DeWanna Bonner's game blossoms
DeWanna Bonner's relatively short WNBA legacy has been that of the ultimate supporting cast member.
Bonner was awarded the Sixth Woman of the Year in each of her first three seasons in the league, the only player to win the award multiple times.
Her ability to supplement and complement played a big part in the Phoenix Mercury's ability to win a championship in her rookie season in 2009 and back-to-back trips to the conference finals in the next two years.
But 2012 represents a detour in Bonner's previous career path, coinciding with a major change-in-direction for the Mercury: The lithe wing from Auburn has turned into a go-to talent, a transformation borne of hard work and total necessity.
This season will be remembered in Phoenix as the one in which injuries gutted a proud franchise. It started before the season began when Penny Taylor suffered a torn ACL, continued when superstar Diana Taurasi went out with a hip injury, followed by the knee injury that took Candice Dupree off the floor.
I was used to scoring easy baskets and nothing is easy right now. In Phoenix we are not known for losing this many games, but I'm going to take it as a positive sign because we don't have any of our players right now. And the team that's coming back next year will be much better.” -- DeWanna Bonner
Bonner stepped into the starting lineup and into the limelight. And on most nights she has delivered everything but victories. Nicknamed "Instant Offense" or IO by her teammates, Bonner is the Mercury's leading scorer and rebounder this season, averaging 20.0 and 7.2 respectively. She is also the team's steals leader.
Bonner has scored more than 20 points 10 times this season, including the past six straight games, surpassed the 30-point mark twice, including a 38-point effort on July 3 and a 34-point game just last week against New York. And she has averaged more minutes this season than any other player in the WNBA.
Yet Bonner's efforts are not quite enough to keep Phoenix from sinking to the league's worst record. Tulsa's win over Atlanta earlier this week officially dropped the Mercury into the WNBA's cellar at 4-19. Despite Taurasi's return over the weekend, Phoenix has lost 10 consecutive games, hasn't won since June 29 and faces three road games in a row.
Bonner's play will likely be key to whether Phoenix can begin to rebound down the stretch.
"She has really stepped up her game," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said. "Now that Diana is back, I've told her 'Don't defer. Don't stop shooting.'"
Ask Bonner about her experience this season and the word "different" comes up a lot. She looks around the floor and sees a lot of players she didn't play with last season. She has not only tried to fill the gap left by Taylor, Taurasi and Dupree, but also to be a leader and role model to young players, such as rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis and second-year center Krystal Thomas.
"We are taking it day-by-day," Bonner said. "It's definitely strange. I'm used to playing with a different group. But it's been a great challenge for me. Something that I've needed."
Bonner couldn't have known that she was setting herself up for this scenario with a WNBA offseason in which she vowed to improve her guard skills and become a more aggressive scorer.
"I knew I had to score," Bonner said. "I worked on coming off screens and shooting. I worked on defending guards. I worked on my shot."
It's work that paid off in an individual sense, but has not been able to fully lift a crippled team on most nights.
"It is frustrating. I was used to scoring easy baskets, and nothing is easy right now," Bonner said. "In Phoenix we are not known for losing this many games, but I'm going to take it as a positive sign because we don't have any of our players right now. And the team that's coming back next year will be much better."
Gaines said he will continue to ask Bonner to take 18-20 shots a game, even as Taurasi acclimates to playing again and even as defenses key on Bonner with double-teams and efforts to stop the Mercury's new scoring threat.
"Before, she used to pass up shots. But we need those," Gaines said. "She takes quality shots, she's a great 3-point shooter. She can probably do it all, but we need her to score."
Even with Taurasi back in the lineup.
"I told her, 'You are a star now. Don't defer, and you and Diana will feed off of each other,'" Gaines said.