After the Mercury's second practice of the day on Friday, I sat down with #5 pick DeWanna Bonner to get to know this talented young player from Birmingham, Alabama. A rookie whose coach says is a game changer in the class of Candace Parker and whose superstar teammate, Diana Taurasi, called "young KG Bonner".
I asked DeWanna how she wants to be viewed at the end of the season and what her goals were this year. If you think those around her are setting the bar high, here's what Bonner had to say for herself:
"I want to be Diana. I want to be Diana Taurasi."
This 21-year-old who graduated from Auburn days before coming to Phoenix is not timid. She continued.
"You know, there are some great players in this league, and so many people I could say I want to be. By the end of the season, of course, Rookie of the Year. That's something you've got to work towards. And from there you just have to try and be a great mentor for the league, not just basketball but as a person. Lisa Leslie's one of those great people like that...She's a great person outside and also she's a great basketball player."
You have to wonder if DeWann's confidence is simply the naivete of a young person with the world at their feet. Someone who's not yet experienced the set backs and roadblocks that stand in between lofty goals and the highest level.
As sports has shown us time and again, talent will get you in the door but hard work, along with overcoming adversity, is what separates and defines the greatest from the good.
The road to glory for all young players has to start somewhere and if the first steps are filled with determination and belief in themselves then the path will always be shorter. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance but I always love when players walk right up to it and while they may stumble across from time to time, that is preferable to the alternative.
There's no way to know at this point before playing a single game as a professional where DeWanna will end up. Her father, though, thinks she has legitimate superstar potential and he's got more than just a daddy's pride to back up that assessment.
DeWanna is the daughter of Greg McCall, a former player in the now-defunct CBA. Greg is also a former assistant coach with the D-League Bakersfield Jam where he at one point crossed paths with Mercury Head Coach Corey Gaines. Also, he's the current assistant coach for the women's basketball team at Cal State University at Bakersfield after spending 10 years as the women's head coach at Taft College.
Greg was in the stands watching the Mercury practice and said that his daughter is a humble person at heart and will use the high expectations to motivate herself to succeed.
I asked Greg a few questions about DeWanna's game, specifically about her ability to bang in the post with bigger, more experienced players and how she would deal with the added pressure of having to learn multiple positions as she's expected to play anywhere from shooting guard to center for the Mercury.
McCall felt that DeWanna's experience playing multiple positions so far in her career and her high basketball IQ would help her overcome those challenges. She uses her quickness and leverage in the block and her innate basketball skills to fit in regardless of her role. As a thin player himself, McCall has helped DeWanna learn how to play "skinny strong".
Certainly Greg's opinion of his daughter is biased by his immense and well-deserved pride but what he said echoed something veteran Tangela Smith told me the about DeWanna.
I asked Smith about DeWanna's size and how it felt to her so far playing against the rookie in practice and if she thought that would be a challenge for the youngster with legs skinny enough to earn her the nickname "Sticks" from Diana Taurasi.
Tangela had some perspective on what Bonner would face. "Look, I was 130 coming out of college and I've lasted 12 years in this league. She's athletic, she's quick. Just because she has to guard bigger players, they have to guard her, too. She's quick, she can just go around them. She's going to get stronger as she gets in the weight room. We have her in the weight room every day. She's going to get stronger and better and I think she's going to last a long time in this league."
For her part, DeWanna explained that her size is a family trait and that she's gained weight since college where she said she was about 120lbs but now claims to be 137lbs. That might be a stretch for this unusual athlete, whose coach at Auburn described this way, "She's 6-4 and literally built like a straw. When you first lay eyes on her ... you think, how can that be a player? You haven't seen one before of her build and you won't see one ever again maybe."
Bonner continues to work out in the weight room but is only looking to maintain where she's at right now, not wanting to interfere with her shot or the quickness and running game that's made her the player she is. She chuckled as she leaned forward and explained, "That's about it, until I have kids and I'm not going to have kids because I'm really spoiled."
That's what you get from DeWanna: A quick wit and engaging smile combined with youthful energy and excitement that is a pleasure to be around.
DeWanna started playing basketball around the 3rd grade and also played volleyball like her mother. I asked her how she felt about having the opportunities to play professionally, something her mother might not have had available to her.
Her response was a bit surprising at first. "I always grew up when there was a women's league so I don't know. I can't even picture my mom out there dribbling a basketball."
DeWanna's comment might not be what you'd expect. After giving it some thought, though, it is probably a great sign for how far the WNBA has come since its inception when DeWanna was a nine year old girl.
I can picture Mercury General Manager and women's sports pioneer Ann Meyers Drysdale smiling as she reads this.
DeWanna seems to be the perfect fit with the first thing Ann told me about the WNBA. "To me, it's an opportunity for a lot of young women to continue pursuing something that they love, whether it's sports or anything else and this just happens to be basketball."
Thanks to Ann and many like her, DeWanna has all kinds of opportunity and grew up in a world were young girls can afford to take that for granted. That's surely a "plus", as Ann might say.
The Mercury are about a week into training camp and have their first preseason game against the Sacramento Monarchs coming up on Wednesday and play their final preseason game at home on Saturday, May 30th against the Seattle Storm with Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson.
DeWanna's goals for camp are focused on learning the system and her teammates and getting her conditioning ready to run in the Mercury's up-tempo offense. DeWanna sees her strengths as her ability to run and finish and is continuing to work on her 3 point shooting to improve that area of her game.
Rookies in all sports attract special attention from fans as they represent a fresh start and the excitement of something new. Like any new relationship, after the initial thrill, most times the hype isn't warranted as young players naturally take years to adjust to the professional game and in many cases don't pan out at all.
Sometimes, though, a rookie comes on the scene and makes an immediate impact. Those that seem to be able to break through often have a combination of talent, work ethic and confidence combined with the right situation and opportunity.
It remains to be seen if DeWanna Bonner has just the right mix to rise above her peers in the 2009 WNBA rookie class. She certainly isn't lacking confidence and playing in Phoenix will be the best situation for her unique skill set. She's coming in behind a lot of established players and might not see the consistent minutes she'll need to put up attention grabbing numbers but in the long run DeWanna should benefit from playing with Dee, Cappie and Tangela.
We'll be following DeWanna throughout her rookie season and will check in periodically to see how she's adjusting to the increased level of competition.
The Mercury open their 34-game season at home on June 6th against the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Silver Stars. With lower level seats going for the price of a movie ticket, Phoenix basketball fans might want to drop by and see this team play. The game has improved over the past 5 or 10 years with more developed post play, many seasoned vets and a bevvy of talented young players.
If you are interested in learning more about DeWanna, you can listen to the full interview which includes a brief interruption from Tangela Smith. There's more here about her interests off the court and more thoughts on her team and career to come.
Also check out DeWanna's own blog on WNBA.com where she talks about her first few week in Phoenix.