All In On Five: Jonquel Jones' MVP campaign leading Sun away from the 'disrespeCT'

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Each week of the WNBA season, we'll go "All In" on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming.

(Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

"Earned. Not Given." 

It's the campaign slogan the Connecticut Sun (25-6) are using for MVP candidate Jonquel Jones, her increasingly honorable awards fittingly set into a mountain landscape. The call is perfect for the 6-foot-6 fifth-year forward who could add to Most Improved Player (2017) and Sixth Woman of the Year (2018) honors. 

If she were to win, and she was last listed as a +275 favorite at BetMGM, she would become the first to place an MVP next to either of those awards. She's already the only player to earn both MIP and Sixth Woman. 

The pitch for Jones could easily apply to the franchise itself. It wasn't that long ago the disrespeCT moniker was fairly employed. They were largely ignored, and yes, disrespected. Now, they could sweep award seasons. Not to mention they have the easiest path to a championship via the No. 1 seed that's been locked up for a week. And to do it in a season everyone believed would see the Seattle Storm (20-11) and Las Vegas Aces (22-8) roll the competition. 

It's been years in the making. After the Eastern Conference finals loss in 2012 under Mike Thibault, they went four seasons without a playoff berth. Three were under Anne Donovan and the final under Curt Miller. Then, in his second and third seasons, they reached the second round of the playoffs. In 2019, as the No. 2 seed, it was the WNBA Finals, where it seemed destined — and certainly now looking back on it — for Thibault, the Washington Mystics and Elena Delle Donne to win their first championships.

This is a group that has been together and won together for a while now. First it was Alyssa Thomas, drafted fourth overall by the New York Liberty in 2014 and immediately traded to Connecticut. "The Engine" made her return after an Achilles tear on Wednesday, bolstering an already scary Sun team. A Sun championship run wouldn't be the same without her. 

In 2015 came a trade for Jasmine Thomas. Jonquel Jones was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks, but immediately traded to the Sun in 2016. Their first pick in 2017 was for Brionna Jones. And in 2020 free agency they splashed by acquiring Briann January and DeWanna Bonner.

Despite being without Thomas, Miller has led the Sun to a franchise-record 13 consecutive wins (and counting). They haven't lost since that odd Commissioner's Cup showing out of the Olympic break. And their chance of winning it all is 56%, per Five Thirty Eight. That's nearly five times the 12% chances they had at season's start, when missing Thomas seemed to doom them. They're now favored to win it by sports books, too (+200 at BetMGM). 

The Sun's pitch for Brionna Jones as the Most Improved Player is a series of "Covergirl" magazine fronts. Which is exactly where the entire team will be if they can successfully complete the climb.  

Sky look for consistency with seed decided 

Beyond the Sun, only the Chicago Sky have locked in their final spot. The Sky (15-15) will have the No. 6 seed and host the No. 7 seed in the first round on Thursday.

It's been rocky year for the Sky, an early-season favorite to give the Storm and Aces a good run for the title. Chicago has been one of the most perplexing teams to figure out. Now it will be about carrying momentum into the playoffs to be at their best, which is enough to topple the teams above them.

"We've shown we can play good basketball, and it's just about doing that consistently," Sky forward Candace Parker told Yahoo Sports this week. "I think that's going to be our mentality going forward."

Injuries, such as Parker's early ankle issue, kept this team piecing it together for a while. In their best moments, they're fitting of the offseason expectations heaped on them as the year they can get over the hump. But other outings look far off. 

"I think identity is important," Parker said. "When you step onto the court and in between the line, you have an identity. You know the way that you play and what you're supposed to do. And so I think it's just continuing to stick with it."

If the standings hold, they'll draw the Wings (13-18) at home in the first round. The Wings won the season series, 2-1, with games decided by 10, nine and four points. 

Playoff positioning at stake in final weekend

Calvin Wetzel and Jacob Mox at Her Hoop Stats laid out the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team. (They also have a Choose Your Own Adventure mode that lives up to the name with wild scenarios of your choosing.) 

Notably, the Storm could have fallen to a No. 5 seed and have to play the first night of the playoffs. That was determined Friday night when a 94-85 win over the Phoenix Mercury (19-12) locked up at least the No. 4 seed. It was Seattle's home finale. 

Both teams had stars on the bench, and both could use those extra days between the first and second rounds to get healthy. Storm forward Breanna Stewart is out for the remainder of the regular season with a foot injury. And Diana Taurasi is out with a left ankle injury, leaving Phoenix with nine players. 

