June 24, 2021
Elena Delle Donne has ‘a new back,’ but she’s still waiting on her comeback
What we know and don’t know about Delle Donne’s recovery and timeline
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The curious case of Elena Delle Donne’s back injury continues.
It has been 633 days since the Washington Mystics star injured her back in Game 2 of the 2019 WNBA Finals. A WNBA championship and two surgeries later, she was hoping to recover in time for the 2021 season opener. But 42 days into the season, the two-time MVP has been ruled out on every pregame injury report, and there is still no set timeline for her to take the court.
The Mystics have been guarded in releasing information on Delle Donne’s progress, and Delle Donne declined to discuss her rehab process or “Beyond the Game,” her YouTube series that chronicles her recovery and life off the court, with The Next. But here’s what we know—and don’t know—about a player who, if healthy, could instantly make the Mystics a championship contender again.
What we know
Delle Donne has had back problems dating back at least to 2014, when she was not fully healthy in the WNBA Finals with the Chicago Sky. Late in the 2019 season, she experienced “ongoing” tightness in her back, and she had it wrapped at least once during the Mystics’ semifinal series.
On Oct. 1, 2019, barely three minutes into Game 2 of the Finals, Delle Donne suffered her injury, which was initially diagnosed as back spasms. “It wasn’t good,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said after that game. “On the very first layup that she went up for, it grabbed on her, and she came down and just immediately said, ‘Give me a sub.’”
The next day, the Mystics announced that Delle Donne also had a “small” disc herniation. She would play the rest of the series while receiving nearly round-the-clock treatment, but she was clearly hampered. The next injury update came in the Mystics’ press conference after clinching the championship, when point guard Natasha Cloud said, “I’m about to drop this bomb on y’all. Elena not only has one herniated disc, she has three.”
“The medical staff is going to kill you,” Delle Donne said with a laugh, but she confirmed the diagnosis.
Delle Donne had surgery to repair the herniated discs on Jan. 24, 2020, and she was expected to recover in time for the 2020 season. But the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered rehab facilities, slowing her progress. She did not play in the WNBA bubble because she has chronic Lyme disease, which her doctor believes puts her at higher risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19, but she has since said that her back was not healthy enough regardless.
In September 2020, Delle Donne felt a shooting pain in her leg that reminded her of the pain before she had had surgery. “I knew the pain from before,” Delle Donne told Just Women’s Sports’ Hannah Withiam this spring. “… There are some things you can’t fix through rest, therapy and strengthening. I needed to go back for surgery.”
That second surgery took place last December and was never officially announced by the Mystics. Instead, Delle Donne announced it in the premiere of “Beyond the Game” on Apr. 19. She also revealed that her first surgery had provided little relief and that, along with the herniated discs, she had stenosis, a condition in which the spaces within the spine narrow. That narrowing can put pressure on nearby nerves and cause pain, numbness and muscle weakness.
In Episode 3, filmed soon after her second surgery, Delle Donne said, “I’m way better than my last surgery … Last surgery I remember for like the first two weeks I did like one-minute walks in the house. I just took a very long—not very long, but a nice outdoor walk. I’m thriving.”
The YouTube series has documented several components of her rehab process, including pool workouts, myofascial releases, shooting on outdoor basketball courts and using a blood flow restriction machine to strengthen various muscles without stressing her back. Off camera, she has also been improving her biomechanics to try to prevent further injuries.
“I’ve been working with some amazing people that are helping me learn to move properly, to even walk differently, sit differently,” Delle Donne told the media on Apr. 26. “And it’s made me just move so much more efficiently. And it’s helping me to get back to where I feel safe.” She went into more detail on the “That’s What She Said” podcast with Sarah Spain a few weeks later, explaining that she is learning to walk by pushing off with her toes rather than leading with her heel and pulling her body forward.
“It’s been super exciting to work with people who are changing my movements and I’m able to correct my pain and not just lay on a table, have them massage me, feel good but I go home and feel awful,” she told Spain. “So that’s kind of been the difference this go-around in rehab, and I’m excited about all I’ve learned and how much stronger I can be once I start connecting with the floor and my feet much better.”
When the Mystics opened training camp on Apr. 25, Delle Donne was not at full strength and was doing only individual workouts. Thibault said the following day that the doctors were “reasonably confident” that she “may be able to play” limited minutes in the team’s season opener on May 15. But he was more pessimistic on May 2, as Delle Donne was still exclusively doing individual workouts.
“I don’t know when she’s ever going to practice yet. I just don’t know,” Thibault said. “I know she gave a timetable of the first game to play. I couldn’t tell you if that’s accurate … At this point, I’m not going to assume that she’s going to play at the start.”
On May 6, Thibault said that Delle Donne would likely miss at least the first three to six games of the season, as there was no way she could play without several days of five-on-five practice. He reiterated the need for her to practice with the team on Jun. 15, shortly after the Mystics’ tenth game of the season, adding that Delle Donne had just started doing one-on-one workouts and “a little more defensive stuff” rather than only one-on-zero individual work.
