UNCASVILLE, Conn. — A’ja Wilson and Jonquel Jones have a lot in common these days.
Both are dominant, versatile post players who can score from anywhere. They represent the WNBA's past two MVPs, with Wilson earning the crown this year and Jones receiving it a year ago.
And both have waited a while for another opportunity to compete for a WNBA championship. It’s been two years since Wilson was on one of the last teams standing. For Jones, it’s been three years.
As a third-year player competing in 2020’s Wubble season, Wilson earned her first MVP after finishing second in points per game (20.5) and first in total two-point field goals (166). She was also selected to the All-WNBA First Team and the All-Defensive Second Team for the first time.
Wilson carried a team that was much less balanced and potent offensively in 2020 compared to the Las Vegas Aces of a year later and this season in 2022. Two seasons ago, the Aces only had one scorer averaging at least 15 points per game out of their five who averaged double digits. Who was it? Wilson. A season later, the Aces had eight players who averaged double-digit scoring, but only one of them averaged above 15 points. Again, it was Wilson. But in 2022, the Aces have four double-digit scorers and three of them (Jackie Young, Kelsey Plum and Wilson) averaged over 15 points per game during the regular season.
The Aces had made it to their first Finals as a franchise in 2020, and in Wilson’s own words, the team was “just happy to be there.” Las Vegas was swept by a Seattle Storm team that featured Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark. It was among the deepest, most balanced and veteran-savvy rosters the league has seen in its 26-year history. The 2020 Seattle Storm had the highest total net rating (15.0) in the league since the 2000 Houston Comets, who won the WNBA championship that season with an 18.4 total net rating.
“It sucks getting swept. It’s the worst thing ever, but that’s the chip on your shoulder,” Wilson said following Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Finals. “That’s the fire. You want to go out and play for your teammates because you felt the way you felt in 2020 and you hate it. I still hate that.”
Jones was a key cog in the Sun’s 2019 WNBA Finals run. She hadn't reached her MVP level quite yet but earned All-Defensive First Team and All-WNBA Second Team honors that season.
In the 2019 playoffs, she showed flashes of dominance in her Finals debut against the Washington Mystics. She led all scorers in three out of the five games. In Game 2, she put up 32 points on 13-of-24 shooting and 18 rebounds in the Sun’s 99-87 win.
But that wasn’t enough. The Sun lost Game 5 thanks to a 22-point performance off the bench from 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman.
“I’ve been on a mission ever since we lost to the Mystics in the Finals,” Jones wrote in The Players' Tribune last year. “It still doesn’t sit right with me. All respect to them, but in my mind that was our title. We had them on the ropes, and we just fumbled the bag, man. Emma [Meesseman] got hot and they went on a run, and the rest is history.”
After falling short of a championship, both players dealt with even more disappointment. Jones didn’t play in the 2020 season because of safety concerns inside the Wubble, and Wilson’s 2021 Aces failed to defeat the Phoenix Mercury in the semifinals. Diana Taurasi ran all over the Aces’ perimeter defense, and Brittney Griner swatted Wilson's potential game-tying layup in the closing seconds of a heartbreaking Game 5.
Meanwhile, the Sun fell to the red-hot Chicago Sky in the 2021 semifinals during Jones’ MVP season—the majority of which Alyssa Thomas was sidelined while recovering from a torn Achilles.
The hunger of both MVPs has been palpable during this series. The urgency and pressure to win a title has been omnipresent since the Finals began on September 11.
Wilson’s dominance in this postseason has been on display from the start, and really throughout her MVP season. She only sat four minutes in four games against the Storm in the semifinals. Following the Aces' 85-71 Game 2 win over the Sun in the Finals, Wilson became the first player in the history of the WNBA playoffs to put together five straight games of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds:
Across the Timeline @WBBTimeline
A'ja Wilson's last 5 games:<br><br>26 PTS / 10 REB<br>24 PTS / 11 REB<br>23 PTS / 13 REB<br>34 PTS / 11 REB<br>33 PTS / 13 REB<br><br>Only player in WNBA postseason history with 5 consecutive games with 20+ PTS and 10+ REB.<a href="https://t.co/js8B6Yz6ka">https://t.co/js8B6Yz6ka</a>
“I think we talk about her numbers offensively, but she's holding it down in the paint defensively,” teammate Chelsea Gray said following the win. “Like a two-way player through and through: rebounding, snatching her rebounds, blocking shots, having our back when I get beat.”
Jones dealt with a less linear season than Wilson, but only a former MVP could call 2022 a down year. She was named to both the All-WNBA Second Team and the All-Defensive Second Team but wasn’t in the two-person MVP race with Wilson and Stewart.
At times this season and throughout the postseason, the Sun have struggled to find their most talented player. Jones has also had difficulty moving off the ball when she hasn’t gotten a touch, which is a direct result of Connecticut’s primary point guard, Jasmine Thomas, missing most of the 2022 season with a torn ACL.
In last year’s semifinals against the Chicago Sky, Jones displayed a lack of aggression and more frustration. But when she faced the Sky again in this year's semis, Jones found renewed poise. She didn’t let the length of Chicago’s defense frustrate her for the entire series.
In the pivotal elimination Game 4 against the Sky, Jones played with a greater sense of urgency. She didn’t have her best shooting night, scoring nine points on 4-of-10 from the field, but she racked up five assists and seven rebounds in a well-rounded performance that led to a Sun win.
In the first two games of this WNBA Finals, Jones was apprehensive and not putting her foot fully on the gas in the manner of an MVP. She wasn’t matching the two-way bravado of Wilson. But on Thursday night, with her back against the wall once again and facing the possibility of missing out on another championship, Jones looked like herself for the first time in a while. She shot 8-of-12 for 20 points with four assists and five rebounds in Connecticut's 105-76 Game 3 win to stay alive in the series after going down 2-0.
“She was so physical tonight,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “[She] demanded the basketball. Active off the basketball in their rotations. You just saw a determined JJ the entire time, a physical JJ, and just determined.”
And determined she was. With 3:36 left in the third quarter and only a 10-point lead over Las Vegas, Jones got favorable positioning on the block. Wilson, who also won Defensive Player of the Year this season, was defending Jones on her hip.
When Sun guard Courtney Williams fed the ball into Jones, Wilson tripped while Jones reached to corral the ball. But then Jones dropped the ball, picked it up, put the shot up over Aces wing Jackie Young, missed, gathered the rebound and scored on the putback through two Aces defenders. When the ball finally slid through the net, Jones was demonstrative about her effort. She yelled and bent her elbows down, turning to face her own bench as she ran the floor to get back on defense.
That’s what an MVP does. Wilson agreed.
“Jonquel played like Jonquel,” she said following Game 3. “She’s an MVP. She played exactly how she’s supposed to play. I’m not going to take anything away from her. She dominated the game the way that she should. I don’t know why people forget, but she’s an MVP. She’s that for Conn and she played exactly how she needed to play for her team to get a win.”
With a championship on the line Sunday, expect Jones and Wilson to play with the sense of urgency required to hoist their first WNBA Finals trophy. A feat they’ve both been craving.