Then there's the race for the eighth and final seed, which will determine who plays that No. 5 seed in the first round. The Washington Mystics control the race with the Los Angeles Sparks and New York Liberty not yet mathematically eliminated. But none of those teams appear on the up-and-up to steal a playoff win. 

If the Liberty fall out, they would have the second-best chances to win the WNBA draft lottery, via Across the Timeline. The odds of the first pick are 27.6%, and if they won it, they'd have done it for three consecutive years. Atlanta and Indiana are already mathematically eliminated.

Offseason? We’re talking about ‘offseason’?

The playoff race is appropriately front and center, but there’s another race players are facing as the WNBA winds to a close. It’s a race against time with a majority of the league preparing to head overseas and join clubs that often pay the bulk of their annual income.

That’s easy to forget amid paragraphs of clinching scenarios and win-or-go-home stakes that continue into the first and second rounds. By a week from Sunday, four more teams of players will have their season closed. Sparks head coach Derek Fisher put it into perspective in a post-practice call with reporters on Wednesday when asked about the team’s mindset and keeping them focused.

“I think it’s really difficult in the W, to be honest, with what these women have to manage,” Fisher, an 18-year NBA veteran, said. “It’s not only watching the standings and trying to see who is going to get in in a league that’s a really tough league to compete in.

But then when you combine that with a high percentage of players in the W are also thinking about having to report to another country in the next week or two depending on how the team does. They have to battle that in their minds thinking about maybe the last opportunities to see friends and family before they report to their country on top of what comes with trying to compete for a playoff spot.”

The turnaround for players to head overseas is quick, just as it is condensed the other way around when they return stateside in the spring. While NBA players approach the offseason knowing it means more time with their loved ones, WNBA players face the time off knowing it is even less than they have now. That's a massive toll on a player's mindset and life. 

It could change in the coming years under the new collective bargaining agreement. Beginning in 2023, players will be penalized for not joining their WNBA teams on time. Of course, that could also prompt players to opt for overseas teams and not play in the stateside league at all. For now, it’s important to keep in mind the offseason is not really an offseason for most. 

Candace Parker Day or Candace Parker year? 

Candace Parker has long been the Ace even when marketing opportunities and attention didn't show it. Yet over 2021 she appears to finally be getting all of that in droves. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed a proclamation this week making Sept. 16 "Candace Parker Day." Parker grew up in nearby Naperville and led the school to two state titles before her double titles at Tennessee and accolades with the Sparks. Her free agency signing with Chicago was huge, and Lightfoot was there at the virtual news conference formally announcing the deal.

As always, Parker noted the impact of having a day for a prominent female athlete. 

“I never envisioned this,” Parker said, via the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s what is so special about basketball. It opens up so many doors. I have the mayor saying she watched me play my senior year. Her daughter is playing basketball now. It’s about carrying it on and trying to open up more doors for the next.”

The announcement also coincides with the launch by Adidas of the Candace Parker Collection, a new line of shoes and apparel befitting the Ace. To introduce it, Adidas enlisted Patrick Mahomes, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Derrick Rose. 

The company revealed three new colorways for her signature shoe — she's one of only nine players in league history with one — that also pay homage to key parts of her life. All have "For Pat" graphics on the tongue in honor of late Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt.

And all that on top of her NBA2K21 cover, which is the first to feature a WNBA star. It's the year of the Ace. 

What you might have missed:

What to watch this weekend/Friday's results

All games listed matter for playoff seeding

  • Lynx 92, Fever 73 — The Lynx clinched at least a No. 4 seed in the playoffs with the victory. 

  • Liberty 91, Mystics 80 — The Mystics failed to clinch a playoff spot and have to win Sunday to get in. The Liberty are still in the hunt for a playoff spot. 

  • Aces 103, Sky 70 — The Aces clinched the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a double-bye with the win. 

  • Storm 94, Mercury 85 — The Storm secured at least a No. 4 seed in the playoffs with the victory.

  • Dream at Sun, Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on NBA TV — This game has no bearing on the playoffs, but kicks off a national TV tripleheader for the final day of the regular season.  

  • Aces at Mercury, Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC — The Aces are a No. 2 seed for the playoffs with a double-bye; the Mercury are a No. 5 seed and will host a first-round playoff game. 

  • Lynx at Mystics, Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN3 — The Lynx can clinch the No. 3 seed with a win. If they lose, the Storm get the No. 3 seed.

  • Sparks at Wings, Sunday at 5 p.m. ET on NBA TV — The Wings secured the No. 7 seed when the Mystics lost on Friday night. 

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