When it was announced Diana Taurasi would miss (at least) 10-12 weeks of the 2019 season with a back injury, the Phoenix Mercury scrambled to plug the (temporarily) glaring hole. Keeping in mind there was no exact replacement for the franchise’s all-time leader in points and assists, the Mercury drafted guards Sophia Cunningham and Arica Carter, signed guards Essence Carson and Alexis Peterson, and re-signed point guard Leilani Mitchell shortly after having to release her. And through six games, sure, the role players have stepped up. but DeWanna Bonner’s rise to MVP-levels is largely the reason Phoenix buoyed in the playoff race sans Taurasi.
“She’s just gone back to her natural position,” Taurasi said a week before the season to AZCentralSports. “She was a true 4 before it became popular to have a post player dribble and shoot threes, be agile and be athletic up and down the court. The 4-man was a traditional big beefhead, set screens. That’s not DB. Her ability is better than most guards anywhere in the world. This is the position she should be playing.”
The 6-foot-4 137-pound Bonner’s game is all about leveraging her versatility, to an almost comic degree. The pronounced dip in her jump-shot doesn’t stop it from arcing over defenders, her patented right-to-left crossover is defined by its yo-yo like swing, and her strides are the wings that fly her coast-to-coast. So far this season, she’s pacing the league with a scoring average of 23.8 points per game.
Bonner, in fact, is averaging the most points of any player since 2014, sixth in the league in rebounds per game and shooting the highest free-throw percentage in league history (97.2 percent). Though it helps that the 10-year Mercury veteran is the go-to option for the first time since Taurasi sat out the 2015 season (or in 2012, when Taurasi had her season cut short), Bonner has still made a leap in her own right.
Bonner has adjusted her game accordingly on a Mercury squad which has otherwise lowered last season’s 3-point shooting and assist totals. Her 23.8 assist rate is not only a career-high, but the first time she’s matched Taurasi’s assist rate in any of her 14 seasons. Paired often with Brittney Griner, Bonner applies pressure to the defense, then makes a dump-off pass:
Bonner is not the passer Taurasi is. She still has a tendency to make decisions before the play unfolds. Here, for example, she forces it to the rolling Griner when a shooter is open on the skip-pass:
However, her ability to manipulate her own gravity on the defense has been much more refined this year and it’s paid huge dividends.
Like Taurasi — who was one of the W’s most creative finishers — Bonner also leverages Griner’s roll-gravity to finish around the cup:
What made the Taurasi-Griner pick-and-roll so dangerous, however, was Taurasi’s willingness to unload from deep. It’s an area Bonner has evidently focused on:
Bonner is willing to fire 3-pointers but, again, she’s not as accurate as Taurasi. This necessitates Sandy Brondello to flank with her snipers, namely Leilani Mitchell, Briann January, and Alana Smith. This presents other problems — given Alana Smith has struggled to defend the perimeter, Briann January can be shy from deep, and Brondello insists on using Mitchell as an off-the-bench spark plug — but surrounding Bonner with shooters provides a cushion in which she can make the occasional off-target pass:
With last season’s starting power forward Sancho Lyttle returning to action, Bonner’s next adjustment is back down to the small forward position, where she will be tasked more with creating situations than high-post touches. Considering her turnovers have been higher as a small forward than as power forward last season (2.1 to 1.2), she will need to find corner shooters:
Though Bonner is the Mercury’s main source of offense, by all accounts, she tends to over-dribble when shooters are open earlier in the play:
When she keeps her head on a swivel, she is able to see over the defender and complete the skip-pass:
With Diana Taurasi aiming to return against the Sparks on Sunday, Bonner will have to, in some ways, revert to second-fiddle. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the mere presence of Taurasi will alleviate Bonner of an influx of double-teams. It shouldn’t be an impossible move for the three-time Sixth Woman of the Year, unless, that is, the transition to the small forward position goes poorly.
While Bonner is lengthier than most every small forward, the Mercury’s next three opponents (Fever, Sparks, and Storm) boast a bevy of wing defenders (Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Alysha Clark, and Betnijah Laney) who Bonner won’t be able to dart past like most power forwards. Having Taurasi come off the bench for a game while Bonner slowly integrates to small forward is the best option, whether or not the former MVP is fully-recovered.
With Taurasi, Bonner, and Griner poised to reform the three-headed monster that bullied opponents for the past seven years, the Mercury have all the potential in the world. Bonner has already proven she is a legitimate MVP candidate; the next step is proving she can do it with Taurasi. The transformation will take time, but if Bonner does so and the Mercury make the necessary changes, their fourth championship may be closer than some think.