This was the team Curt Miller had been seeking for the past few years, a blend of veterans and youth, a squad loaded with versatility punctuated by the signing of three-time All-Star DeWanna Bonner, who spent her first 10 years in Phoenix.
The Connecticut Sun were primed to make another run at the WNBA Finals after losing in the decisive fifth game last season. But as with many WNBA clubs, there has been roster attrition. Several players around the league have decided to bypass the season because of social reform or COVID-19 concerns. Sun leading scorer Jonquel Jones decided to sit out the abbreviated 2020 season.
Miller’s squad arrived in Florida on July 6 and it will take work to integrate his new players in such a challenging and limited window.
The WNBA deliberated about how and if it could begin its 2020 season and decided on a bubble-like atmosphere at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Twelve teams will play a 22-game regular season and then determine a champion.
“They don’t love the word bubble,” Miller said of the league. “IMG provided a campus-like setting with a freedom of movement without interaction from the outside population, to keep us isolated and amongst ourselves and getting tested daily. I think that played a huge part in all of this and I also think it didn’t hurt that the NBA is also in Florida to have some shared resources with both major leagues.”
The WNBA had planned to start its season in May before the pandemic hit. Miller had to keep in constant touch with his players — six of them new — with no certainty on when or if the season would occur.
“It’s been certainly a unique and challenging preparation,” Miller said. “Our training camp was supposed to begin at the end of April and so around that time we started to get weekly Zoom meetings with our players. Early on in May, they centered around our basketball pillars and we used it as a virtual training camp.
“We had a very active free agency and eight of our 12 players were in the last year of their contracts [last season]. We’ve had changes. There was a lot of Zoom huddles. It took on the best we could of having a training camp.”
The focus of those Zoom calls changed dramatically after the death of George Floyd. Social issues dominated the conversation with the 51-year-old Miller listening to his players’ experiences and serving as a guide and mentor.
“We paused the basketball and our Zoom huddles were much more personal,” he said. “And certain acknowledging for myself the white privilege that I’ve had and talking and listening to our players and taking action and educating and creating for my front office a platform of action in social justice.
“Basketball has taken a back seat since mid-May and now it just seems like we’re days away to get into training camp and get basketball on their minds. We hope to bring a little bit of normalcy back to their daily lives. Honestly, I think the whole league is champing at the bit to get playing.”
Miller had communication with Jones, who released a statement June 21 that announced her decision to skip the season because of COVID-19 concerns.
“As much as my competitive side in myself and our organization feels like we are positioned and poised to be one of the favorites this year, and we built our team to win right now,” Miller said. “We took that off the table and made sure they were completely supported 100 percent in their decision.
“It’s hard to replace Jonquel Jones, one of the best players in the world. But it was a combination of things that just didn’t make her comfortable enough to play. We needed to show support from the top.
“But I still think we could be special and unique. But it’s hard to lose a player like Jonquel.”
The Sun feel as if they have a chance to win their first WNBA title. The addition of veterans Bonner and Briann January should help the transition in this truncated season.
“These elite athletes have not been on the basketball court for a long, long time,” Miller said of the entire league. “There is a concern in all of our minds in, ‘Can we keep everyone healthy? Can we avoid injury?' There are so many factors that will play into the season, it’s hard to determine who is the favorite.”
From Melrose to the top of the world
Shey Peddy was unsure whether she would play in the WNBA this season after making her league debut last season at age 30 and contributing to the Washington Mystics’ first championship.
When starting point guard Natasha Cloud decided to sit out the season to concentrate on social reform, Peddy got a call from coach Mike Thibault, asking her to run it back.
The Roxbury native and Melrose High graduate is geared for her first full WNBA season, as the Mystics attempt to defend their title. She was convinced to play after learning of the measures the league is taking to keep players safe.
