UNCASVILLE, Conn. — DeWanna Bonner doesn’t like change, especially when so much comes at once. And much to her distress, that’s exactly how the offseason went for the Connecticut Sun. New coaching staff and general manager, two franchise cornerstones leaving and new players entering — it would be a lot for any player to acclimate to.
“I was in freak-out mode, I’m not going to lie,” Bonner told ESPN after a recent practice before laughing.
Yet, Connecticut has hardly missed a beat this summer, even after the season-ending injury to two-time All-Star Brionna Jones. The Sun (23-10) join the superteam Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty as the only squads in the WNBA above .600.
“[When Jones got hurt] everybody was like, ‘Oh, Connecticut, they’re done,” Bonner said. “But I felt like once we figured it out, once we brought a couple more people along — and we still got some firepower in that locker room — we’re just waiting to hit our peak. And I think it’s coming real soon.”
Alyssa Thomas, Bonner’s teammate and fiancée, expected success all along.
“I’ve had to get her to see my vision. It takes a while for her, until it starts happening,” Thomas said, while Bonner chuckled. “If she doesn’t see it, then she’s like, ‘I don’t know.'”
“I don’t want to get my hopes up,” Bonner interjects. “I need to see it happen before I even get to that point, because if it doesn’t happen, I’m probably going to be crushed.”
With less than three weeks left in the regular season, Connecticut has asserted itself as a title contender and has clinched a seventh consecutive playoff berth. The Sun might not have four former No. 1 picks like the Aces, or two former MVPs like the Liberty (and Aces), but they have the blazing duo of Thomas and Bonner, whose career seasons and ability to push each other are a driving force of the team’s success. Thomas has even cemented herself as an MVP candidate behind a record five triple-doubles this season.
Off the court, things are at a high too: The couple, who started dating during the 2020 “bubble” season, got engaged during the All-Star break in July.
And if the end goal of their vision on the court is fulfilled, something momentous is in store for the Sun this postseason.
“I think because of our leadership with those two in particular, our versatility and the pieces around them, we’re a scary team,” Connecticut coach Stephanie White said. “Nobody wants to play us, and we still have a road to a championship. It’s a different road than we expected. But we still have an opportunity in front of us.”
THOMAS HAS PLAYED her entire 10-year career in Connecticut and has seen plenty of personnel flux. She anticipated more change when the Sun lost to the Aces in last year’s WNBA Finals, their second appearance in the championship series in four years. Connecticut, which debuted in the league in 2003, has the most playoff wins without a title (37).
Thomas’ instincts were correct: After seven years in Connecticut, former head coach/general manager Curt Miller took the Los Angeles Sparks head job in October. A month later, the franchise hired White, a former assistant with the Indiana Fever when they won the 2012 title and the head coach when they returned to the Finals three years later.
Thomas found the new direction refreshing. After doing mostly the same things for seven years, “you kind of fall out of love with it,” she said.
Darius Taylor came in as general manager. He traded longtime point guard Jasmine Thomas and 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and acquired vets Tiffany Hayes and Rebecca Allen, as well as younger talents Tyasha Harris and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
Watching it all take shape, Thomas had no concerns about the team’s trajectory. It took Bonner more time to get used to things, but the mood around Uncasville in the offseason was promising.
“A lot of people thought we were going to be in rebuild [mode], but no one around here had that mindset,” Bonner said.
After spending her first 10 seasons in Phoenix, where she won two championships, Bonner came to Connecticut in a 2020 sign-and-trade, aiming to help the Sun win their first title. “That’s what drew me in even more,” she said.
Alyssa Thomas’ triple-double fuels the Sun to victory
Sun’s Alyssa Thomas drops 21 points with 20 rebounds and 12 assists to lead Connecticut to victory over Minnesota.
Part of the revitalized spirit came from White’s new offense: a free-flowing, read-and-react system with greater emphasis on spacing with Thomas as the focal point. A 6-foot-2 forward, Thomas has the facilitating abilities and vision of a point guard, while also being one of the league’s premiere defenders who can guard 1 through 5. She would have the ball more than ever, allowing her versatility to shine.
To make it work, Bonner and Thomas had to get everyone on board and serve as a bridge between the newcomers and returners. In a reflection of their personalities, they lead in distinct ways: Thomas embodies more of a calm demeanor who sets an example on the floor, while Bonner brings a more emotional, energetic spark and vocal presence in the locker room.
“I think it works well together,” Brionna Jones said. “They just complement each other well.”
When Bonner gets riled in a game, Thomas helps her refocus on executing, White said. And if Thomas internalizes something or believes she’s not playing to her potential, Bonner is the one to tell her, “We need you,” White added. In other words, “they know how to push each other’s buttons,” Jones said.
