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Baylor Basketball

Resiliency in Action: Lessons from the Dale Bonner Story

March 16, 2023

It’s mid-November and Dale Bonner takes a seat with me at the Park MGM in Las Vegas to discuss his plans for the upcoming season.

By early March — when we meet again at the Marriott in Kansas City — he’s gone through about every twist you can go through. Which is fitting because the Dale Bonner story is one of resilience and relevancy.

After playing at Fairmont State, Bonner believed he was ready to play at a higher level. He transferred to Baylor. While most would quickly realize there’s plenty they didn’t understand about the move, Bonner says, “I knew what I was getting myself into. Everybody wants to be a pro, and in order to achieve that goal, you have to take risks and talk to God about the decision that you’re going to make. I just felt like it was a good decision, and me and my family made the decision to see where we’d be at.”

Bonner didn’t play much when he came to Baylor. The Bears featured Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer, James Akinjo, two NBA wings — Jeremey Sochan and Kendall Brown — and maybe a third in Matt Mayer.

With Cryer’s foot injury, Bonner started playing quite a few minutes. “It takes a while,” Bonner says, “to get adjusted to the speed of the game.” At the D2 level, “I was faster than everybody else,” Bonner says. “D1 pretty much everyone is the same.”

With the need to get quickly acclimated, Bonner focused on watching film and meeting with coaches. “With Dale, it’s always about working to improve,” Baylor’s graduate assistant, Chris Nottingham, told me.

North Carolina — somehow not dancing this March after starting the season ranked No. 1 — went up 25 points on Baylor in the second half of last year’s NCAA Tournament game. The Bears rallied, and Bonner proved essential. “Us being down, we just had to stay together,” Bonner says. “The game being a game of runs we knew we were eventually going to close that gap.”

Baylor would have never made it to overtime without Bonner’s big three late:

This summer Bonner seemed entrenched as Baylor’s fourth guard. I had multiple people tell me Bonner had been playing exceptionally and had secured playing backup point guard too.

During early games, Bonner showed his defensive versatility. One of the most important things defensively is what happens when things go wrong. The best offensive schemes and players are going to beat the first line of defense. Against Virginia, Bonner showed how he can use his length to recover and block shots:

South Dakota is quite cold. To not offend anyone else from that state, I’m not going to offer other takes about it. In the final seconds of that game, Baylor needed a defensive stopper and turned to Bonner. His unique ability to attack the ball led to a Gonzaga turnover:

Unfortunately for him, Bonner ended up out of the rotation. When I saw a Baylor staff member in Waco after the KU game, I asked how Bonner would take it. He mentioned, “I’m not sure how he’ll feel, but I really feel for Dale. He’s such a great guy and teammate.”

Bonner’s path to playing time seemed shut. He played six minutes over five games to end January. And over the first six games in February, Bonner averaged just 2.2 minutes a game, including three did-not-plays.

Then Keyonte George injured his ankle against Texas, and Bonner came in and showed out. The Bonner that the staff raved about in August appeared in February in Waco.

Baylor’s defense hasn’t been good this season. That may be the understatement of the year. The Bears rank 104th in adjusted defensive efficiency. If there’s one reason so many people expect Baylor’s season to end in Denver, it’s on the defensive end. But in the Texas game, Bonner once again showed how well he can read passes to lead to a score:

For years Baylor has had a variation of a play called “eye.” If you remember back to the Creighton game in Kansas City in 2018, the Bears ran that play over and over to beat the Jays. In recent years, Baylor refers to its modern iteration as “bullseye.” When I asked Bonner about it and still referred to it as “eye” or “eyes” he showed a stoicism that told me I’d never break him to tell me the plays name.

In bullseye, two bigs come up and set screens, and the guard looks to exploit a switch or whatever mistake the defense makes. Bonner hit Flo Thamba for an easy score:

When I asked Bonner about that play, he says, “Texas wanted to switch it, so I drove down and then waited and hit Flo when I saw him open.”

Bonner finished the Texas game with 13 points. But nothing guaranteed he’d play the rest of the year. George figured to come back shortly from his ankle injury, and Langston Love sat firmly entrenched above Bonner in the rotation.

It would have been easy for Bonner to sulk. He’d tasted significant playing time his first year at Baylor, then figured to be a major piece. Now he was out of the rotation. When I ask him if he ever got down about not playing, he says, “Nah, I’ve been in this position before. You’ve just got to stay ready whenever your name is going to be called. Whether it’s not, I’m going to grind and try and encourage my teammates and try and talk to coaches if I see anything they may not see during the game.”

Against Oklahoma State — with Baylor down both George and Love — Bonner came to play. He finished with 15 points and an incredible 141 offensive rating in 32 minutes. Without Bonner, the Bears lose in Stillwater, and Oklahoma State makes the NCAA Tournament.

Everyone approaches life a little differently. Some wake up believing each day is the one they’re going to conquer something or achieve that goal that’s eluded them. Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell believed they were going for 50 every game. But when I ask Bonner if he even felt confident he’d enter the rotation again, he says, “You never know honestly. You just continue to have to work. Just come in with the right mindset every day and encourage everyone on the team whether I’m playing or not to have the same kind of energy. Just be a good teammate and a good person.”

It's easy to say there’s nothing positive to take from Baylor’s games against Iowa State. The Bears went 0-3 against the Cyclones and got out-rebounded 44-17 in Kansas City. But Bonner played some excellent basketball against Iowa State.

Plenty would have never believed Bonner had a euro-step. There’s a reason you should never just go with what plenty believe. I asked Bonner about his euro-step and he says, “It’s just something you need to have. It’s working with the coaches and developing it.”

Baylor’s opponents also learned that you can’t just hide a big man on Bonner. He’ll take them to the basket:

All season people have played aggressive defenses against Baylor’s guards. “Everyone traps us or hard hedges us,” Bonner says. Sometimes the best decision when the defense wants to force the ball out of the guard’s hands is just to do what the defense wants. Believe in your big men to make a play. Bonner’s done that:

There’s no guarantee for how long any of this lasts. You wake up and feel like you’re in Fort Worth preparing to watch Baylor play North Carolina, then suddenly you’re in Denver for what may be the final weekend for Bonner and plenty of other Bears. This all moves so fast.

Bonner plans to take time after the season and decide what to do. He’ll have a degree in corporate communication this May. And if he keeps playing like this, he’ll have suitors for his final year of eligibility.

Bonner knows basketball eventually ends for everybody. He plans to get into the fashion industry after basketball. Ever the politically correct man, Bonner refuses to pick a worst-dressed man on the team. But when I ask him about his fashion plans, he laughs and plays it close to the vest. “Maybe it’s an idea ahead of its time,” Bonner says. But for this time, he’s keeping that secret close.

The best of the sport is about resiliency. There’s a reason we take early flights across the country to follow young adults playing basketball. And there may be no better story of staying ready than Bonner. He figures to play substantial minutes this weekend, and if Baylor advances, he should be in the rotation the rest of the way.

Through it all Bonner’s remained the right mindset. In our final moments in Kansas City, he tells me, “Everything’s a lesson at the end of the day, whether it’s going good or bad.” Bonner’s life has provided plenty of lessons for us all. 

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Resiliency in Action: Lessons from the Dale Bonner Story

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