UNCASVILLE — Nia Clouden was met by cheers and high-fives from a group of excited veterans on the Connecticut Sun bench as she subbed out from her first stint in Sunday’s preseason game against the Atlanta Dream.
“Shoot that thing, rook!” veteran guard Courtney Williams shouted as Clouden took her seat.
Clouden, a 5-foot-9 rookie guard out of Michigan State, had just drained two 3-pointers from opposite corners and scored eight points across the first and second quarters. She was one of several players trying to prove themselves deserving of a roster spot in Sunday’s action at Mohegan Sun Arena, which the Sun won 94-78.
With less than a week until the start of the WNBA season, the contest provided the public its first glimpse of this year’s Sun squad in action. But more than anything, it was a chance for head coach and general manager Curt Miller to evaluate players, test out different lineup combinations and continue to establish the fast-paced tempo he wants Connecticut to play with this year.
While many teams in the WNBA carry 12 players on their rosters, Miller only plans to have 11 for the Sun, who had the best regular season record in the league last year. With 15 players on the training camp roster — not including DeWanna Bonner— there will be plenty of cuts this week.
There are six players guaranteed spots: Bonner, Alyssa Thomas, Brionna Jones, Williams, Jasmine Thomas and Jonquel Jones. That leaves the remaining 10 players — Clouden, Aleksa Gulbe, Beatrice Mompremier, DiJonai Carrington, Joyner Holmes, Kaila Charles, Natisha Hiedeman, Stephanie Jones, Taj Cole and Yvonne Anderson — fighting for five roster spots.
“We’ve all been there, right? In that position of where once the light turn on and once your name called you’ve got to go out there and you’ve just got to show what you can do,” Williams said. “But it’s the way the game is, right? It’s only 144 spots in this league, teams only giving up 11 to 12 roster spots. So when your name called, you’ve got to go in and you’ve got to show why a team should value you. And that’s tough.”
The opening day roster is expected to be announced Thursday, two days before the regular season opener at the New York Liberty on May 7, which will air on ESPN at 6 p.m.
Bonner and Williams will both be out for that first regular season game, as Bonner’s timeline to return from her season overseas remains up in the air and Williams has to serve a two-game suspension to start the season. When asked how those absences could affect roster decisions, Miller said he doesn’t want to be “a prisoner of the moment” and will be focused on the best long-term decision for the franchise.
Miller went with a starting five of Jasmine Thomas, Williams, Alyssa Thomas, Brionna Jones and Jonquel Jones on Sunday, all players who have their spot on the Sun secured. Those veterans didn’t play anywhere close to the minutes they will throughout the regular season. But in the short time that group was on the floor, forwards Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones were especially dominant.
Alyssa Thomas, back fully healthy after sitting out most of last season rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon, scored five of the Sun’s first seven points. She finished with eight points, four rebounds and two assists in a little over 18 minutes. Jonquel Jones picked up right where she left off from her MVP season, scoring eight points in less than a seven-minute span early in the first quarter. She finished with 15 points, two rebounds and two assists in just under 14 minutes. Brionna Jones had 14 points and six rebounds in just under 15 minutes.
“You’ve got to work out some kinks offensively, how to put them all in the best position to be successful and what our spacing looks like,” Miller said of playing the trio together. “But those are three really, really talented players, and it’s our job, players and coaches, to figure out how to put the best players on the floor together. … So it will be a work in progress, but I look forward to that fun challenge and the evolution of it throughout the season.”
Of the first-year players fighting for roster spots, Clouden made a strong impression. She was the first sub into the game and finished with eight points.
Second year pro Stephanie Jones also stood out. The 6-2 forward went on a tear in the second quarter, scoring nine consecutive points for Connecticut, including two layups, an and-one bucket and two more shots at the free-throw line. “We need that!” Jonquel Jones shouted from the bench after the second bucket, the bench of veterans clearly impressed with the run, which helped put the Sun back in control before halftime.
“I love to see it, man,” Jonquel Jones said. “Steph works really hard. And you just love to see somebody who puts in the time and the effort just go out there and have a good game.”
Another second-year pro, Carrington, made her case to return to the team with her performance as well. She finished with 12 points, six rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes.
Anderson, who recently joined the team in training camp, played 21 minutes — the second most of any player behind Carrington — and finished with 11 points, four rebounds and three assists.
“Yvonne’s been the shortest in camp, so what we don’t have is a lot of practice film, a lot of time watching her, so very intentful, we needed to see her play,” Miller said. “Really happy with how she managed the game when she was at the point guard. We’re learning about each other. She’s learning our system; we’re learning her.”
With strong performances from many of the players looking to earn a spot on the Sun in preseason action and another week of training camp to evaluate, Miller has tough decisions ahead to finalize the roster that gives Connecticut its best shot of winning its first championship.
“If I get used to waiving players, then I need to get out,” Miller said. “It’s not professionally an easy thing to talk to a player that they’re being waived and won’t be on the opening day roster. Those discussions are not easy for me, but essential to what my job entails.
“But I have a philosophy of putting together tremendous training camps to really take care of their complacency, that you come back and you’re fighting for your job from some of that second unit, and then trying to always improve. What is the end of the bench? What does your second unit look like? And I’m not going to change that philosophy. I think that only makes us better.”
Lila Bromberg can be reached at email@example.com and @LilaBBromberg on Twitter.