on July 9. “I love being around my teammates. I just love everything about basketball. More than anything, I just want to be back.”

Aari McDonald, Atlanta Dream

The 24-year-old guard tore her labrum against the Las Vegas Aces on June 2, the Dream announced on June 6. She returned to action on July 20.

Diamond Miller, Minnesota Lynx

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft sprained her right ankle during Minnesota’s loss to the Dallas Wings on May 30. In a statement, the Lynx said Miller will “be reevaluated in the following weeks and further updates will be issued when available.” Miller scored a career-high 18 points in her return on June 27.

Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury

The Mercury also went without Diana Taurasi (hamstring) through three games (all double-digit losses). Taurasi returned on June 24, playing 19 minutes and putting up 13 points and 4 rebounds against Seattle.

Injured WNBA players out for the season

Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun

The Connecticut Sun announced on June 24 that Brionna Jones suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon in a game against the Seattle Storm on June 20 and underwent a successful surgery on June 23.

“While this is not how I envisioned this season ending for me, I am determined and ready to head into the next stage of recovery and rehab. I know I have an amazing support system behind me, and I will return on the other side of this stronger than ever,” Jones said in a statement.

Prior to the injury, Jones was first in the league in offensive rebounds (3.2/game), fifth in steals (1.8), and ninth in field goal percentage (57.1).

“We are heartbroken for Breezy. Anyone who knows her, knows she’s an amazing person, teammate and leader for our group,” said Connecticut Sun head coach Stephanie White.

“On the court, she has worked so hard to position herself as a cornerstone of our franchise and was playing terrific basketball. … As a team, we know we have a job to do, and we will dedicate our work toward the ultimate goal of winning a championship in a way that honors Breezy.”

Diamond DeShields, Dallas Wings

DeShields missed the regular season with a knee injury, and she remain out for the postseason.

While the 28-year-old guard appeared in a May 5 preseason game against Chicago, she did not travel for the team’s second preseason game out of precaution due to knee soreness. It’s unclear when she could make a return this season.

Rebekah Gardner, Chicago Sky

Gardner will miss the playoffs for Chicago. She missed most of the season after undergoing foot surgery for the break she sustained during a loss to the Washington Mystics on May 26.

Isabelle Harrison, Chicago Sky

The 29-year-old forward missed the season with a knee injury. The Sky revealed in May that Harrison would be out indefinitely after having surgery to repair a torn left meniscus. Harrison, who signed as a free agent with Chicago in February, has played six seasons in the WNBA.

Li Yueru, Chicago Sky

Li will miss the season with a non-WNBA injury, the Sky announced on May 18. She played for Chicago last season but missed the postseason to prepare for the 2022 World Cup with the Chinese national team.

Lou Lopez Sénéchal, Dallas Wings

The former UConn star underwent knee surgery during the first week of the season and missed the season as a result. The 25-year-old wing was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2023 draft.

Stephanie Talbot, Los Angeles Sparks

The 28-year-old forward signed with the Sparks in the offseason but tore her Achilles while playing for the Adelaide Lightning in Australia in February.

Kristi Toliver, Washington Mystics

The 36-year-old guard suffered a torn ACL in early September, which will sideline for the 2023 playoffs.

“I’m not going to lie: Emotionally, I’m shocked,” the Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne said. “You try to do the whole thing where you want to rally for [Toliver], but we were sick. Just sick. What she’s been through with her foot, how much she’s worked to get back — and she’s feeling good. She’s talking about even next year and all those things. To see something like that happen at this point in her career, it just sucks. … She’s such a great person. So it’s brutal.”

WNBA players out due to pregnancy or childbirth

Natalie Achonwa, Minnesota Lynx

Achonwa gave birth to her first child, son Maverick, in April and missed the WNBA season on maternity leave.

Achonwa, a member of the WNBA players’ union executive committee, helped negotiate for many of the pregnancy protections and maternity benefits that were included in the league’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement.

“Previously if you were out on maternity leave you’d get fifty per cent of your base salary,” Achonwa told SportsNet.

