UNCASVILLE, Conn. — When the cheering had died down, and the fans had exited — in this case, a sellout crowd who’d just seen its Connecticut Sun fall short of a WNBA title once more, following a 78-71 Game 4 loss to the Las Vegas Aces — what remained of the 2022 WNBA Finals were the two elite bigs at the heart of the battle. Jonquel Jones and A’ja Wilson, collectors of the past three WNBA MVPs, met in the back hallway of the arena.
Wilson had a bottle of Michelob Ultra in her hand, the spoils of a championship locker room, but she reached over and hugged Jones, dressed in funeral black (complete with big sunglasses), knowing precisely how she felt. Two years earlier, it had been Wilson’s Aces falling short in the WNBA Finals to the Seattle Storm. Now, at age 26, it is Wilson atop the pyramid of league stars, while Jones and Connecticut face an offseason of uncertainty ahead.
The story of the 2022 Finals started with the struggle between Wilson and Jones — and Wilson did lift the Aces by outplaying her rival. But it also was just as much about each star’s supporting cast.
For instance, Las Vegas guard Chelsea Gray capped off a postseason for the ages by winning series MVP honors. Even with the Sun throwing every possible defensive combination at her — most successfully, DeWanna Bonner and her 6-foot-4 frame — Gray still scored 20 points and dished out six assists in the series closeout. All told, Gray averaged 21.7 points per game throughout the playoffs, shooting an almost inconceivable 61.1 percent from the field and 54.4 percent from 3-point range — and, oh by the way, running the Las Vegas offense, too.
“Chelsea Gray is one of the most dominant players in this league, and she should have been an All-Star this year,” Wilson said of her teammate, the two of them imbibing significant qualities of alcohol and reflecting on their season.
Whether officially recognized by the league or not, what made this Las Vegas team so tough was its variety and depth of top-level stars. The Aces had the talent to weather a bad night from any one (or more) big names. Jackie Young, deadly from three all year at 43.1 percent, missed all six of her 3-point attempts in Game 4. The Aces won anyway, just as they managed to overcome a Kelsey Plum shooting slump that lasted through their semifinal series against Seattle and into the Finals.
And Riquna Williams hit three huge shots, including two threes, to lift her team late in Game 4 when the Sun made defensive adjustments to help shut down almost everybody else.
“We call her ‘The Microwave,’” Plum said, perhaps as a nod to the nickname’s original holder — Vinnie Johnson, once a dynastic colleague of former Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, whose fingerprints are still all over this team (and who celebrated with Wilson and company in the locker room on Sunday).
Jones did her best to match Wilson, though her offensive production was not as consistent — which could have been explained by her teammates’ performances as well. After the series, Wilson had nothing but praise for her superstar counterpart.
“JJ is a dominant post, she’s a versatile player in this league and I give all my respect to JJ,” Wilson said. “The way that she could play the game, the way she sees the game is amazing … I mean, it’s so hard to guard her and I just have all the most respect for JJ. Her future is so bright in this league, and it’s a lot of blessings going her way because y’all ain’t ever got to guard her. It’s hard. She’s an MVP for a reason, every possession, I have to keep on my toes.”
The Sun were not bereft of talent, either. No one has a deeper frontcourt than Jones, Alyssa Thomas (and her two consecutive Finals triple-doubles) and Bri Jones. But that wasn’t enough to overcome the Aces — and this team could be looking at major changes ahead.
Bri Jones, who has done a fair impression of Jonquel Jones over the years when called upon,1 can write her own ticket as an unrestricted free agent. Max offers should be coming from multiple teams, and the Sun will struggle to match them while paying for the combination of Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas under the punishing math of the WNBA salary cap. This likely means head coach/GM Curt Miller will pursue some complementary perimeter shooters to construct his 2023 team.
His ride-or-die playoff lineup — Jonquel and Brionna Jones, plus Thomas, Bonner and Courtney Williams, who reminded everyone why she was a critical part of that 2019 Sun team that also came so close — doesn’t space the floor. But it did feature the five players who played the hardest and smartest for Miller through this era, which perhaps led him to deploying the ultra-big lineup late on Sunday, even as the clock on his team’s season ticked down towards zero.
“Obviously strategic, put your three All-Stars on the floor together,” Miller said at the postgame podium, “You know, try — they are also very good defensively, those three bigs, and try to just overwhelm them at times with our size. And then you know, some of it was certainly the scheme, and then some of it certainly is that’s our core group. Those are who you run with. Those are who have put us in position year after year after year.”
Miller has more than earned the long-term confidence of the Sun to do just that. But he, like the rest of the league, will also be running headlong into what could be an extended period of success for Las Vegas.
The key to that is Wilson. At age 26, she now has two MVPs, a collegiate national title, a WNBA title, an Olympic gold medal and a statue at her alma mater on her resume already. Through her age-25 season, Wilson has accumulated 23.8 win shares — trailing only Lauren Jackson, Tamika Catchings, Nneka Ogwumike and Maya Moore through that age.
“I think she’s building one heck of a legacy at a young age,” Gray said of Wilson. “We talk about people in this league, right? We talk about when they’re at the end of their career and we start having a conversation — ‘Oh, they’re the best or one of the best.’ And then they retire and then we’re like ‘Okay, let’s have the conversation.’ But, she’s at a young age, so we can start the conversation now.”
Wilson has her sights set on greatness and continues to exceed any reasonable expectations every time she steps on the floor. It’s why a supermax deal is in her future (barring something like the Earth crashing into the sun), why the other Aces couldn’t wait to lock in long-term — Las Vegas general manager Natalie Williams has signed Gray, Plum and Dearica Hamby to long-term deals through 2024 — why Williams is likely to find more players willing to take less to join Wilson in Las Vegas, and why this is could be the start of an era defined by Wilson and her teammates.
“I mean, we’re gonna celebrate this one, but the goal is to be a dynasty,” Plum said, her protective goggles pulled up over her championship hat, speaking to reporters in the middle of the Las Vegas locker room. “I know everyone in this locker room came in hungry, and that’s why this happened. So we’ve got to keep that hunger. Because … this should be consistent.”