DeWanna Bonner is primed for a big season with the Phoenix Mercury

By Grant Afseth

It was undoubtedly a strong year for DeWanna Bonner in 2018-19 but she appears primed to follow that up with an even greater performance this season. 

With Diana Taurasi sidelined, the top perimeter player that is primed to step up and fill more of a scoring void is Bonner. It will only help that she is filling the ‘point-forward’ role to start the season. Se thrived in that role after Sancho Lyttle went down with an injury to close out last year.

“I think (Britney Griner) and (DeWanna Bonner) should be fighting for that MVP,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello told reporters after team’s win over the Sparks. “You know, (Bonner) just wants to win. It’s not about her stats or anything like that. She’s so versatile. Such a hard guard. She understands the game extremely well.

“Like I said, with (Griner) the sky is the limit. With (Bonner) it’s just a different player because of her versatility and her athleticism obviously, the way she can handle the ball and change and play different positions. I’m excited to see just how well she can handle it and see she picked up where she left off last year.”

The benefit of having Bonner used in that role this season to start the season is that she doesn’t have to go through an adjustment period. She has a strong understanding of the physical demands that are required to match up with power forwards and how to use her skill-set to her advantage.

The momentum that Bonner built up to end last season carried over during the Mercury’s preseason opener against the Los Angeles Sparks. She ended the night with an impressive 20 points (66.7% FG, 50% 3P, 100% FT), 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, and 2 turnovers in 33:13.

“She’s pretty amazing isn’t she? We’re very happy to have DeWanna Bonner on our team,” Brondello told reporters after the win over the Sparks. “She’s just so versatile. At the four last year, she was such a hard guard. With Alanna Smith doing so well, you can throw her back into the three. We’re going to use her all over the court where we need.

“She’s just a competitor. She’s got that Diana Taurasi in her. She’s got that will to win. She hates losing. She can do it at both ends of the floor and she’s totally fresh and ready to roll.”

The playmaking abilities that Bonner brings to the table are maximized as a point-forward and that’s what makes her such a ‘hard guard’ as Coach Sandy says. There are not many power forwards that can keep up with her from a speed standpoint and that is easily exploited in a spread offense.

The difficulty with trying to slow down Bonner begins with her ability to orchestrate pick-and-rolls as the ball handler. She often gets all the way to the basket because of her speed and long strides. That makes it very difficult for the on-ball defender to be able to go over the screen or to play too closely in general.

The fear that opposing teams have for Griner’s interior scoring ability should present plenty of opportunities for Bonner to capitalize through creating jumpers off the dribble. Putting Bonner’s mid-range game to use is a great option since the danger of her driving to the basket is present. It would be wise to have Bonner let it fly from deep more in pick-and-roll situations while Taurasi is unable to play. A significant portion of their half-court offense typically comes from the legendary guard’s ability to shoot off the dribble and Bonner is a strong candidate to help replace some of that production.

If Bonner can connect enough as a pull-up shooter, then there really isn’t much that a defense can do to combat her in pick-and-roll sequences. Being able to start the season in more of a rhythm than she did last season should only help with accomplishing that.

Phoenix may need to diversify how they are creating pick-and-roll opportunities for Bonner while Taurasi is missing action and they will have no shortage of options to do that. Using early screening in semi-transition and running high pick-and-rolls from further away could put defenses in difficult situations because it often enables her to shift directions and use her explosiveness.

While it is likely that the unit as a whole will take on more responsibility with handling the ball in transition, this is an area that Bonner can capitalize on in particular as well. It should only help that her conditioning is ‘much better’ now compared to where it was last year at this time.

“Coming off pregnancy, I had a couple of months off this year but I was able to train and do a couple things,” Bonner told WNBAInsidr about her conditioning level heading into this season. “I definitely feel a lot more comfortable with the ball and every time down defensively. So thank goodness for that.”

It’s not easy to be able to slow down Bonner in the open court. Her athleticism and size allows her to get to the basket with ease, even if she has to navigate through the defense. She often creates open court opportunities by forcing turnovers but there could be more situations where she is leading the break after rebounds while Taurasi it out too.

What makes the prospect of Bonner handling the ball more in transition especially intriguing is that Phoenix should be well-equipped to help her as a unit. They placed an emphasis on adding young players that can really run the floor and that’s exactly what they did with their selections in the draft.

If guarding Bonner when she is making plays with the ball wasn’t hard enough, being tasked with slowing her down as an off-ball threat can make the task overwhelming. The opposition is always going to have to fear the interior scoring ability of Griner and that sets the tone for how Bonner is able to exploit weaknesses at the power forward spot.

“I think just being aggressive period,” Bonner told WNBAInsidr about why she thrives in the point-forward role. “A lot of times they will double (Britney Griner) so that will get my opportunity to get in the pocket or make some drives, and rebound the ball. Just a really good position. Really fun. Just kind of control everybody. That’s the best part about it.”

Bonner is a dangerous spot-up threat because she can do each of the three main options that are associated with scoring in this situation. She can knock down the simple catch-and-shoot jumper while also being capable of putting the ball on the floor to get to the basket or pull up for a jumper.

The offensive system that the Mercury use and the personnel that they have should continue to create favorable spot-up possessions for Bonner even without Taurasi. Teams are always going to have substantial fear of Griner and power forwards are usually slower to rotate out to the perimeter too.

Another area where playing off Griner will help is when she’s in the paint because that will continue to open up cutting opportunities for Bonner. This should only become more of a focal point as the Mercury continue to rely on Griner more to shoulder a greater scoring load. It could become a true ‘pick your poison’ type of situation for defenses.

Continuing to exploit cutting sequences with Bonner could force opposing teams to play more of an honest approach when trying to guard Griner. Sending double-teams to the post when it results in easy baskets on the weak-side could make the defense re-think their mindset.

There is also the option of running off-screen sequences for Bonner. She was mostly used as a scoring threat in this play type during inbounds plays. Phoenix may want to look into utilizing more in this area within the regular flow of their half-court offense in addition to when they are passing the ball into play.

It’s not easy to score when coming off screens because it often requires a lot of concentration and an established rhythm. Bonner should be better equipped to handle these sequences this season given that she was able to put in more work into her game this offseason compared to the year before.

One of the greatest benefits of playing alongside Griner when filling the power forward spot for Bonner is the ability to crash the boards with greater ease. Teams are almost always going to emphasize helping their frontcourt players to keep Griner off the boards and that leaves them vulnerable to Booner capitalizing on being an afterthought.

It’s not just about being able to benefit from the attention that Griner commands. Bonner does a good job of recovering her own missed drives for putbacks and she thrives at properly timing her pursuit of her teammate’s misses as well. The combination of opportunity and skill creates for a truly intriguing product.

There is a lot to like about what Bonner could do regularly for the Mercury to help fill the void left behind by Taurasi’s inactivity. She is ready from a conditioning standpoint, the supporting cast brings the best out her skill-set, and of course, there will be no shortage of playmaking touches.

Do not be surprised if DeWanna Bonner manages to insert her name into the MVP conversation when it comes time to cast votes for the WNBA’s season awards.