Connecticut Sun center Brionna Jones was a lock to appear in her third consecutive WNBA All-Star Game and was in the midst of the most dominant stretch of her career when the Sun played the Seattle Storm on June 20.

With a minute left in the fourth quarter, she tore her right Achilles tendon in pursuit of an offensive rebound and crumpled to the floor. It halted a sustained stretch of outstanding basketball.

A marvelous low post practitioner, Jones possesses a skill set that suggests she was schooled by the likes of Tim Duncan and Kevin McHale during her formative development in the artful nuances of dominating around the basket.

With a soft set of strong hands, a mastery of the subtle hand-to-hand and physical contact that allows her to create space against taller opponents, a deceptive smoothness and impeccable footwork, she’s one of the most difficult players in the world to defend. She’s also a rebounding machine with elite defensive and rim-protection skills.

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Brionna Jones won a Gold Medal with Team USA at the 2022 World Cup in Sydney, Australia
Brionna Jones, who grew up in Havre de Grace, won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2022 World Cup in Australia. (FIBA)

Her full arsenal was on display a few days prior to the Seattle game, against Atlanta, when she scored 28 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while connecting on 70.6% of her shots.

The eighth overall pick in the WNBA draft coming out of the University of Maryland in 2017, she averaged 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds per game as a senior.

Jones, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Havre de Grace, won a state championship at Aberdeen High School.

“From a basketball perspective, the one thing that stood out about Bri when we watched her playing in high school was that she had such a great set of hands and you could tell that she was going to be willing to put the work in,” Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese said. “The more we recruited her, the more we could see that she was just an incredible human being.”

“Bri was always heads above other players just with her work ethic and her dedication,” said her Aberdeen coach, Stacy Liles, when Jones was named the Varsity Sports Network’s No. 1 center of the decade. “And then her hands — that girl could get any ball. No matter where it was, if you got it in there, she would catch it and do something with it. She was just so finesse. But also basketball was 24/7. She was always practicing, doing something with basketball. She was extremely dedicated to the sport.”

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Jones compiled 1,928 points and 1,209 rebounds during her career in College Park, helping to lead the Lady Terps to consecutive Final Four berths in 2014 and 2015.

“Brionna is kind of that gentle giant where she might be giving you 40 points and smiling the entire time,” Frese said. “She was super pleasant and consistent, and that stems from her incredible family that raised her the right way. She’s a winner; all she does is win with humility and a great work ethic. She’s someone who’s never been about the limelight and has always been about putting her head down and going to work. When your best player is that humble and that hardworking, it bodes well for everybody else in the program.”

It took the two-time All-American a few years to get acclimated to the pro game while coming off the bench in limited minutes. During the bubble season in 2020, she began to emerge, starting all of the team’s 21 games and flashing the potential to develop into one of the league’s top bigs.

The breakthrough came during that next season, in 2021, when she averaged 14.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists, earning a selection to her first All-Star team and the league’s Most Improved Player award. She was also named to the WNBA All-Defensive second team.

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From there it was off to Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, for eight months to play for her professional EuroLeague squad. She averaged 19.8 points and 7.9 rebounds.

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Jones picked up where she left off when she returned stateside for the 2022 WNBA campaign, earning her second straight All-Star selection while pocketing the league’s Sixth Player of the Year award. She helped lead the Sun to the WNBA Finals, which they lost to the Las Vegas Aces.

Afterward, rest was once again in short supply as she shipped off to Australia, winning a gold medal with the United States Women’s National Team at the World Cup in Sydney. She averaged 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds for the undefeated Team USA squad.

“After Sydney, I flew back home, switched up the clothes in my bag, hopped on a plane and went straight to Prague for the EuroLeague season,” Jones said.

She averaged 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in helping to lead USK Prague to the league semifinals.

Jones is assisted as she leaves the floor after tearing her right Achilles tendon in a June 20 WNBA game. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

And this season was shaping up to be her best as she averaged 15.9 points, a league-leading 8.2 boards, 2.4 assists and 1.8 steals through Connecticut’s first 13 games.

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And then came the injury against the Storm. Three days later, she went under the surgeon’s knife at the Swedish Orthopedic Institute-Seattle and it was announced that she would miss the remainder of the season.

“When she tore her Achilles, I was devastated for her,” Frese said. “She was having another exceptional year and experiencing a ton of success, and now you go from that to thinking about how grueling and tough the rehab process is when working your way back from an injury like that. The silver lining is that she’s got her best friend, Alyssa Thomas, right there by her side that’s already gone through it so she has someone there to encourage her every step of the way.”

Jones maintains her usual optimistic outlook.

Jones drives toward the hoop for her EuroLeague squad, ZVVZ USK Prague. (FIBA)

“It seemed like everything was falling into place at the beginning of this season, but I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “The last four or five years, I’ve been playing back-to-back seasons in the WNBA and overseas. It was like, when am I going to get a break? But this is definitely not how I wanted it to happen.”