“I will receive my full salary this year whether I’m able to make it back or not — so pending clearance from doctors and trainers and stuff like that to see if I will make it back by the end of the year — but knowing that my family will be taken care of financially while I’m out on maternity leave was huge.”

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Phoenix Mercury

Diggins-Smith is out on maternity leave after giving birth to her second child during the WNBA offseason and her return timeline is unclear.

“I’m not really worried about snapping back,” she recently told Essence. “I just want to enjoy this time with my daughter.”

Katie Lou Samuelson, Los Angeles Sparks

Samuelson welcomed a baby girl in August, and her pregnancy kept out of the 2023 season. The 25-year-old forward averaged 9.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 29.5 minutes per game in 2022.

“Life is full of surprises and 2023 surprised us in the best way possible!” she wrote in a social media announcement of her pregnancy. “We can’t wait to welcome the newest member of our family!”

Emma Hruby and Alex Azzi contributed to this report. 

It may be the year of the superteams, but there is plenty of talent up and down the WNBA’s 12 teams as the league prepares to tip off its 27th season this weekend.

Still, it’s easy to see why New York and Las Vegas are the favorites to win the 2023 WNBA championship. The Aces and Liberty combine to have eight players on our list of the top 25 players in the league.

1. A’ja Wilson, F, Aces

The 2022 MVP led the Aces to their first-ever title last season, averaging 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals per contest. Wilson was an impact player on both ends of the floor, performing well in the most high-pressure situations. She had six double-doubles in 10 playoff games and played 40 or more minutes in three contests, including the championship-clinching win over Connecticut. With the Aces once again a favorite to win the WNBA title, Wilson will continue to be at the top of her game.

2. Breanna Stewart, F, Liberty

New team, same Breanna Stewart. The 6-4 forward brings scoring versatility to the court for New York, just like the 2018 MVP did for the Storm over her first six years in the league. Last season, Stewart averaged 21.8 points per game, tying her career-high and leading the WNBA as a whole. She also contributed 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. With more weapons around her in New York, Stewart likely won’t put up numbers as big, but her talent and impact won’t change.

3. Jonquel Jones, F, Liberty

Like Stewart, Jones will be adjusting to a new team and a new role. But with other elite scorers around her, Jones will have more freedom as defenses won’t be able to center their game plans around the 2021 MVP. The 6-6 forward averaged 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest with the Sun last season. Her ability to stretch the floor and shoot 3-pointers on offense is a major strength that opens up lanes for Jones and her teammates.

4. Elena Delle Donne, F, Mystics

After multiple back surgeries caused Delle Donne to miss games at the start of the 2022 season, the Mystics star ended up having a solid campaign. Her 17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game were some of her lowest totals over her nine-year WNBA career but impressive nonetheless. Now fully healthy, the 6-5 forward is poised to regain at least some of the form that vaulted her to WNBA MVP in 2015 and 2019. One highlight from last season was Delle Donne’s 2.3 assists per contest, the best mark of her career thus far.

5. Chelsea Gray, G, Aces

After winning the 2022 Finals MVP award, Gray solidified herself as the best point guard in the league. She averaged 21.7 points and seven assists per game during the playoffs, up from 13.7 and 6.1 in those same categories during the regular season. Gray proved herself invaluable during the title run, and the Aces wouldn’t have claimed the trophy without her. The guard was virtually unstoppable when she wanted to score, making 63.5% of her contested shot attempts.

Nneka Ogwumike (Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

6. Nneka Ogwumike, F, Sparks

The Sparks had a chaotic season in 2022, but there was one bright spot: Nneka Ogwumike. The 6-2 forward put up her best numbers since 2017, averaging 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 steals per game. Ogwumike helped keep the Sparks in playoff contention late into the season despite all the drama that surrounded her team. Her standout season is part of the reason new coach Curt Miller made it a priority to re-sign Ogwumike, and the 2016 MVP will be a cornerstone of the new-look Sparks this season.

