When the WNBA included policies meant to disincentivize overseas play in last year’s collective bargaining agreement, it was addressing a problem of its own design. The league’s summer schedule and low pay forces players with contracts overseas and lucrative national team commitments to miss large chunks of an already short WNBA season. Those rules don’t phase in for another two years, but this season—so far a parade of late arrivals to training camp and others shuttling to and from various international competitions and Olympic qualifiers, the delays all compounded by quarantine requirements—has made a pretty good case for them. There’s an obvious optics issue in trying to market a product as the best women’s basketball league in the world while the people playing in it (understandably) treat it like a second job.
One situation the league sought to avoid might have looked something like this: The star of the best team in the WNBA, an impossibly skilled and dominant big with what might be the rarest player profile in basketball, will be leaving her team for several weeks because she, ah, became a citizen of this damn Bosnia and Herzegovina three years ago and will now go play for the Bosnian national team at FIBA’s EuroBasket tournament beginning next week. “I’m proud to represent the Bosnian national team, but it’s a tough time to be going,” said the great Jonquel Jones on Saturday. “I feel like I’m playing really, really great basketball. I feel like I have a good flow right now.” Can the No. 1 Connecticut Sun keep it up without her?
I won’t bore you with a very long lesson in the political economy of women’s basketball, just a short one: Jones became a Bosnian citizen to unlock some valuable European league opportunities and also because her native Bahamas lacked a real national team infrastructure. Before heading over to EuroBasket, Jones gave her team the parting gift of 31 points, 13 rebounds and three assists in a win over the New York Liberty on Saturday night. The test for her team starts Sunday, when the Sun play the No. 2 Seattle Storm without her. It could be the case that missing six games of a 32-game regular season will hurt her MVP chances, but maybe absence makes the MVP case grow stronger.
Jones has been my favorite WNBA player for about three years; I’ve enjoyed her progression from Most Improved Player to Sixth Woman of the Year to the two-way franchise player she is now, which strikes me as a very sweet and diligent path. I mentioned the rarity of her game offensively—she’s a 6-foot-6 sometimes-center (sometimes-forward) shooting an incredible 48.9 percent from three-point range. These are not the wimpy random threes centers take when they are wide open, but regular, honest-to-god contested three pointers! In the paint, she’s pure commotion, playing a brilliantly robot-esque style of angles and elbows around the basket that doesn’t seem like it should work as well as it does. The result is something uber efficient: She’s averaging 21.6 points and 10.4 rebounds on a 68.4 true shooting percentage, which given the heavy minutes she plays, puts her in a class of her own.
Between the departures of Chiney Ogwumike and Courtney Williams in consecutive offseasons, Jones opting out of the bubble last year, and the injury to guard Alyssa Thomas this year, no team has weathered the losses of core players better than Connecticut lately. It’s now a four-years-running joke among people who follow the WNBA that we’ve all underestimated Connecticut again. Still, for some reason, we keep doing it. Without Jones last season, the Sun managed to come within a game of the WNBA Finals, and this year, they’ve started the season 8–2 despite losing what I suspected (wrongly, I guess) was the whole engine of the team in Thomas. Watching the Sun add and subtract without much change in fortunes is a little like going on the world’s most frustrating elimination diet. What is the answer?! What is making them tick?
That’s for Sun head coach Curt Miller to figure out now. Jones is off to France and already soliciting movie streaming recommendations for the trip on Twitter. Connecticut’s move for the next few games is probably relying more heavily on two other excellent two-way frontcourt options, Dewanna Bonner and Brionna Jones, who play well alongside each other and sometimes team up on defense to especially annoy opposing guards. The part of my brain concerned with anticipating my imminent wrongness and trying to prevent it is tricking me into wanting to say something outlandish, like the Sun will be better in Jonquel’s absence. But with all due respect to this team’s tradition of steadiness, there’s a less-inspiring omen in the numbers: Connecticut’s offensive rating is 110.8 when Jones is on the court but dives to 79.4 when she’s not. The Sun may just hope the mighty gals of Bosnia make a swift tournament exit.