Look no further than the Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones as an early WNBA MVP favorite

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Ten months ago, Jonquel Jones watched from afar as the Connecticut Sun kicked off their 2020 season in the WNBA bubble. After coming in third in MVP voting in 2019 and positioning the Sun just minutes away from a WNBA title that fall, the Bahamian center had opted out of the 2020 campaign due to COVID-19 concerns. Connecticut started 0-5 without her before finishing the regular season 10-12 and advancing all the way to the semifinals.

Now back in Connecticut, Jones is showing exactly how valuable she is to the 5-1 Sun — and that she’s an early favorite for WNBA MVP.

Jones, a 6-foot-6 forward/center, is averaging 20.0 points and 11.2 rebounds (both team highs), 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 44.8 percent on 3s. She’s also recorded five-straight double-doubles and is the only player in the league averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds (Seattle’s Breanna Stewart is the only player putting up similar numbers at 24.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game). According to Her Hoop Stats, Jones paces the league in win shares with 1.7.

And no, it’s not altogether too early to have this conversation: The Sun played a league-high six games 12 days into the season and are nearly a fifth of the way through their regular season slate, so Jones has a significant body of work to show for it.

Jones’ early MVP case gained traction Tuesday in the Sun’s 90-87 overtime loss to the Seattle Storm: Going up against reigning Finals MVP (and UMMC Ekaterinburg teammate) Stewart, Jones finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocks and defense that held Stewart to just five points after the first quarter.

Perhaps most importantly for the Sun, Jones showed that she can kick things into high gear when her team needs it. Jones had a relatively quiet beginning of the game, but helped erase a six-point deficit in the fourth by scoring 11 points that quarter, including the tying 3 with 43.2 seconds remaining in regulation.

She also had a ridiculous stepback 3 in overtime that made it a one-possession game.

Jones was an All-Defensive First Team, All-WNBA Second Team and All Star pick in 2019, while also leading the league in total rebounds and blocks, so it’s not entirely surprising that she’s having this sort of impact for the Sun.

But for her to have this sort of production six games into her return after being away from the team for over a year and as she gets acclimated to playing with multiple new starters is certainly impressive. And with Alyssa Thomas’ injury, Jones has more of the weight on her shoulders than usual. So far, she’s responded to the challenge with improved scoring, rebounding and assist numbers from her standout 2019 campaign.

“I feel like JJ came in in such a good headspace and just ready to be back with her teammates, and I know her teammates were extremely happy to have her back with them,” assistant coach Brandi Poole said after the Storm game Tuesday. “She’s a difference-maker. She’s a 6-7 kid that can shoot 3s and play inside and go off the bounce, and she’s a great teammate. She’s an All-Star in this league, and she continues to prove that night in and night out.”

Jones credits the attention new teammate DeWanna Bonner demands for helping to open up her offensive game, but she also attributes her strong start more generally to her own mental growth.

“It’s not necessarily anything that’s been done crazy off the court, but just being able to be mentally prepared and understanding that I can get to the places that I want to get to on the court and just having that extra confidence in myself,” Jones said.

Jasmine Thomas has seen the change “definitely with [Jones’] confidence, but more so just with her leadership and assertiveness. She’s just mature. She’s not our young JJ anymore. She’s dominant and she’s demanding, and that’s exactly what we’ve challenged her to be over the years. And she’s definitely that right now. She’s stronger. She’s in great shape. She’s amazing and she’s playing well. I’m just really happy to have her back.”

It’s a long season, though, and Jones isn’t the runaway favorite by any means: The New York Liberty, who alongside the Sun are atop the WNBA standings at 5-1, have two potential MVP candidates in Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney, while Tina Charles is putting up ridiculous numbers (three consecutive 30-point games) for the 2-3 Washington Mystics. The 4-1 Storm have both Stewart and Jewell Loyd, and there’s always reigning MVP A’ja Wilson of the 3-2 Las Vegas Aces. Regardless, it’s so far, so good for Jones and the championship-minded Sun.

Connecticut returns to action Friday against the Mystics at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com.

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