“They both really do a good job of picking their moments in terms of their leadership and what needs to be said and how it needs to be said, and that they’re holding each other and their teammates accountable,” White said.
BONNER’S ALL-STAR BID last month, her fifth overall and second since arriving in Connecticut, was in some ways her most meaningful.
It wasn’t so much that she accomplished it at this stage — Bonner, who turned 36 on Monday, was the oldest All-Star in Las Vegas — but that it happened months after she tore the scapholunate ligament on her left wrist while playing overseas in the offseason, the first major injury of her pro career. The March surgery and rehab process marked unchartered territory, and the physical challenges — getting motion back in her wrist and eventually getting her shot back — took a toll. Bonner is a perfectionist, Thomas said, oftentimes fearing she would never be the same player.
Yet, the injury has been barely noticeable as she’s averaging 30.4 minutes per game while appearing in every regular-season contest despite her wrist is not being fully healed.
But just as the team was finding a groove, Jones, the 2022 Sixth Woman of the Year, ruptured an Achilles in late June — blowing up the team’s big three that, as many analysts had projected, gave Connecticut its best shot of winning a championship.
“I think I saw the positive in it,” Thomas said.
Bonner started laughing before she could answer.
“I was freaking out again,” Bonner said, adding that it took her time to get out from under the dark cloud of Jones’ injury. “You have a huge piece missing, and it’s just like, ‘What the f— are we about to do?'”
To Bonner, Jones represented a comfort zone and calming presence. She and Thomas are incredibly close, but Bonner admits they sometimes butt heads on the floor. “It fuels them and it brings the best out of each other,” Jones said of Thomas and Bonner’s competitive natures.
Thomas also had to get Bonner — who was still figuring out her role in the new offense — to learn to play without Jones. Utilizing smaller lineups would give players more space inside the paint and generate mismatches. But at first, Bonner thought she had to play completely differently at the 4 instead of just sticking to her strengths — something made possible with White’s flexible system.
Since Jones, their second-leading scorer and rebounder, went down, the Sun’s win percentage and net rating (5.6 points per 100 possessions) are third-best in the league, and their defensive rating is first.
“Breezy going down could easily have been more than a bump in the road for this group,” White said.
Alyssa Thomas notches her 4th triple-double of the season
Alyssa Thomas racks up 17 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for the Sun to extend her WNBA record for career triple-doubles.
BONNER AND THOMAS have made plenty of adjustments this season, but their stats haven’t seen any drop-off.
Bonner produced back-to-back 30-point games for the first time in her career in late July, and had her first 40-piece in early June. She is on track to join all-time greats Cynthia Cooper and Diana Taurasi as the only players to average at least 17 points at age 35 or older.
Thomas has shattered a slew of triple-double records, compiling three in the week following Jones’ injury and registering the WNBA’s first 20-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist game earlier this month. Essentially playing point-center, she is within reach of becoming the first player to lead the league in both rebounds (10.0 per game) and assists (7.9 per game), catapulting herself into the MVP conversation alongside the Aces’ A’ja Wilson and Liberty’s Breanna Stewart.
Thomas doesn’t feel like she’s doing much differently this year though she says, “I haven’t had this much fun in a while.”
Bonner has no problem putting Thomas’ feats into context.
“She might not be scoring as many points [as Stewart or Wilson], but look at our team and look at their team,” Bonner said. “Not taking away from our team, but they’re superteams from the beginning. Nobody ever thought we would be here, and it’s just impressive.”
After watching New York and Las Vegas clash earlier this month, Thomas asked Bonner whom she thought will win MVP. Bonner knows who she believes should win it, but didn’t know how to answer her partner.
When Thomas said she believed she probably wouldn’t win it, Bonner gave Thomas that familiar nudge.
“You still got 10 more games. Make them give it to you,” Bonner said. In her three games since, Thomas scored 22 points in a pair of wins, among her season-high scoring efforts, and in the loss was just three assists shy of a triple-double.
But to Thomas and Bonner, accolades only mean so much. Bonner said she doesn’t feel like she’s had success in Connecticut yet because she hasn’t won a championship. Thomas professed winning MVP would be “huge,” but then it “doesn’t mean anything really until you get that championship, so that still doesn’t change the goal.”
Fortunately for Bonner, as she works to embrace her new position, and for the championship-minded Sun, Thomas has an idea of how to get atop that mountaintop, too.
“I’m still working on it — I’m trying to get her to see the vision for playoffs,” Thomas said with a smile. “But it’s OK. We’re right where we want to be.”