“When the coach called me, I was all in,” Peddy said from her hotel room. “I had been hearing about the bubble, but my thing was if we’re all confined to one area and can’t leave whenever you want to and we’re getting tested every day, I felt like it was safe. I would have been a little uneasy if we weren’t getting tested and if we were able to leave and go outside and come back. When he called me, I was all in from the beginning.”
Peddy helped Melrose High finish 21-2 her senior year before signing with Wright State.
Peddy said she was so nervous and daunted by the recruiting process, she rejected several trips, leaving her choices to Wright State and Providence.
“When I started getting letters, it wasn’t registering to me what was actually happening,‘‘ she said. “I got all these recruitment letters and I wouldn’t go to my official visits because I was nervous. I know my parents were proud to say their daughter made it out of Boston, made it out of the projects, and now she’s a D1 athlete on a full-ride scholarship.”
From Wright State, she transferred to Temple as a junior and finished her career as the Atlantic-10 player of the year. She was taken in the second round of the 2012 WNBA Draft by the Chicago Sky, but did not make the team, thus beginning an eight-year sojourn that took her to Israel, Latvia, and Austria.
After multiple training camps in which she came up short, she got her first WNBA minutes in 15 games last season. This time, she has a real chance to make an impact because of the lack of roster depth.
“For me, it’s a little different. In previous times I went to training camp I wasn’t already on the team, I had to work for a spot,” she said. " It feels good to finally say you’re on the team and you don’t have to worry about anything but just doing your job, getting better, and finding your role on the team.
“Being here last year, I’m familiar with the system and I feel like that gives me an edge already, but still I feel like I have something to prove. They brought me here for a reason so I want to make sure I don’t let anybody down.”
Not only did Peddy make her WNBA debut last season, she received a championship ring.
“It was a dream come true, that’s the only way I could put it,” he said. “When I checked in that game, it didn’t register to me it was my first game. I just sat back in my room and said, ‘Wow, you grinded for seven years overseas. As a child you watched your favorite players.’ I shed a tear, I was cheesing, talking to my family, I finally made it.
“You’re over there for eight, nine months, no family, different country, you’ve got to learn the culture and the language. An ongoing grind, it’s definitely a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Overseas pays good money. You have to be committed and love basketball to stick it out.”
The years overseas were rewarding. She was able to play professional basketball and get paid handsomely, but there was still a desire to make the WNBA, to get to that highest level.
“A lot of people don’t know who I am. I really haven’t played in the states since college,” she said. “I hope America will get reacquainted with my game.”
PLAYING IT SAFE
Wizards will wait on Beal
With the Nets heading to Orlando without several key players, the door is open for the ninth-place Wizards to make a legitimate playoff run. General manager Tommy Sheppard, however, made perhaps the toughest decision of his short tenure by holding out star guard Bradley Beal because of a shoulder injury.
With Beal, the Wizards had a legitimate shot to cut their 5½-game deficit to at least four and force a play-in series. Without Beal, the Wizards are a bunch of upstarts and jouneymen just trying to make a respectable showing.
Beal, who averaged a career-best 30.5 points in 57 games this season, had been dealing with shoulder issues before the season was halted. Sheppard said Beal’s inability to work with team trainers and receive treatment hindered recovery time. Beal, 27, informed management this past week prior to the team’s departure that he wasn’t 100 percent.
“Bradley’s shoulder, he took care of it the best he could at this time,” Sheppard said. “When you got to zero activity to where we’ve got to ramp up and get ready for NBA games in less than three weeks, the very last thing we want to do is predispose him to injury, and he’s put in the time since we’ve been able to get back into our facility. He’s been there every day and worked religiously to get this thing back to where it feels right, it just hasn’t felt right.”
Beal signed an extension that will keep him in Washington for at least two more seasons. With John Wall expected to return next season, along with promising swingman Troy Brown and a potential lottery pick, the Wizards have a chance to make a splash next season, and Sheppard isn’t going to risk losing Beal for that run.
