August 11, 2021
Elena Delle Donne could make season debut within weeks
How the Washington Mystics star progressed from barely being able to sit to practicing at full speed
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In a recent Washington Mystics practice, a player made a mistake defensively, falling for her teammate’s pump fake and getting beaten as a result. But this wasn’t an ordinary pump fake — it’s well-known around the WNBA, yet it’s so convincing that it still sends defenders flying.
“I said [to the defender], ‘I know that, when you’ve been on other teams, that you were told to stay down on Elena Delle Donne‘s pump fakes,’” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault told reporters on Monday. “And the answer was, ‘You just forget and, all of a sudden, she does it to you.’”
The rapid motion of a pump fake represents a huge step forward for Delle Donne, who has spent nearly two years recovering from three herniated discs in her back that she suffered in the 2019 WNBA Finals. At times, she wondered if she’d ever live pain-free, let alone return to basketball. But she returned to the practice court with the Mystics during the Olympic break and has shown some of the magic that has made her a two-time WNBA MVP.
Delle Donne spoke with the media on Monday for the first time since April 26 — the team’s second day of preseason — and was noticeably upbeat about her progress and open about the struggles she has faced in her recovery. “I’m thrilled with where I’m at,” she said. “There’s more to go. But I am excited and confident in where I am.”
The Mystics are limiting the number of repetitions Delle Donne does each day, but she is giving 100% effort in those reps and playing both offense and defense. She is also absorbing contact in 5-on-5 situations, and forward Myisha Hines-Allen said no one is taking it easy on Delle Donne or backing off her. The medical staff will re-evaluate Delle Donne later this week to determine whether she can travel with the team on its West Coast road trip to start the second half of the season.
A crucial component of Delle Donne’s rehab process has been reengineering her movements to put less pressure on her back, whether she’s walking, running or sitting. The new biomechanics are not second nature yet, but she sees signs of progress.
“I am definitely getting much better at it … but it’s literally always a beginner’s mindset for me where I come in every day and have to attack each day as if it’s new,” she said. “And you never get to perfect everything. It’s something you always have to kind of check back in and lock into, and I have a routine that I do every single day to help me get that before I even step on the court.”
Along with the surgical repairs and the biomechanical adjustments, Delle Donne also had to recover mentally and emotionally from her injuries. It has been a long and arduous road: She was injured in October 2019, had surgery three months later and was expected to recover in time for the 2020 season, but her rehab was delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then the herniation returned last fall, requiring a second surgery in December 2020.
Delle Donne admitted on Monday that she wasn’t always confident that she would play again—at times, she couldn’t even go out to dinner with her wife Amanda because sitting in a chair for more than 10 minutes caused her severe pain. In those periods, she was concerned about her overall quality of life, not basketball. “I’ve got to have a better life than this and this pain,” she said to herself.
Even as recently as this summer, Delle Donne expressed frustration in an interview with The Washington Post. “There’s no one more frustrated than myself,” she said. “And I’m just trying my best to find peace in my day — but also know that I am giving literally everything I possibly have to get back out there.”
That meant spending countless hours at the Mystics facility, working on her skills or receiving treatment. Former Washington Wizard Russell Westbrook was a frequent rebounding partner and confidante as Delle Donne took shots barefoot from close range. “I actually joked with her [and] asked if she had a bed in here, because she’s here before all of us and she’s here after all of us,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said on Tuesday. “I don’t ever see her go home.”
Delle Donne leaned heavily on mindfulness and meditation to get through her toughest days, as well as on a support system that includes Amanda, Elena’s mom Joan (who has had back surgery herself), teammates, Westbrook—and Elena and Amanda’s dogs, Wrigley and Rasta.
“I can’t forget my dogs — they have been so great,” Delle Donne said on Monday. “There’s been days where they lay down with me on the floor when I’m not feeling great. They know that I can’t, I don’t walk them as much, but I walk next to them, and Amanda has to be the strong one [holding the leash]. So it’s been an entire family and team that’s kind of helped me along.”
Happily, Delle Donne has made “a monstrous jump,” in her words, from the nadir of her recovery, and she has rediscovered her love of the game as her pain has subsided. She called it “mentally incredible,” “amazing” and “refreshing” to take the court with her teammates again, and she is raring to do more every day.