7. Jewell Loyd, G, Storm

Loyd has played eight years in the WNBA and accomplished a rare feat of improving every season. Now, without Stewart and Sue Bird leading the Storm, Loyd will be thrust further into the spotlight, and the 29-year-old guard is ready. Loyd is one of the best shot-creators in the league, using her speed and athleticism to score off the bounce. During the 2022 playoffs, she proved she’s ready to be the team’s primary scorer, with 26 points in Seattle’s lone win over the Aces in the semifinals.

8. Kelsey Plum, G, Aces

After five seasons in the WNBA, Plum hit her stride last season, becoming a key piece to the Aces’ championship run while averaging the second-most points in the league with 20.2 per game. The guard also proved herself as more than a scorer, averaging a career-high 5.1 assists per game. As the Aces battle for another title, Plum will continue to be a cornerstone of the team’s offense.

9. Candace Parker, F, Aces

Parker, a 15-year WNBA veteran, has said retirement is coming soon. But when she plays, the 6-4 forward doesn’t look anywhere near ready to hang it up. Parker has always been a player who impacts every aspect of the game, and that won’t change in her first year in Las Vegas. After leading the Sky to a championship in 2021, the second of her career, she put up 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, one block and one steal per game last season.

Sabrina Ionescu (David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images)

10. Sabrina Ionescu, G, Liberty

New York locked down their former No. 1 draft pick with a contract extension through the 2025 season this week, and it’s easy to see why the franchise wants her around. In college, Ionescu earned the title of “Triple-Double Queen,” something she showed glimpses of last season in the WNBA. Her best performance came last July, when Ionescu had 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists against Las Vegas to record the WNBA’s first 30-point triple-double. After trading for Jonquel Jones and signing Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot, the Liberty will be atop the WNBA this season; and if they win a title, Ionescu will be a key piece to the puzzle.

11. Napheesa Collier, F, Lynx

The new mom missed last season on maternity leave after giving birth to daughter Mila. Collier is back for the 2023 campaign, ready to build on the 2020 and 2021 seasons in which she averaged 16 points per game. Collier is also a skilled rebounder and passer, averaging a career-high nine rebounds and 3.3 assists in 2020. The 2019 Rookie of the Year moves well with and without the ball. She has a proven ability to get to the rim and finish with strength, or pull up for a mid-range shot.

12. Kahleah Copper, G, Sky

After losing Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot to free agency, Copper is now the leader of the Chicago Sky. The 2021 Finals MVP is more than capable of taking on a primary scoring role after averaging a career-high 15.7 points per game last season. Copper is efficient around the rim, where her body control makes her difficult to stop. The 6-1 guard has also become more well-rounded as her career has progressed, averaging 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2022, both career highs.

13. Alyssa Thomas, F, Sun

Thomas is a do-it-all player for the Sun, and they will need her even more this season after trading Jonquel Jones to the Liberty. Thomas kept Connecticut alive against the Aces in the 2022 Finals with two triple-doubles in a row, marking the first and the second triple-doubles in WNBA Finals history. Thomas averaged 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game in 2022.

14. Courtney Vandersloot, G, Liberty

In 12 seasons in the WNBA, Vandersloot has solidified herself as the league’s top pass-first point guard. Last season, she averaged 6.5 assists per game, which was actually her lowest mark since 2016. Vandersloot’s ability to run an offense and set up teammates will be on full display this year alongside elite scorers in Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart and rising star Sabrina Ionescu.

Arike Ogunbowale (Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)

15. Arike Ogunbowale, G, Wings

Ogunbowale was fourth in the league last season with 19.7 points per game. The Wings guard hunts her shot at every opportunity. She can score off the bounce or the catch and has a killer step-back that is difficult to guard. Ogunbowale also averaged a career-best 3.6 assists per game in 2022. With new additions to the Wings’ offense, the guard will be relied on to score and set up her teammates this season.

16. Rhyne Howard, G, Dream

The No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft made noise in her first season, earning an All-Star nod and proving herself as the future of the Atlanta Dream organization. This year, Howard will build on her Rookie of the Year numbers of 16.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game.