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“We are heartbroken for Breezy,” Sun coach Stephanie White said after Jones’ surgery. “Anyone who knows her knows she’s an amazing person, teammate and leader for our group. On the court, she has worked so hard to position herself as a cornerstone of our franchise and was playing terrific basketball. We will be here for her and lift her up as she goes through the recovery process. As a team, we know we have a job to do, and we will dedicate our work toward the ultimate goal of winning a championship in a way that honors Breezy.”

When a professional athlete suffers an injury of that magnitude, it’s a reminder that the game can be taken away from them at any time. For some, the thought can be daunting. But that’s not the case for Jones, who has long had a plan for when the ball stops bouncing.

A pre-med major who planned on going to medical school when her career ended, she graduated in just three years with a kinesiology degree, a vigorous academic pursuit, especially for a student-athlete.

“Time management was huge for me in terms of being able to balance my academic and athletic commitments,” Jones said. “Between classes, workouts, science labs, homework, study groups, practices, exams, playing night games and traveling to away games, I didn’t have much time to hang out with my friends. It was tough, and there wasn’t a lot of sleep happening when I was in college.

“It also helped that I actually enjoyed and liked my classes,” she continued. “I had always drifted towards science and math my entire life. Those were my favorite and top subjects.”

Jones played in two Final Fours during her career at the University of Maryland. (Maryland Athletics)

She didn’t have to drift far to find her other passion.

The sound of basketballs bouncing in the family’s backyard was ubiquitous. Both of her parents were highly competitive NCAA Division I athletes. Her mom played volleyball at East Texas State, and her dad played basketball at Hartford.

A consistent nightly family activity was Jones, her parents and three siblings gathering around the television to watch college and NBA games.

“We watched games all the time, pretty much every night,” Jones said. “I really enjoyed watching Tim Duncan play. He was the player that I studied the most and wanted to emulate.”

After school and on the weekends, the games of three-on-three in the backyard could sometimes get heated. They’d play the boys versus the girls and switch the teams up occasionally. Her older brother Jarred played collegiately at Loyola. Her younger sister, Stephanie, who also attended Maryland, played briefly for the Washington Mystics and Sun in 2021 and 2022, and she also plays professionally overseas.

“I’ve been playing basketball my entire life,” Jones said. “My parents and all of my siblings played. We’d be out there all day playing. Nobody wanted to go in the house, and we all hated to lose. Both of my parents trained me from the very beginning, and they instilled the fundamentals in terms of footwork and operating in the post.”

Jones helped the Connecticut Sun reach the NBA Finals, where they lost in five games, in 2022. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

When her mother asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, young Brionna never mentioned basketball.

“I want to be a doctor,” she replied.

“I’ve been interested in medicine my entire life,” Jones said. “How the body works has always intrigued me. I’m still considering med school, but I’m also thinking about a grad school program to study physical therapy and rehabilitation science, which will allow me to stay around the game.”

The game. It’s in her blood. The passion and embers of those backyard skirmishes with her family still burn inside of her. As much as she loved playing as a kid, even when she began to develop into an elite college prospect, she never put any pressure on herself about playing in college or the WNBA.

“I’ve always had a genuine love for the game,” Jones said. “When I was younger, playing ball was all about having fun with my family and enjoying the game. That’s what ultimately allowed me to be successful and play at the level that I do now.”

That love is what guides her thoughts about the arduous days ahead rehabbing her Achilles. Right now, she can put only a little pressure on her foot and can’t walk on it. Her recovery is at the beginning stages, starting with toe movement stretches, some slight foot flexing as she tries to build up her range of motion incrementally. Most of those workouts take place in a swimming pool. She’s giving herself a four- to five-month window until she’s back at practice and playing at full speed.

Jones has just begun her injury rehab, but she believes she can get back to representing the U.S. in international competition. (Team USA)

Having recently returned to Connecticut after convalescing at home in Havre de Grace for close to a month, she’s back in the gym with her teammates, contributing in any way she can.

“The thing about Bri is that every day, every year, she’s going to put in the necessary work to come back better than she was before,” Frese said.

“It’s been a long time since I was able to spend that much time at home with my family,” Jones said. “I definitely enjoyed that time, but it’s great to be back around my teammates. I miss playing with them, but now I get a chance to sit on the bench, cheer for them and tell them some of my observations and what I see during the games. It definitely raised my spirits to be a part of the team again even though I can’t play right now.”

When she’s not in the gym, she’ll keep busy with some of her favorite activities – baking cupcakes and cooking, reading crime and murder mysteries and kicking back to watch episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Office,” her favorite movie, “Miss Congeniality,” and anything else that stars her favorite actress, Sandra Bullock.

But her hoops aspirations will always remain at the forefront.

“The 2024 Olympics in Paris was on my vision board before the injury, and it’s still there,” Jones said. “I want my gold medal. One day at a time, I’m going to do everything that I need to do. I plan on coming back to the WNBA at full strength next season, and we’ll just go from there.”

alejandro.danois@thebaltimorebanner.com

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Alejandro Danois was a sports writer for The Banner. He specializes in long-form storytelling, looking at society through the prism of sports and its larger connections with the greater cultural milieu. The author of The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, he is also a film producer and cultural critic.

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