How a three minute trade altered the fates of two WNBA franchises

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

The Los Angeles Sparks were on the clock at the 2016 WNBA Draft and had three minutes to make a selection with the sixth overall pick.

With the draft being held in their home arena, the Connecticut Sun were watching the Sparks more closely than any other team. Having already made two first-round selections, Connecticut wanted to make one more. And the team’s staff knew who they wanted to take: George Washington University forward/center Jonquel Jones.

During 180 seconds that would change the future of both teams, the Sun sent the 15th and 23rd picks in the draft, its first round pick in 2017 and guard Chelsea Gray to the Sparks for the draft rights to Jones and the 17th pick in the draft.

It is infrequent in sports when a trade is mutually beneficial for both teams and actually makes both trade partners better. But that’s what this one did, as both teams are still reaping the benefits of this particular deal.

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Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller got his first job in the WNBA as an assistant coach under Brian Agler in Los Angeles in 2015. After one season with the Sparks, Miller got the head coaching job in Connecticut. Coming from the Sparks, Miller knew his former team wanted the Los Angeles native Gray.

“There was an interest level and a respect for Chelsea Gray in the organization all along,” said Miller, who now also serves as the Sun’s general manager.

But before the Sun and Sparks were going to make a trade, Connecticut had two first-round picks it needed to make at No. 3 and No. 4.

“We wanted to figure out first how we were going to use the third and fourth pick,” Miller said.

With the No. 3 pick, the Sun drafted a local talent: forward Morgan Tuck of the University of Connecticut. Tuck was the third straight Husky to be selected at the start of the draft, following teammates Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson. After selecting Tuck at No. 3, the Sun selected guard Rachel Banham of the University of Minnesota with the fourth pick.

But Miller admitted that his and the front office’s hearts were with Jones.

“We loved her versatility, her ability to rebound well and to score inside and outside,” Miller said. “We saw her as a long-term pro in the league with a huge upside. We knew we had to grab a guard, but we couldn’t avoid talking about Morgan and Jonquel. We didn’t know we could draft two players who could play the same positions.”

When Los Angeles went on the clock, the Sun knew it had to make its move for Jones.

“It was a three minute deal,” Miller said. “It happened right when Los Angeles got on the clock. We had the package ready and knew other teams behind Los Angeles weren’t going to pass on her. So we offered Chelsea and the draft picks. It was worth the risk.”

And so the trade went through. But little did either of these teams know just how much one trade would impact the fortunes of both franchises.

After starting only six games during her rookie season, Jones had a sensational sophomore season for the Sun. She led Connecticut in scoring with 15.4 points per game, but Jones’ most impressive production came on the glass. She broke the single season WNBA record for most rebounds in a season and led the league with just under 12 boards per game. Jones also led Connecticut in blocks, averaging 1.5 per game.

Her strong second year earned Jones her first trip to the WNBA All-Star Game and the league’s Most Improved Player Award for 2017. Most importantly, her dominance helped Connecticut to a 21-13 record and its first playoff appearance since 2012. Jones’ ability to score, defend, and rebound is on display in this video below:

Had Jones stayed in Los Angeles, who knows if she would have had the same opportunity to dominate like she has in Connecticut. That’s because the Sparks have two All-Stars and MVP’s in their frontcourt in Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker.

“She’s become a versatile inside-outside 5,” Miller said. “There’s really no one else like that. She’s proven to be durable and tougher than anyone expected. I would’ve expected her to be doing this at the 4 position, but she’s really handling the physicality well.”

“She’s only scratching the surface right now and she’s only going to get better. She’s going to become a better defender and she’s going to become a better post player. It’s remarkable.”

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Despite all of Jones’ success, there’s still a valid argument that the Sparks got the better end of the deal in acquiring Gray from Connecticut.

Drafted by the Sun in 2014, Gray missed her rookie season due to a knee injury. In her lone season on the floor for Connecticut, Gray came off the bench in 2015. At the time, Gray and Jasmine Thomas were splitting time at point guard for the Sun.

When she was traded to the Sparks, Gray became the team’s backup point guard off the bench. However, Gray was now playing alongside a plethora of All-Stars looking to get the Sparks back to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2003. By providing an offensive spark off the bench, Gray helped Los Angeles capture its third WNBA title and first since 2002.

“I don’t think Los Angeles wins without Chelsea Gray last year and look at what she’s doing for them this year,” Miller said.

As Miller alluded, Gray’s breakout moment came in 2017 after veteran guard Kristi Toliver signed with the Washington Mystics in free agency. Gray took Toliver’s spot in the starting lineup and never looked back.

After averaging just under six points per game in 2016, Gray raised her scoring total to nearly 15 points per game on 50 percent shooting this season. Along with being the third-highest scorer on the team, Gray led the team in assists this season (4.4 assists per game). Gray not only established herself as one of the best passers in the league this year, but also as one of the league’s finest three-point shooters. Gray’s 48 percent shooting from behind the three-point line was the highest in the WNBA this season. Like Jones, Gray earned her first trip to the WNBA All-Star Game this year.

Watch Gray’s outstanding passing skills and her ability to score at the rim and from the outside here:

According to Gray, the difference this season has been an increased confidence in herself because of the trust her teammates have in her.

“Our veteran leadership make my job easier and make me look good,” Gray said. “The confidence they have in me to get them the ball and to make shots has helped.”

Sparks All-Star forward Nneka Ogwumike had nothing but high praise for Gray.

“She’s going to be one of the best point guards in the league,” said Ogwumike, who won the MVP award last year. “Her vision makes her such a great point guard. From a physical standpoint, her continuation is so impressive. She doesn’t take what the opponents give her.”

With Gray running the offense, the Sparks went 26-8 this season to finish with the second-best record in the league. Currently facing the Phoenix Mercury in the semifinals of the WNBA playoffs, Gray and the Sparks are hoping to repeat as champions this year.

Although he gave a thumbs up to the trade, Miller has been impressed with Gray’s play.

“She’s in the best shape of her career,” Miller said. “She’s really strong and so physical as a point guard which makes her such a talented finisher.”

But this trade also benefitted players other than Jones and  Gray. With the departure of Gray, Jasmine Thomas emerged as an All-Star at point guard for Connecticut this season by setting career-highs in points, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and steals. Furthermore, the Sparks flipped the 2017 first round draft pick they got from Connecticut to acquire guard Odyssey Sims from the Dallas Wings.

“It’s been a beautiful trade that’s worked out really well for both sides,” Miller said.

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