April 23, 2022
‘Oh my god, the difference’: For Elena Delle Donne, 2022 looks a lot better than 2021
Delle Donne participated in a full practice on Saturday, with Alysha Clark not far behind for the Mystics
WASHINGTON – When Washington Mystics forward/guard Elena Delle Donne went up for a layup in Saturday’s practice and was met with contact from a defender, it was telling that there was no apparent concern from the assembled players and staff. The only obvious reaction was from point guard Natasha Cloud, who chided the defending team for fouling her and Delle Donne’s team on several possessions.
Delle Donne participated in all of Saturday’s practice, the first time she has done that in training camp as she returns from a back injury sustained in the 2019 WNBA Finals. She had two surgeries in 2020 to repair three herniated discs, and she also suffers from stenosis, a condition in which the spaces within the spine narrow. That can create pressure on the nerves in the spine and lead to pain, tingling and numbness. Delle Donne played just three games in the past two seasons combined but is optimistic that she will be able to play much of the 2022 season.
“[It] feels really good today,” Delle Donne told The Next after Saturday’s practice. “It’s the most I’ve done so far, getting into some five-on-five, so it’s fun to start playing some basketball … Just trying to get back into it, make some reads and figure things out.”
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Delle Donne played four-on-four and five-on-five in the halfcourt on Saturday, going against both teammate Megan Gustafson and male practice players. There were no rules in place to limit contact for Delle Donne, according to Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault. She set several screens and moved quickly out of them, flaring to the 3-point line or repositioning herself to re-screen. Defensively, she closed out hard and jumped to contest a 3-point shot.
Perhaps most impressively, she took on a male practice player one-on-one from the 3-point line, driving into the lane, stopping, spinning, pivoting again and getting a shot off. Between possessions, she didn’t have to stop and confer with a trainer; instead, she could focus on the finer points of basketball, such as talking with associate head coach Eric Thibault about defending the gap or listening to Mike Thibault explain the options off of a broken offensive set.
“She looks good,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen told The Next. “Just happy seeing her in the gym, first of all. … She’s just like a breath of fresh air. And then stepping on the court, being able to go on the court with her and play, she makes a lot of things easier … So I’m just happy that she’s back and she’s going be able to play.”
The Mystics training staff along with Michael Davis, the Washington Wizards’ director of physical and performance therapy, have a “very meticulous, particular plan” mapped out for Delle Donne to return to play, Thibault said on April 18. Delle Donne has had no setbacks in training camp to date and is expected to play in exhibition games at home on April 27 and at New York on April 30. (She will miss the Mystics’ first exhibition game at Atlanta on April 24 as she builds up from no travel to a train trip to New York to, eventually, a flight.)
Delle Donne said she is in game shape for whenever she is cleared to play, but she plans to play full-court four-on-four and possibly five-on-five with male practice players on Sunday to simulate the running in an exhibition game.
If all goes well, Delle Donne could be ready to play when the season tips off on May 6, but she will likely miss some games this season even in the best-case scenario. She might stay home when the travel schedule is particularly grueling or sit out part of a game-heavy week for precautionary reasons.
Admittedly, we’ve heard some of this optimism before, down to the fact that Delle Donne is using the same template for building up to 100% that she attempted to use last season. At the Mystics’ 2021 media day, Delle Donne spoke happily about how she had reworked her biomechanics so that running, walking and jumping put less pressure on her back, and she said she hoped to be ready for the start of the season. (Thibault later walked back the second statement.)
Instead, her season debut was delayed until Aug. 22, and although she had again been excited about her progress in early August, she was shut down after just three games when her nerve pain resurfaced. That had been an issue after her first surgery, so it was a bright red flag to the medical team.
Delle Donne was beaming at Monday’s media day, too, as she spoke just before the season’s first practice about what she called “the toughest two years in my career.” She told reporters how she had strengthened her legs to better support her back and upper body, can now sit in a chair for interviews without pain, and understands her movements and potential advantages on the court better than before her injury.
But on Saturday, after a week of practices, Delle Donne went into more detail about just how different 2022 feels from 2021. “Oh my god, the difference,” she said. “Last year [in camp], I never even got on court with the team. I was in one-on-one workouts and it felt like I was never able to progress. … I would do court work one day and it would take like four days of treatment to get me back to do the same thing. Where now … I’m progressing in a quicker, better way.”
Instead of spending hours at the Mystics’ facility preparing for and recovering from practice, only to go home and spend more time rehabbing, Delle Donne now does most of her work before practice and can enjoy her downtime. She can walk her dogs again without pain. And on Friday, she and her wife Amanda ate dinner at a restaurant, which hadn’t been possible when her back pain wouldn’t allow her to sit in a chair.
“[I was] not thinking about my back, not hooked up to stuff—like, it was a normal night,” she said. “… I’m able to have a little bit of a normal life.”
Thibault also sees significant improvements from the hobbled Delle Donne of 2021. Crucially, he said, the “shooting pains down her legs” that plagued her last year have not occurred in months. “That part has gone away, so she doesn’t have day-to-day pain,” he told The Next. “There are days she’s sore or she’s tired, but it’s not pain. And that’s a big difference.”
“I actually said to AC the other day, I was like, ‘I didn’t know how much I needed you in my life. And now that you’re here, we’re forever,’” Delle Donne said at media day. “We’re like peanut butter and jelly; she’s just the perfect piece that I’ve needed … through this offseason and what we’ve both gone through with big surgeries and trying to figure out our bodies and having days where we’re frustrated or days where things are going well. But having each other to support one another and know we’re both going through kind of the same thing has been huge.”
On Friday, Delle Donne and Clark—the 2019 WNBA MVP and a two-time All-Defensive selection—supported each other’s recovery process by playing one-on-one at 75% speed. “I was so scared today,” Clark tweeted afterward, “but so freaking proud of my foot. She did better than I expected.”
Delle Donne said on Saturday that playing one-on-one with Clark was “a little learning experience we had together.” For her own development, Delle Donne wanted to be precise with her attacking angles and ensure that she was starting her movements “from the floor up.” She also tried to help Clark by attacking in different ways and seeing how Clark responded.
“[It’s] like, all right, now I’m going to test this, without telling her,” Delle Donne said, “and then after we do it, it’s like, ‘All right, close out a little bit different on that’ or ‘Take maybe this angle.’ Or it was, ‘I tried to take that angle and you cut me off. That was great.’”
Clark also participated in parts of Saturday’s practice, including four-on-four, but she is slightly behind Delle Donne’s timeline and not expected to play until the Mystics’ final exhibition game at New York.
“It’s going to be super exciting to play with [Alysha], just because everyone in the league knows exactly what she’s capable of doing,” Hines-Allen said. “… She’s like a defensive player of the year—like, she should have won it so many times already. But just to have her on the court for defense and then offensively, too, it’s only going to make us better.”
Delle Donne expects to play more one-on-one with Clark throughout the season when they are not full participants in practice. And she knows that those battles—and the occasional missed game or practice—are necessary as she tries to regain her peak performance and lead the Mystics to a championship.
“I’m a competitor. I want to play every single game,” she said on media day. “I want to play as many minutes as I can. But [I have] people in my corner who can help put together the best season possible for me to be the best I can at the right time and the rest of the team to be peaking at the right time … I wouldn’t have gone through what I went through in the past two years if I wasn’t coming out here to compete for a championship.”
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.