The Connecticut Sun shook up the WNBA snowglobe on day two of 2020 free agency when they acquired DeWanna Bonner in a sign-and-trade deal with the Phoenix Mercury. Connecticut added another star one day after re-signing franchise center Jonquel Jones. The team that was just 10 minutes away from winning a championship in 2019 will look very different moving forward. If and when the 2020 season gets off the ground, what can we expect from Bonner with her new team?
Connecticut led by three with seven minutes remaining in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals. The Mystics outscored them 19-8 the rest of the way. The Sun went scoreless in six of eight possessions at one point as Washington went on a 13-3 run to pull ahead for good. That’s a natural starting point when envisioning Bonner’s role and impact in 2020 and beyond.
Bonner is going to have the ball in her hands in those big moments. Most of Connecticut’s offense flowed through Jones and facilitating 4 Alyssa Thomas. It’s tough to win a title without a perimeter-oriented option that you can lean on late in games. Courtney Williams, who requested a trade to Atlanta as a restricted free agent this offseason, was supposed to be that player. Bonner will be both late-clock insurance and a go-to option for the Sun. She can get to the rim with or without a screen. At 6’4”, she sees over smalls and is too quick for bigs on an island.
Sliding Bonner up to the 4 was always a looming late-game, playoff chess move for Phoenix. She’ll be a full-time 3 in Connecticut with Thomas and Jones entrenched in their respective roles. Those three will be able to just go play. Station two capable shooters around them and cycle through actions until you find some new favorites.
We saw some Thomas running the point in the Finals. Bonner and Jones can screen for each other, attacking immediate openings or attacking the smaller defender in the post if the defense switches.
Thomas can create advantage situations when she doesn’t get guarded outside the lane via screens and dribble handoffs. Her lack of a credible jumper is a likely impetus for the shift to point guard in a playoff setting. If Thomas makes solid contact on a screen with Bonner’s defender in these situations, Bonner will see giant pockets of space to pull up or get going downhill.
Simply being a perimeter scoring option isn’t enough for what Connecticut wants to accomplish. The Sun got a go-to player that took 30-plus percent of her shots at the rim in three of her last four seasons. She’s been efficient when she gets there, shooting north of 60 percent from the restricted area since 2016. The mix of craft and patience she put on film is impressive. And if Jones’ 3-point game really takes off, opposing centers might not even be around all that much to bother Bonner’s drives.
Bonner is a closeout killer. Ultimately, that might be her biggest strength. There’s no catch-all solution when you’re trying to run at a 6’4” wing. Close short and she shoots unbothered. Run hard and she’s in the lane. She’s also a good cutter. With Thomas and Jones being such integral pieces, Bonner’s ability to thrive off-ball is vital.
She’s known for her willingness to shoot from way beyond the arc. A 28-footer doesn’t even make her blush. Ask coaches around the league. Opponents really pay attention to that range.
But she is a career 30 percent 3-point shooter. It’s been fair for some time now to think some of those attempts need to go away or at least turn into ‘normal’ spot-up 3-pointers. Don’t make them harder than they need to be.
Connecticut might be a little light on shooting after also losing sharpshooting wing Shekinna Stricklen. They need their shooters to make teams pay for feinting toward and digging down on Jones in the post. Bonner’s performance on catch and shoots will be interesting. There is clear value in that comfort spotting up a few steps behind the line.
Connecticut already was a top-five defense in each of the last three seasons. They’ll be really scary with the top six in their rotation. Head coach and general manager Curt Miller recently teased a starting lineup with Bria Holmes at the 2. They’ll have a ton of length on the floor with that unit. Starting point guard Jasmine Thomas and reserve, at least in this scenario, guard/wing Briann January have combined to earn 10 All-Defense nods.
Holmes and Bonner will open the door for them to do a ton of switching. Putting either one on an opponent’s top perimeter scorer will make it easy to switch ball screens. Teams won’t get downhill on them as easily. You won’t need to scramble and rotate as much. Opposing star players will need to default to playing more one on one.
A Phoenix win back in 2018 provided some good examples. The versatility of Bonner and Sancho Lyttle helped Phoenix grind some of Washington’s possessions to a halt. Kristi Toliver and Elena Delle Donne had to face up and play one on one. Creases to attack and set others up for open 3-pointers weren’t there. Alyssa Thomas can easily be thrown right in Lyttle’s place in a similar scheme.
And the Sun will be just as stout when they opt to defend actions more traditionally. The floor will look small with three or four of Bonner, Jones, Holmes and Alyssa Thomas out there together. January and Jasmine Thomas can tackle the toughest assignments on the perimeter.
Alyssa Thomas will continue to get plenty of chances to ignite their running game. Transition chances should go way up for Bonner. Connecticut ranked in the top three in overall transition frequency in 2018 and 2019 per Synergy Sports. Phoenix was dead last in both seasons. The gap was comical last season. Connecticut used 522 possessions in transition compared to just 244 for Phoenix.
Bonner will be 35 in the final season of her new four-year max deal, and the Sun ended up losing two starters. The latter is never easy to stomach, no matter how massive your biggest splash was. But this team is ready to win right now anyway. Teams don’t get to dictate every last detail, especially when trying to pry somebody away in free agency.
In a vacuum, the Bonner deal alone didn’t force Williams or Stricklen out the door. Miller didn’t choose one over two. Williams made it clear that she wasn’t thrilled to receive an initial offer below her max. But was she dead-set on Atlanta all along? The Dream signed Stricklen in mid-February and acquired Williams in a sign-and-trade several days later. Did Connecticut make the right choice?
You have to make a move of this magnitude when you get the chance. Bonner is a better player than either departed starter. Don’t overthink this. Bonner chose Connecticut. Uncasville, Connecticut.
The Sun got close in the 2019 Finals. Really close. We knew all along that this offseason was going to force them to make some tough decisions with eight members of the 2019 roster hitting free agency at once. Miller made an aggressive play. Their window is now. Whenever play resumes, Bonner will give them a chance to get right back to the game’s biggest stage.
Catch up on every offseason move with our 2020 WNBA free agency tracker. Graphic by Akshay Ram.