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PULLMAN, WA - DECEMBER 2: Washington State guard Isaac Bonton (10) celebrates a 59-55 victory at the conclusion of the Pac 12 matchup between the Oregon State Beavers and the Washington State Cougars on December 2, 2020, at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, WA.
PULLMAN, WA - DECEMBER 2: Washington State guard Isaac Bonton (10) celebrates a 59-55 victory at the conclusion of the Pac 12 matchup between the Oregon State Beavers and the Washington State Cougars on December 2, 2020, at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, WA.
Jack Ellis/For CougCenter

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If you don’t love Isaac Bonton, you probably hate fun

You also probably don’t know how to spot a good basketball player.

One of the odd quirks of fandom is that, occasionally, a player pops up who polarizes the fan base. And when fans pick a side, they typically dig in without room for any argument to sway them from their position.

We see it most often in football, where the quarterback has so much control over how a team performs — and we saw this to an extreme when Mike Leach was running the Air Raid in Pullman. And what usually happens is, fans see something early in the player’s career, they make up their mind, and everything that comes after is subject to confirmation bias — when the mind gravitates toward evidence that confirms a preexisting conclusion.

Connor Halliday lived it, being called a “gunslinger who throws too many interceptions” because of his sophomore season, even though he really only had retained the “gunslinger” part by his senior year when he was carving up everyone with deep shots to Vince Mayle. Anthony Gordon also lived it, being called “not really a winner who turns it over too much” after he threw for a billion yards in a mind-blowing loss against UCLA, even though it was clear by the end of the season he was not the problem, and in fact was leading perhaps Leach’s best offense at WSU.

It happens in basketball, too, although less frequently. I suspect this is largely because far fewer Washington State fans actually care about basketball the way they care about football, and it doesn’t help that so many of the games are hidden away on an obscure channel that many cable subscribers aren’t able to access. But I think it’s also because it’s rare for a player to dominate the ball to the degree that a QB does.

*Isaac Bonton has entered the chat*

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 31 Washington State at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There was a lot of excitement heading into the basketball season, both because of the improvement the team showed in Kyle Smith’s first season — which featured a pair of wins over UW, always a crowd pleaser — and because of Smith’s first full recruiting class, which is the best the school has landed in the 247/Scout/Rivals era, featuring 5 of the top 15 rated recruits over that time.

So many fans tuned in early to see what was in store. What they saw was a team that ... underwhelmed. There were wins, but they were close, come-from-behind wins against what was perceived to be weak opposition.

One guy was playing particularly poorly: Bonton.

Bonton returned to this year’s team as the primary scoring option after spending last year as Robin to CJ Elleby’s Batman. On a team with so many young players, he was leaned on heavily — and he struggled mightily. Through 7 games, Bonton was shooting just 30% overall, including just 33% on 2s and 67% on free throws, so while he was averaging 16 points, he was needing 16 shots to get there. He also had a turnover for every assist.

Beyond that, his struggles were simply aesthetically unappealing. Wild drives into the lane with nowhere to go with the ball resulted in ugly outcomes, and other players seemed to be just standing around and watching while Bonton completely dominated the action. The whole enterprise looked like a mess, and it became easy to blame the guy with the ball for the problem, which wasn’t totally unfair.

But then ... something clicked.

Against Arizona, in which WSU nearly pulled off a monumental upset, Bonton poured in 25 points on 23 shots. Not exactly a paragon of efficiency, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. Most notably, he was 7-of-12 on his 2s.

It set into motion a series of games in which he was really, really good against WSU’s best competition of the year.

Not everyone was convinced of he was actually that good in those games — his style hadn’t changed that much, many felt the results were only marginally improved — but there’s an easy, objective way to evaluate his offensive contributions by looking at his efficiency, as measured by offensive rating.

Now, it’s going to get a little nerdy here, but bear with me — hopefully I can explain this in a way that makes it less scary for the analytics averse.

An ORtg (individual efficiency) of 100 — representing an average of 1 point contributed per possession that ends with a player shooting, assisting, or turning the ball over — would be considered average, since the average team scores about 1 point per possession. However, any player’s efficiency needs a heavy dose of context.