17. Ariel Atkins, G, Mystics

A key piece to the Washington Mystics attack, Atkins averaged 14.6 points and 2.3 assists last season, but it’s her ability to impact both ends of the floor that earns her a spot on this list. After receiving All-WNBA Second Team honors four years in a row, Atkins was named to the First Team last season.

18. Skylar Diggins-Smith, G, Mercury

Diggins-Smith will miss part of the season on maternity leave, but after the season she had in 2022, she’s earned a spot on this list, full season or not. Diggins-Smith was third in the WNBA in scoring last season with 19.7 points per game, her best mark since 2014. Diggins-Smith also averaged 5.5 assists, four rebounds, 1.5 steals and — despite being 5-9 — one block per contest.

DeWanna Bonner (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

19. DeWanna Bonner, F, Sun

Bonner has been consistent throughout her 13-year career in the WNBA. Since 2015, she’s never averaged fewer than 13 points per game. Bonner was a key piece to the Sun’s WNBA Finals run last season, and her length and athleticism at 6-4 make her a threat on offense and defense.

20. Allisha Gray, G, Dream

After six solid years with the Wings, Gray embarks on a new journey with the Dream. The guard put up some of her best numbers last season, averaging 13.3 points and 2.5 assists per game. Gray is also an excellent defender who will bring experience and poise to a young Dream squad.

21. Brittney Griner, C, Mercury

Griner says it will take her a bit to get comfortable on a basketball court again after missing last season while being wrongfully imprisoned in Russia. But once she gets reacclimated, the 32-year-old should emerge as one of the top WNBA players once more. In 2021, Griner averaged a near double-double with 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

22. Brionna Jones, F, Sun

The Sun made keeping Jones a priority in the offseason, clearly viewing her as the future of the franchise in the wake of other departures. She was named Sixth Player of the Year in 2022 after putting up 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Now, without Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones will be expected to step up even more for the Sun.

23. Natasha Howard, F, Wings

Behind Ionescu, Howard was the Liberty’s second-leading scorer last season. New York dealt her to the Wings to make room for players like Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart, but that’s not a knock on her talent. Howard hit her stride in Seattle in 2018 and has been a consistent scorer and defender since then, winning WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.

24. Kelsey Mitchell, G, Fever

Since being drafted in 2018, Mitchell has been a bright spot during losing seasons for the Fever. Last year was her best yet, as the 27-year-old guard averaged 18.4 points and 4.2 assists per game.

25. Diana Taurasi, G, Mercury

At 40 years old, Taurasi is still one of the best scorers in the WNBA, and she proved that last season with multiple games of 30 or more points. She’s had staying power for a reason, and the veteran will continue to make an impact in Phoenix this season.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

The Connecticut Sun have tagged top free agent Brionna Jones with a core designation, which keeps her under team control for another season, per Rachel Galligan of Winsidr and Just Women’s Sports.

Each WNBA team can designate one of their unrestricted free agent as a core player, which gives the team exclusive negotiating rights with that player. The distinction comes with a guaranteed one-year qualifying offer of $234,936, the highest possible salary — also known as the supermax salary.

Jones could choose to sign that supermax offer, or she could negotiate a longer deal with Connecticut.

If she does not want to play for the Sun, the team could trade her, and she would have the right to approve any trade before signing her new contract. For example, the Dallas Wings used the core designation for Skylar Diggins-Smith ahead of the 2020 season, but she did not want to return to the team. So the Wings dealt her to the Phoenix Mercury.

With the core tag for Jones, the Sun made just their latest move of the offseason. Connecticut traded Jonquel Jones to the New York Liberty on Monday as part of a three-team deal; the 2021 MVP requested the trade, Galligan reported.

While the loss of Jonquel Jones might sting, Brionna Jones could step up in her place. The 27-year-old post averaged 13.8 points and 5.1 rebounds off the bench for Connecticut en route to a WNBA Finals appearance in 2022. The reigning Sixth Player of the Year, Jones led the league in offensive rebound percentage last season, and the Sun must want to know what she can do in the starting lineup.

Friday marks the final day for teams to extend qualifying offers and designate core players. The negotiating period for free agents opens Jan. 21. Players can sign contracts starting on Feb. 1.