“I’ve been feeling really good, which is so exciting for me to see, especially knowing where I’m coming from,” Delle Donne said. “… I’m having so much fun. I want to do more and more. But obviously, we need to take it practice by practice.”
All signs point to Delle Donne potentially making her season debut a few weeks, though neither she nor Thibault would give a concrete timeline. Delle Donne said she needs to play 5-on-5 for a few days in a row, and recover well, to feel comfortable playing in a game. So far, she has felt good after full-contact practices, and she practiced two days in a row this week on Monday and Tuesday.
“There’s a big difference from what she was doing 10 days ago to now that she’s been able to take some hits and do those things,” Thibault said on Monday. “But it’s still not the same as jumping in a game at the speed of a game. … It’s going to be an every couple day re-evaluation.”
Whenever Delle Donne does play, she will likely be on a minutes restriction for the rest of the season. She will also have to reestablish her rhythm, which will require patience after her long layoff.
“It’s a new body that I’m kind of playing into that I’m trying to figure out, but all things I’ve worked endless hours on and I’m excited,” she said. “I know it’s not going to be perfect. When is it? But it’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m certainly proud of where I’ve come from and that I’m even in this position right now.”
Delle Donne will do all of this with a lot of new teammates, as just four other current players were on the 2019 championship roster. But she has picked up on her new teammates’ tendencies from watching practices and games this season, and now they can finally learn hers.
“She looks great,” forward Theresa Plaisance said last week. “It’s just, it’s different when you have somebody like Elena that’s been with this team for a while, that knows the system, that sees things through a similar way that I do. And being able to watch her move within the offense, watch her choose her spots within the offense, see her spacing … helps me out a lot … Obviously, her poise and her patience on the offensive end and her basketball IQ [are] top-notch, so it’s always a really nice thing to have Elena Delle Donne on the floor.”
Other teammates and the coaching staff echoed Plaisance’s assessment. “I honestly forgot her back was hurting,” Walker-Kimbrough said on Tuesday. “… She looks great … You just give her the ball and then it goes in the hoop—some things just don’t ever change.”
“Some of the things she’s done, when she’s got the ball especially, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Elena,’” added associate head coach Eric Thibault.
Mike Thibault even said he has seen “flashes” of the player Delle Donne was in 2019, when she won WNBA MVP and became the first player in league history to shoot 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the free throw line.
Delle Donne isn’t expecting to light up the scoreboard like that right away, but she does expect to be a difference-maker.
“I know that when the time comes and I can be on the court, I certainly can impact this team in a positive way. That doesn’t always have to be scoring or efficiency or whatever those numbers are,” she said. “It’s like, how can I get others feeling good about themselves [or get] our offense and defense going? …
“I still expect to play the way I play. I want to be able to facilitate offense, to get the ball moving side to side, to create mismatches, to make reads, to be a leader, to be able to do things defensively.”
Delle Donne’s return to practice has also given the Mystics confidence for the second half of the season. They currently have an 8-10 record, which ranks eighth out of 12 teams, but six players have missed at least four games with injuries. Now, with Delle Donne, Hines-Allen and forward Erica McCall all back practicing, the team believes it has the ingredients for a deep playoff run.
“We had an important part missing with Elena, and now she’s playing and practicing with us … It’s just like, ‘All right, y’all, let’s hit the ground and let’s just go,’” Hines-Allen said. “We battled through adversity in the first half, but the second half we know is going to be a new season, and we’re just ready to go for it.”
Importantly, the Mystics understand that Delle Donne’s recovery is about much more than a short-term championship push; it has ramifications for her quality of life in retirement. Thibault has repeatedly emphasized that he and the medical staff will never risk her long-term health, and there will likely be days even after she starts playing in games when she doesn’t feel right and needs a rest.
Delle Donne, now cautiously optimistic after months of rehab and anxiety about the future, is hoping for the best of both worlds: a healthy body this season, and a long WNBA career and healthy retirement still ahead.
“I’m preparing for many, many [seasons] to come, and I have certainly created a heck of a [medical] team that is even giving me hope to get back on the court. So now that I’ve got this team, I’m super excited about things I can also do in the offseason to just continue to improve and get stronger and healthier. …
“I’m not trying to just say, ‘This is my last season.’ That’s not it at all … Yes, this has been crazy and tough, but I love this game and I still think I have a lot more to play.”
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. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.