DeWanna Bonner is a quiet MVP contender in 2019.
A list on the far section of the wall that runs behind Diana Taurasi’s locker at Talking Stick Resort Arena can barely contain the abundant awards and accolades piled up by Phoenix Mercury players.
Taurasi has undoubtedly seen the list hundreds of times, reminded of the prolific achievements of the franchise. This summer, recovering from surgery to repair a disc in her back, the wall caught Taurasi’s attention for a different reason. It suddenly occurred to the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer that her teammate, DeWanna Bonner, had been with the Mercury for 10 seasons.
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“It’s pretty incredible what she’s done in 10 years,” Taurasi said, “and the impact she’s had on this franchise. It’s incredible to see her grow as a basketball player. Every year, she comes into training camp and she’s better.”
To avenge their loss in the 2018 semifinals and bring Phoenix a fourth championship, the Mercury will need even more from Bonner than they got during a career-best 2018 that saw her move to power forward mid-season, defend some of the league’s best players in the postseason, and earn her second All-Star berth.
Such consistency and improvement can make it difficult to decipher what precisely goes into a career year. The numbers don’t always show it. Certainly, the spontaneity in Bonner’s game pushes Phoenix’s offense to another level when opponents already must account for Taurasi as well as Brittney Griner inside. Bonner also posted the best assist-to-turnover ratio of her career in 2018 and improved her 2-point efficiency considerably. Opposing teams felt her on the court more than before her absence in 2017.
That absence came as a result of Bonner giving birth to twins. “Coming back off of pregnancy was one of the hardest things I’ve had to come back from, feeling like I’d never played basketball before,” Bonner said. The first game of the 2018 season came less than a year after the day her twins were born.
Camp was smoother for Bonner this time around. She is in better shape and in rhythm already, a scary sign for anyone in the league who remembers the fire Bonner played with at the end of a season that, as she said, was one of the most difficult of her life. The WNBA is about to see what comfortable looks like for Bonner.
The third-ranked Mercury offense was nearly three points better per 100 possessions when Bonner was on the court, according to Positive Residual data. The defense was slightly worse, as Bonner’s ascension coincided with an ACL tear for veteran forward Sancho Lyttle that forced Bonner to play power forward.
“She took her game to another level,” said Stephanie Talbot, who started the first five Mercury playoff games before leaving the lineup with a concussion. “It just made her more aggressive, being a post player, being in the key more. Her rebounding was a game-changer.”
Phoenix gave up the third-highest opponent offensive rebounding rate in the WNBA last season despite Bonner’s energy on the glass, according to Positive Residual. Coach Sandy Brondello has made the boards a priority since the start of camp.
Seattle got a taste of an energized Bonner on Saturday afternoon but still emerged with the win, 77-68. Bonner scored 31 points to go with eight rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.
“It will be a little different for sure,” Bonner said of the adjustment to playing the 4 from the jump. “Last year we were just rolling, it kind of just clicked. This year, we have a whole new team, different people on the outside, Diana’s not here. So it’s definitely been a different kind of adjustment, but it’s been good.”
Phoenix’s 17 turnovers will surely be a focal point of their preparation heading into their home opener May 31 against Las Vegas. There were times the lack of energy in the ball was tangible as the Mercury struggled to find a rhythm without Taurasi, whose shooting and passing usually opens up so much for the offense.
“I can’t make up for Diana but I can be a little bit more aggressive and try to put a little bit more points on the board, that’s for sure,” Bonner said at media day.
One way in which Bonner can replace part of Taurasi’s impact is by leading on the court while Taurasi is recovering. The hierarchy in Phoenix is such that most players defer to Taurasi as the unquestioned leader. Griner has discussed the challenges of finding her spots as a mentor and teammate with a presence like Taurasi, and Bonner will likely step into that role more as well until July, when Taurasi is expected to return.
“She’s a leader, I think she leads different,” said Talbot. “She’s not a leader that’s gonna talk the rookies through how to do it, she’s more of the, ‘I’m gonna lead by example. This is how you need to play every day.’”
Bonner’s play to close the 2018 regular season and into the playoffs spoke for itself. For a decade, she’s proven the ability to adapt and play winning basketball. The next challenge for the All-Star Bonner, whom Brondello believes should be in contention for the MVP trophy this summer, is to adjust her game yet again and take her production to yet another level.
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