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Why isn’t Jonquel Jones considered a WNBA megastar?

Jones and the Connecticut Sun have been pigeonholed, and that’s caused us to misunderstand their success.

Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones smiles during WNBA game.
Jonquel Jones led the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA’s second-best record, but still can’t get any respect.
Getty Images/SB Nation illustration

Imagine creating a star big in Basketball Photoshop. Let’s call them Megastar(1).psd.

You want them to be tall enough to dominate inside, but also agile enough to hold their own on the perimeter. They should score easily around the basket, but also step out and drain threes to open up space for everyone else. They’d present many options as a pick-and-roll screener, but they could also work hapless defenders in the post if the game called for it.

It’d be nice if they erased all these things on defense, too. Best shot-blocker in the league? Don’t need that, but it’s a nice bonus that we’ll take. Best rebounder in the league? We’ll settle for top-five, but sure. Will they anchor an elite defense? Yes, yes they would.

And, of course, you’d make sure they had a massive individual influence on their team’s success. Like, say, 11 points better with them in the game and 12 points worse with them on the bench.

Finally, this would happen on a team that’s really good, not just a crappy one they propped up to mediocrity. Second-best record in the league? That’ll do. And no flashes in the pan either: they need at least one other season where they were that dominant on a successful team.

Since you read the headline and saw the picture accompanying this article, you know that this is an actual player named Jonquel Jones. In just her fourth year, the 6’6 Jones has elevated the Connecticut Sun to the No. 2 seed in the WNBA, behind the unstoppable Washington Mystics.

Jones did it all for Connecticut this year. She’s the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker, leading the W as a whole in the latter two categories. She’s the only player on the team with a player efficiency rating above 20 — the difference between her and any other player the team is larger than the gap between the second- and sixth-best marks. She leads the team in overall net rating, and was second in true shooting percentage while just barely slotting behind team-leading Courtney Williams in usage rate. Her numbers were even better two years ago, so it’s not like she’s the new kid on the superstar block. You’d think she’s universally considered the Sun’s franchise player, and in turn one of the league’s most recognizable superstars.

Instead, her Sun team is often described as an overachieving, egalitarian collective, punching above their weight against top-heavy glamour franchises lucky enough to have real star talent. This brief interaction between host John Brickley and former Sun great Katie Douglas during ESPN’s halftime show on Sunday was instructive, because the sentiment is hardly unique.

BRICKLEY: “It’s an interesting dynamic when you talk about Connecticut because there isn’t really that main attraction star like you see with LA with Candace Parker, and Breanna Stewart with Seattle. But they’ve got some role players that are so crafty, like Jasmine [Thomas], that can make a deep run in this postseason.”

DOUGLAS: “I think a lot of their success goes to Jasmine. She’s that engine for them. But like you said, they don’t have that mega star. On paper, they’re probably not the most talented team without having those mega stars. But collectively, they’ve been together. They have great chemistry. Like you said, they know their roles. They know what they’re going to get from each player every single night.”

It didn’t help that Thomas, one of the Sun’s actual “crafty” role players, was sitting right there. But divorced of all wider thematic context, that was an odd way to explain the success of a second-place team built around a player of Jones’ caliber.

Naturally, the Sun turned this overarching sentiment into a one-minute hype video filled with critical commentary from professionals and randos on Twitter, all ending with the tagline “DisrespeCT.” At the six-second mark, the line “NO MEGASTARS” flashes on screen before the video jump-cuts to a slow-motion shot of Jones chest-bumping a teammate in player introductions.

This’ll certainly fire up the fanbase, but the delivery validates the very point the Sun are contesting. It’s hard to build an entire marketing slogan around Jones and the Sun as outsiders against an establishment that disrespeCTs them, then also cry foul when she is improperly omitted from that same establishment’s list of megastars. (Sadly, “PerspeCTive” is a terrible slogan, even if it’s more accurate.)

So the Sun are being positioned — and positioning themselves, if not fully intentionally — as a snubbed insurgency fueled by a collective group, and not simply as Jonquel Jones’ team. How did this misguided image develop?

One reason comes straight from that hype video: “NO ONE THOUGHT WE’D MAKE IT THIS FAR”. This is a slight exaggeration: the Sun were still expected to be decent, but it’s true that no general manager predicted they’d win the title this year. This perception can act as an anchor in the public’s heads, especially when the season is so short.

It’s also easy thematically to apply the ensemble label to the Sun when you consider the other three teams left. The Las Vegas Aces are the league’s new glamour franchise after making one of the biggest trades ever. The Washington Mystics have the likely MVP and the most efficient offense in league history. The Los Angeles Sparks are a traditional power led by a crossover superstar (Parker), flanked a former MVP (Nneka Ogwumike) and a point guard with a history of big shots in the playoffs (Chelsea Gray). It’s convenient to have a blue-collar upstart as a foil to those teams, so the Sun get stuck stuck playing the same role the Atlanta Dream did last season even though the the two franchises share little in common besides their tough defenses.

(Also, Atlanta did have a secret star in Tiffany Hayes, as our Natalie Weiner beautifully illustrated last year. But Hayes, while a nice player, is no Jones.).

Perhaps the Sun’s rep stems more from Jones’ unique basketball journey than anything the franchise itself has done. Though Jones liked basketball, soccer was her “thing” as a kid, until a Bahaman national team coach questioned her sexuality. (Asshole.) She moved to the U.S. as part of an exchange program at the age of 14, a move funded by her new head coach because her family couldn’t afford tuition. She didn’t surge up the recruiting radar until a late growth spurt, then transferred from Clemson to George Washington.

After starring in the District, she was traded from the Sparks on draft night — for Gray, amazingly — and came off the bench as a rookie before getting her chance when Chiney Ogwumike torn her Achilles. Despite a breakout 2017 campaign that was even better than the one she put together this year, Jones again played off the bench in 2018 with Ogwumike healthy again. Jones rebounded from a rough start to win Sixth Woman of the Year, but knows what might have happened this year if Ogwumike didn’t ask to be traded?

To some degree, Jones isn’t seen as a marquee franchise player because her franchise took a long time to actually realize it themselves. She got her chance to shine only when things didn’t go to plan — twice!

In this way, Jones mirrors Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic. A former second-round pick, Jokic only became a starter as a rookie because of an early-season injury to Jusuf Nurkic, a more highly touted player at his position. Despite his initial promise, the Nuggets tried using Nurkic and Jokic together the next year. When that failed, they moved Jokic to the bench behind Nurkic for a brief stretch, despite Jokic clearly being the better player. Eventually, they made Jokic the full-time starter, trading Nurkic to Portland and turning the team over to the Serbian.

Two years later, Jokic is an MVP candidate and one of the NBA’s most delightful young stars. His name comes first in any sentence describing the Nuggets’ success, often before the franchise itself.

The two situations aren’t exactly the same. Jones lacks Jokic’s signature on-court style, and she was at least a high draft pick the wider basketball world knew before entering the league. But there are enough parallels to suggest that it’s only a matter of time before the Sun are rightfully seen as Jones’ team rather than a balanced collection of nice players. The story eventually catches up to the facts with consistent excellence, even if it takes longer then it probably should.

Until then, be wary of falling for the obvious image of the Sun as the WNBA’s blue-collar, ensemble team punching above their weight. In reality, they have their own Megastar (1).psd, too.