When a player uses more possessions, it becomes harder and harder to remain efficient — they’re bound to take more difficult shots as they attract more attention from the defense, and when the offense stalls out, it’s usually on them to make something happen in suboptimal circumstances.

(The inverse also is true — low usage players often have high efficiencies, which should make sense, given that players with limited opportunities to shoot usually only take a shot if it’s wide open, often as a result of the attention paid to the go-to guy.)

A go-to guy is defined by as someone who uses more than 28% of the team’s possessions, and if their offensive rating is above 100, it’s safe to assume they’re positively contributing to the team. This is especially true for WSU, whose team-wide offensive rating is just 94.4 in conference play.

By that measure, Bonton’s 11 games since the calendar turned to 2021 can be broken down thusly:

  • Awesome games: 7
  • Average-ish games: 2
  • Turds: 2

Isaac Bonton in 2021

Opponent ORtg Poss% Points Shots Assists Turnovers
Opponent ORtg Poss% Points Shots Assists Turnovers
Arizona 100 28 25 23 3 2
California 126 28 22 11 6 5
Stanford 115 27 18 13 7 4
UCLA 120 30 23 17 3 3
USC 114 33 27 21 4 2
Utah 40 23 4 8 2 4
Colorado 92 37 21 20 3 3
Washington 116 30 25 17 4 5
Oregon 115 28 23 13 4 4
Oregon State 66 30 7 14 8 4
UCLA 112 34 26 18 5 4

Only once in the last nine games has Bonton turned in a performance that could be considered bad — and two thirds of the time he’s actually been great. To do what he’s been doing against the best teams the conference has to offer — to transform himself like this on the fly — is borderline incredible.

And this definitely has been an actual transformation for him and not just an extended run of good luck. Bonton is making fewer wild drives; he’s using his midrange game more frequently and to greater effect — which is allowing him to find more space around the rim, where he’s finishing much better; and he’s finding open teammates with greater frequency. He’s always been a quality shot maker when he’s able to find space, and I think you can draw a direct line between this change in approach and the positive gains in results.

What he’s become doesn’t feel unsustainable. And what he’s become is one of the best players in the whole Pac-12:

But some people will never be satisfied

Washington State v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Despite this, there remains this weird vibe about him with a lot of fans who refuse to be satisfied by anything he does. I won’t list all the criticisms here, but they are lengthy, rarely rooted in reality, and impervious to any new data — which I find both baffling and irritating.

What really makes me scratch my head about it is that Bonton seems like a player who should be beloved among Cougs. He’s played well in big games, including scoring 34 on Klay Day last season, as well as averaging 19 points in three wins against Washington. He has a relentless motor on both ends of the floor, and he backs down from nobody.

He also plays with a flair that is just plain fun.

Does it always come off? No. Sometimes he’s going to get stripped on a foray into the lane, sometimes he’s going to try and drop the ball off to a 7-foot-1 bear who is rumbling toward the rim but still 15 feet from the basket, and sometimes he’s going to be off balance on a heat check.

But you know what? That’s ok! That’s what makes him fun! Especially when the good plays far outweigh the bad plays, and the overall results are like this!

So what if he turns the ball over sometimes? So what if he misses some free throws? So what if he throws up a boneheaded shot from time to time? Nobody is going to make the right play every time. Besides, his assist rate is among the highest in the league, his turnover rate is lower than you probably think once you learn to not look at raw numbers, and he’s doing enough other things well, scoring-wise, to more than compensate for some bricked free throws.

In fact, it’s hard to argue that there’s anyone on the team doing more to contribute to the team’s success than Bonton. There’s really not a legitimate argument to be made to the contrary. You can try, but you’ll just be clinging to stale narratives that simply are not supported by facts.

The truth is, if you continue to fixate on his weaknesses rather than enjoy his strengths, that says a lot more about you than it does about him. The more you try to pick him apart, the sillier you look.

Besides — sports are supposed to be full of joy, and at their core, sports are entertainment. Bonton knocks it out of the park on these counts, and I, for one, hope he sticks around for another year.

I’m sure he’ll have another bad game at some point. He might even have a couple! That won’t stop me from loving Isaac Bonton.

As for you? You can either get on board or continue to show yourself as someone who hates fun.

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