Brionna Jones is the 2022 WNBA Sixth Player of the Year, the league announced Thursday.

The Connecticut Sun forward received 53 of 56 votes from a designated panel of sportswriters and broadcasters for a nearly unanimous decision.

Azurá Stevens of the Chicago Sky earned two votes, while Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen received one.

Jones played in all 36 of the Sun’s regular-season contests, coming off the bench in 29 of those appearances.

The 26-year-old averaged 13.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.22 steals in 25.1 minutes per game. She finished the season fourth in the league for field goal percentage (56.9) and second in offensive rebounds (2.6).

Jones’ breakout season helped Connecticut to a 25-11 record and the No. 3 seed in the WNBA playoffs.

Jones will receive $5,150 and a specially designed trophy by Tiffany & Co. to go along with the Sixth Player of the Year honors.

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.

Brionna Jones was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player on Tuesday, deservingly so after a dominant season for the No. 1 seed Connecticut Sun. The reality, however, is the forward’s impact goes beyond the spirit of the Most Improved award.

Jones is on her way to being one of the best players in the league. Period.

Jones’ emergence could be the golden ticket to the Sun’s long-awaited first WNBA championship after making three Finals appearances in franchise history. Entering Game 1 of the semifinals Tuesday on a 14-game win streak, the Sun are having their best season to date at 26-6.

The 25-year-old shot a team-high 57.1 percent from the field during the regular season, averaging 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Her numbers have improved every year and have dramatically since she averaged 2.9 points and 1.7 boards as a rookie with the Sun in 2017.

Jones’ 2021 season has been storybook. Just a couple of days after being named the AP Most Improved Player on Wednesday, the 6-foot-3 forward was named to the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team for the first time in her career.

“After going through it and the work that I put in in the offseason, being able to get a shoutout with this is really special,” Jones said of the AP honor, days before she’d also earn the WNBA version of the award.

Sun teammate and fellow Maryland Terp Kaila Charles wasn’t surprised by the recognition Jones was receiving.

“I knew it was just a matter of time when she got to the league until she would be able to step into her own and make a name for herself,” Charles said. “Being able to actually witness it, to play with her and see just how far she’s grown as a player, as a woman, it’s just amazing to see.”

Jones had a breakout season in 2020, when she was moved into the starting lineup in Jonquel Jones’ absence. Through 21 starts in 22 games, Brionna Jones led the Sun with a 60.5 field-goal percentage, averaging 9.4 points per game. Before 2020, she hadn’t averaged more than 3.5 points per game

After the season, the Sun offered Jones a multi-year contract and she’s started all 32 games in 2021.

Connecticut head coach Curt Miller credited Jones’ growth to her knowledge of the game.

“She deserves this recognition. She deserves this [MIP] award because she puts in the work to continue to improve, to transform her mind – you name it,” he said. “She just continues to get better and better.”

Assistant coach Brandi Poole has seen the most improvement in Jones’ confidence, which has grown her teammates’ faith in her as well.

“I think we all know when Breezy touches the ball, something good is going to happen on the offensive end of the floor,” Poole said.

The Sun’s dominant season has earned them a bye to the best-of-five semifinals series starting with Game 1 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Many eyes will be on AP MVP Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner, but the Chicago Sky — the Sun’s opponent — will not be taking Brionna Jones lightly.

Charles knows the best is yet to come for Jones.

“She’s going to be one of the best to put on a Connecticut Sun jersey,” she said.

The Connecticut Sun powered past the Los Angeles Sparks 76-61 for the team’s eighth consecutive win on Saturday night.

Brionna Jones led the team in points with 16, adding a career-high 15 rebounds for her first double-double of the season.

Jonquel Jones added to the Sun’s commanding win, notching 14 points, seven rebounds, two assists and one steal.

Connecticut’s extended win streak has surged the team to the top of the WNBA standings, one win ahead of the Las Vegas Aces.

Next up: The Sun will go on the road to take on the Washington Mystics on Tuesday. The Los Angeles Sparks will also play on Tuesday, facing off against the Indiana Fever.

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