“Wisdom would tell you if it’s bothering him right now, let’s not go out there and try to do anything to hinder his future, and our future with Bradley is contingent on him being healthy,” Sheppard said. “It’s a great opportunity in Orlando, but the last thing we want to do is come out of there with an injury. He wanted this more than anybody.”
That leaves Brown, rookie Rui Hachimura, sparkplug point guard Ish Smith, and Boston product Shabazz Napier as the team’s core.
“We’re not going in there with an unknown quantity in our backcourt. We’ve got multiple guys who can play multiple positions,” Sheppard said. “Some of these guys, Troy’s in his second season in the NBA and he’s ready to step into more minutes. This opens that up for him. Ish and Shabazz and Ian Mahinmi, they don’t want to hear we’re going to develop. We’re going there to win. All of our players want to go win. We’re going to have to play everybody.”
The Wizards, like the other 21 teams in the Orlando bubble, will play eight games in two weeks. The organization felt that was too much for a rusty and ailing Beal.
“What was troublesome for us was the ramp-up time for us to get to the point right now,” Sheppard said. “He knows his body better than anybody and when he tells me it just doesn’t feel right, and I’m doing all the things that I’m supposed to do. Hey, if there was another month to get ready for this, we’d be in great shape. There’s not.
“The big thing that is lingering in the back of my mind is, when is the season going to start next season? If he gets hurt down there and we have to start again in December, who says he’s ready for next season? If it’s the wrong decision, it’s on me. Bradley Beal is a huge, huge part of our future.
“Sometimes you’ve got to make hard calls, and I’m willing to do that.”
Beal is considered the most important part of the franchise, and Sheppard said he realized he has to be delicate with the biggest commodity.
“This is my first year as a GM and I know one of things that can get you sideways is allowing somebody to play when they have a high threshold of pain,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s the right call and that doesn’t mean it’s the wisest thing for his future.”
Sheppard said the players will use Orlando as a social platform, as they should.
“I remind everybody, we’re not using basketball to be a distraction,” he said. “We don’t need a distraction. We need to be focused on what’s going on in the world outside of basketball, but certainly use basketball as a platform to continue the social dialogue that we’re having.”
Three familiar faces returned to the NBA, thanks in part to the rash of injuries and positive COVID-19 tests sustained by the Nets. DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, and Spencer Dinwiddie opted out of the Orlando return because of positive tests. The Nets are clinging to the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Magic and six games ahead of the Wizards with eight to play. The Nets signed three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and former No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley to fill out their roster. Crawford last played for the Suns last season and had been looking for NBA work. Beasley last played for the Lakers last season but was traded to the Clippers for Mike Muscala and eventually waived. Videos began circulating several weeks ago of Beasley working out and he looked to be in the best shape of his star-crossed career. Beasley and Crawford can score in bunches and will make the Nets an interesting team. And Caris LeVert, last seen dropping 51 on the Celtics in early March, will be the primary scorer. The club parted ways with Kenny Atkinson as coach, and former Magic coach Jacque Vaughn will assume interim duties . . . The Lakers brought back J.R. Smith to replace former Celtic Avery Bradley, giving the club another quality shooter. The question is whether Smith can do anything else after nearly two years out of the game. The Lakers will miss Bradley’s on-ball defense, ability to cut to the basket, and midrange shooting. Smith is going to have to prove he’s more than just a streaky shooter to gain minutes in the rotation . . . The College Park SkyHawks made history by promoting Tori Miller to general manager of the G-League team, the first woman to assume those duties for a NBA-affiliated team. Commissioner Adam Silver has put an emphasis on diversity hiring and put teams on alert to seek and interview qualified candidates of color for front office positions. Longtime Oklahoma City assistant GM Troy Weaver recently was named GM of the Pistons. Silver said the league is embarrassed about lagging behind in diversity front office hirings . . . Sixty-something-year-old coaches Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry were cleared for the Orlando bubble. There were concerns because of their age, but both underwent extended physicals to determine their ability to coach.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.