FAIRMONT — Just a few months ago, most Mountain East Conference basketball fans had never heard the name Dale Bonner. Now, he’s proving to be one of the most electrifying players in the league.
Bonner, a redshirt freshman guard for Fairmont State, is quickly blossoming into a standout player during his first collegiate season. He’s currently averaging 19.1 points and 6.2 assists per game and has tallied three double-double performances in 13 contests for the Falcons. He ranks third in points per game and first in assists per game in the MEC, and has already garnered one MEC Player of the Week award for his efforts on the hardwood.
When you watch Bonner’s smooth play on the court for Fairmont State, you’d assume he was the type of athlete that required winning a fierce recruiting battle to land. However, Bonner wasn’t a highly touted prospect, despite averaging 16 points per game as a senior for the Shaker Heights (Ohio) Red Raiders at the prep level.
While current Fairmont State head coach Tim Koenig — then leading MEC rival Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio — recalls having some interest in him at the time, Fairmont State was the only program to give him a firm offer to play collegiately.
“What really led me to Fairmont was the love they showed when I came down here. It just felt like home. They really believed in me, and it was the only offer I had at the time. I wasn’t just going to pass up on it,” he said.
While the lack of college attention compared to other prospects around him at the time didn’t end up hurting him in the long run — he certainly appears to be carving himself a spot as one of the top MEC and Division 2 guards for years to come — it definitely lit a fire underneath him once he secured his spot with the Falcons. He decided once he had a home that he was going to demonstrate for coaches and fans alike across the region why he’s not the type of athlete that should have been skipped over.
“To be honest, I don’t really know why I didn’t have more offers. But it is what it is. Those schools that passed up on me probably regret it now. I wanted to prove to everyone that I belong at this stage and I can do anything I put my mind too,” he said.
Everybody Loves Dale
Standing at six foot, three inches, Bonner is taller than your average male, but he juxtaposes his athletic figure with a quiet personality. Talkative yet soft-spoken, Bonner gives off the vibe of a person that likes to put others first. Maybe that’s why you’d be hard-pressed to find a negative opinion of him on Fairmont State’s campus.
“In team activities he has a great time and he gets along with everyone — he’s the type of guy you want to be around. Top-to-bottom on the roster and all around campus, people love the guy,” Koenig said.
That naturally likeable persona bleeds into Bonner’s approach to the game and his team, and that has played a large part in him settling into a leadership role on a young squad that features just three returning players who saw significant minutes last season. Between his easy going personality and dynamic play on the floor, he has become one of the players that is looked up to in the locker room.
“I think my teammates just believe in me and what I say, so they just fall in line. If they think it sounds right, they ride with me. It means a lot. It shows our togetherness, and how we go to battle together each and every game,” he said.
Of course, it likely doesn’t hurt Bonner in his teammates’ eyes that he’s often the one creating their scoring opportunities. His league-leading 6.2 assists per game also ranks 17th in NCAA Division 2, the only freshman ranking in the Top 50 nationally in the category.
“He’s so unselfish. He doesn’t worry about statistics, he just plays to win. He cares about winning and cares about his teammates, and that’s a special thing. That’s just who he is,” Koenig said.
Bonner’s approach to playing the game seeks to involve all of his teammates on the floor and incorporates a pass-first mentality, as he tries to create momentum and energy for both himself and his team to feed on.
“My mentality is to get everyone involved and just look for my teammates first. I want to get everyone else going and then feed off of their energy. I feel like if everyone is involved, everyone is playing harder and it gets everyone going. Who doesn’t what to get their teammates going,” he said.
A Work in Progress
Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in Bonner’s talent on the floor and realize that he’s playing just his first season collegiately, and that his best is still far down the road. Perhaps the most impressive facet of his game for Koenig is his ability to continue to improve and develop his game, despite his youth.
“He’s gotten better and better as the year goes on — the first couple scrimmages and games he made a lot of freshman mistakes. But he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s just relentless. He’s constantly giving the best effort he can physically and mentally. He’s very attentive on the court, off the court, and in the film room,” he said.
“I think it’s just a part of the game. No one plays a perfect game and you’re always going to have to adjust at some point. I just always try to keep that mentality to adjust and keep playing as hard as I can. Redshirting helped me because I got to see the game. I really paid attention, and got to look at every which way of the game while sitting out for a year,” Bonner said.
That type of commitment to the sport, development as a player, and overall floor generalship has not only made Bonner one of the most dangerous players in the MEC, but has earned him immense trust from Koenig and has allowed him to become a go-to player for the Falcons.
“Well there’s a reason why the ball is in his hand all the time. He’s a very good decision maker, and I have a lot of trust that he’s going to make the right play. He plays the game all the time — he loves to play the game, and when you love something and do it all the time you’re going to get better and smarter at it,” Koenig said.
“He listens to other players on the team, and the coaching staff. He doesn’t just lead, he listens. Listening is a great skill to have.”