“[There’s] not really an update to give you, other than she’s progressing each day, doing a little bit more,” he said. “… I’ll have better updates for you when she practices with the team five-on-five.” She is expected to progress to two-on-two workouts later this week or next week.
What we don’t know
There are two million-dollar questions here: Why has Delle Donne’s timeline been so delayed and when will she play in a game? Thibault said on Jun. 21 that she has not had any setbacks, and she appears to be walking fluidly when she is with the team at home games. (She does sit in an elevated chair on the sidelines, presumably to protect her back, and does not travel with the team.)
In mid-June, Thibault did not rule out Delle Donne playing before the WNBA takes a five-week break in mid-July for the Olympics. However, the 2016 Olympian was left off the roster for next month’s Games, and this week, Thibault seemed to focus more on her being ready to play after the break.
“Each week we’ve seen more progress,” he said on Jun. 21, “and … if we went from right now to the first game after the break, we’re talking about almost two months right now, eight weeks. So that’s a lot of time to get her ready.”
The Mystics are seemingly being very careful with Delle Donne, and rightfully so. Stenosis is most common in older adults, but it has cut short several athletes’ careers—perhaps most famously that of New York Mets third baseman David Wright. Wright was diagnosed in April 2015 and played just 38 of 162 regular-season games that season, followed by 37 in 2016, zero in 2017 and two in his swan song in 2018. A 2016 feature on Wright revealed that he required hours of stretching and rehab before games just to be able to play.
As Thibault said in 2019, “The one nightmare I’ve had for the last month is seeing [Delle Donne] lying on her back. I watched that … when she was in Chicago, and it wasn’t a good sight for them.”
However, Thibault is not concerned about Delle Donne like he was in 2019. “I’ve always felt that this was going to take some time,” he said this week. “I had hoped that it would be closer to being now. But having watched the workouts, I see improvement every day. She feels upbeat about it, and so, yeah, I mean, until she’s on the court playing, everybody’s going to be concerned, but … she’s in a good place I think mentally with all of it right now.”
Even when Delle Donne presumably does return, it’s far from certain that she will be the same player who earned First Team All-WNBA honors four times in seven years. After all, that is a bar that few other players have reached, even without two back surgeries. And even if she is somehow at the top of her game, she may be on a minutes restriction, which would dampen her overall impact.
For now, Delle Donne’s teammates are supporting her through her rehab but not counting on her to produce on the court any time soon. “We’re giving Elena the time that she needs,” Cloud said on Jun. 8. “She’s working really, really hard in here every single day, and we see her working, but we’re—I love her, but we’re … focused on the players that we have.”
How she is still making an impact
During training camp, Delle Donne said that she wanted to be a leader and “have an impact” on her team even when she couldn’t practice. Her teammates have highlighted several ways she has done that this season, from what she is saying on the practice court and in games to her attitude and the example she sets for the entire organization.
It starts with the way she has attacked her rehab. As Cloud tweeted in a thread about Delle Donne, “When you see greatness take adversity head on, it minimizes everything you thought was too much to handle. Every single day…up at 6am, rehab, workout, practice, recover, repeat.” Cloud called Delle Donne “an all around pro” and said she “embodies everything it means to be a leader; especially how to lead by example.”
Delle Donne has also been a resource on the tactical side of the game for players such as Sydney Wiese and Theresa Plaisance. Plaisance has taken in-game advice from Delle Donne on small details such as the timing of her screens, while Wiese missed four games earlier this month with an ankle injury and picked Delle Donne’s brain at practice. “She has such a great perspective of the game,” said Wiese, “and obviously she’s played at the highest level, won a championship, has been through all the different wars that a veteran player could see.”
In addition, Plaisance, Cloud, Shavonte Zellous and Erica McCall have all said in separate interviews that Delle Donne helps the team stay composed during games. “That’s what I would look to E for, just for that calming presence, because I know there’s some times in the games I get really rushed … so I’ll lean into her to calm me down and calm everyone else down so that we can focus,” McCall explained.
Plaisance added that Delle Donne’s personality, combined with her role as the top player, helps foster a strong team culture. “She’s a superstar and … the most humble person in the entire world,” Plaisance said. “And it really starts with her: When she doesn’t have an ego, that doesn’t allow anybody else on the team to have an ego, and that creates such an environment where we all give for the person next to us …
“Having her be present and having her be so involved with us is so important to us because of the person that she is as well as the caliber of player that she is.”
Plaisance, who joined the team this season as a free agent, has come back from two back surgeries of her own and can empathize with Delle Donne in a way few other players can. She joked before the season started that she and Delle Donne were creating a “help yourself back anonymous type group,” but “we have a very strict two Mystic rule … None of our teammates are actually allowed to join.”
Delle Donne said in April that she is “working with a new back, hopefully a better back,” and she is trying to be patient with her rehab to ensure she can be healthy come playoff time. But, while she has appreciated being around the team again after spending most of 2020 quarantining at home, she is eager to do more.
“I want to keep going, I want to keep pushing. That’s just kind of in my nature,” she said of her rehab process. “… [But] it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. And I need to be right for when we need it.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.