SEATTLE – The afternoon started with a Maya Moore three-pointer from the corner. On the next play, all-time leading scorer Diana Taurasi hit nothing but net from well beyond the arc. The familiar faces, entertaining the crowd like they have for many years.
Both of those veterans would go on to have productive games – Moore won her second straight All-Star MVP – but Saturday’s contest in Seattle was just as much about the other end of the spectrum.
The future of the league was on display, and does it ever look bright. Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, Chelsea Gray and Elizabeth Williams were among the first-time All-Stars putting on a show at KeyArena with one highlight-reel play after another. The Eastern Conference alone had eight players making their All-Star debuts.
“It’s fun right now in the East. There’s a lot of young talent,” East coach Curt Miller said after the game, which the West won 130-121. “You look at the West, and it’s kind of a tale of two stories. Some of the players are in the fourth quarter of their career. But there are a lot of young faces in this league that are poised to be the faces of the future, and a lot of those reside in the East right now.”
The fans in Seattle know what Stewart, the reigning Rookie of the Year, can do on a nightly basis. In watching Jones on Saturday, they witnessed a very similar player nailing three-pointers, running the break like a point guard and even throwing down a dunk.
They saw Gray dish a nifty behind-the-back pass, something she has done often while averaging a career-high 4.3 assists as part of her breakout season. They saw Williams – who ranks second in the league in blocks – rise for a monster rejection late in the third quarter.
Out of all the young players on the court, however, it was Jones and her versatility that stood out the most.
Anybody who watched that game would not be shocked if Jones becomes the best player in the entire WNBA at some point. She had an MVP-caliber performance: 24 points, 10-of-15 shooting, 3-for-8 from three-point range and nine rebounds.
On numerous occasions, she grabbed a defensive board and just took it down the court herself, flashing a handle that you simply don’t see from 6-foot-6 centers. Jones once ran the break and used a behind-the-back move to dribble around a defender and kick out to an open teammate. Her one-handed dunk in the final minute put the finishing touches on a breakout performance.
The Sun center received high praise from some of the WNBA’s all-time greats.
“Jonquel Jones is going to be a problem in this league for a long time,” Taurasi said. “With her stature and the way she can handle the ball, shoot the ball, and work so easy on the court, I just think she’s got a really bright future.”
“She’s somebody that is fun to watch come into her own,” Moore added. “She’s got height, athleticism, and really her confidence is just increased with her finishing ability. She knows where she likes the ball. She poses that threat as a post that can shoot from the outside, similar to [Stewart]. …She’s definitely one of those up-and-coming players that is more coming than up-and-coming, and she’s proving that this season.”
After getting her feet wet as a rookie, Jones is now a leading candidate for Most Improved Player.
At age 23, she averages 15.8 points, a league-high 11.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 54 percent from the field and 41 percent from deep. Jones posted a pair of 20-rebound games early in the season.
Taurasi and Sue Bird had a conversation with Jones right after the game, encouraging her to keep working hard and not take the unique talent she has for granted.
When those veterans eventually decide to call it quits, the league will be in good hands.
“I think she’s a fantastic player,” said Tina Charles, who started alongside Jones in the East frontcourt. “With everything she’s been able to do for the Connecticut Sun and her being in her second year, finding her niche in this league, you don’t really see that happen that fast. …It’s going to inspire a lot of young players when they get into the league and are thinking of when they are going to turn the corner. They can look to someone like Jonquel Jones.”