September 24, 2022
How Elena Delle Donne is approaching her first healthy offseason in five years
The plan for managing her surgically repaired back worked in 2022, and she hopes to be even better in 2023
After Washington Mystics forward/guard Elena Delle Donne scored 26 points on Aug. 18 in her first playoff game since 2019, head coach Mike Thibault said of her performance, “I can’t ask much more than the effort we got.”
That game was the culmination of a 2022 season in which the two-time WNBA MVP was on a detailed plan to manage her surgically repaired back, yet performed at an elite level similar to before the injury. Delle Donne herniated three discs in her back in the 2019 WNBA Finals, then played just three games in 2020 and 2021 combined as she recovered from two surgeries. The Mystics’ goal for 2022 was to have Delle Donne peak in the playoffs and be able to play every game without limitations. And they succeeded, despite the challenges of a condensed regular-season schedule and the uncertainties that accompany any back injury.
In the 2022 regular season, Delle Donne played 25 of 36 games and averaged 17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 blocks in 27.8 minutes per game. She shot 48.0% from the field, 36.8% from 3-point range and 91.3% from the free throw line, and she ranked 10th in the league in win shares (4.4) despite missing 11 games. In her own estimation, she garnered “very similar” defensive attention and respect, including double and triple teams, in 2022 as she had before her herniated discs. And in the playoffs, she elevated her play in some areas, averaging 19.0 points and 5.0 assists per game and making an eye-popping 68.2% of her 2-pointers.
“I’ve been through some of the toughest moments of my life in these past few years since the last time I’ve been in playoffs,” Delle Donne told reporters on Aug. 17. “And when you go through moments where you’re not sure if the game is going to be taken from you because your body just can’t do it anymore, it changes your perspective on things. And I certainly take the moment to be proud of what I’ve gone through and how I’m back and to kind of sit with it and realize how special this is.”
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Delle Donne added that she has a newfound gratitude for being able to play and enjoyed this season even more than seasons past, even when there were “awful losses or tough games.” She echoed that sentiment after the toughest losses of all, a two-game sweep by the Seattle Storm in the first round of the playoffs. In particular, she looked back at a stretch from July 30 to Aug. 2 in which she played three games in four days as a test of what her body could handle.
“When I completed a back-to-back, I was like, ‘Wow, I wasn’t sure I’d ever do that in the rest of my career,’” she said in her exit interview on Aug. 23, less than 48 hours after the Mystics’ season ended. “So to know that my body was able to sustain some of those different challenges was something I was proud of. But I also have a newfound hunger and know that there’s so much more I can do.”
Mystics wing Alysha Clark, who came back from her own injury this season and was able to commiserate with Delle Donne as they both rehabbed, also expressed gratitude for being able to play with Delle Donne and wistfulness about how the season had ended so abruptly.
“I wish we could have continued to keep playing,” Clark said, “because I know the work that’s been put in behind the scenes and I feel like she was just getting started.”
If Delle Donne has it her way, she is still just getting started, even as the Mystics enter the offseason. It will be the first offseason since 2017-18 that she won’t be rehabbing an injury: After the Mystics lost in the 2018 Finals, she spent most of her offseason recovering from a bone bruise to her knee that she sustained in the playoffs, and the three offseasons after that were all spent trying to heal her back.
“I’m excited to now have an offseason that will be more training and not rehab so then I can be even stronger next year,” she said.
Delle Donne was initially slated to join USA Basketball in early September for a training camp that would determine the 12-player roster for the FIBA World Cup, which runs from Sept. 22 to Oct. 1. It could have been Delle Donne’s first international competition since the 2018 World Cup, which she played in despite the knee injury.
But with the 2022 World Cup schedule requiring teams to play eight games in 11 days — not to mention fly to Sydney, Australia — Delle Donne decided to withdraw from consideration. “The demands of the [World Cup] in a short amount of time would have put a lot of stress on her” physically, Thibault told reporters on Sept. 7. “She felt like her recovery … was more important right now.”
Delle Donne’s plan for the offseason is to take a little time off, then get back to work on the Mystics’ practice court and in the weight room. Thibault said she wants to expand her game, and she emphasized strengthening her back to help her body handle a full season. During the season, regular weightlifting helped Delle Donne keep her body in alignment and feeling healthy, but she couldn’t ever increase the weight by much because of the risk of soreness and fatigue for games.
In the offseason, on the other hand, she can prioritize building strength. She hopes that a stronger back will allow her to spend fewer hours doing pregame exercises and postgame treatment, though both will continue to be part of her routine. In 2022, she usually arrived four hours before tip-off to start her routine and stayed for two to three hours after games to finish it.
Thibault said on Sept. 7 that it’s too early to say how many games Delle Donne will sit out in 2023 to rest her back. But given that the 2023 schedule will be more spread out than the 2022 version, even with an additional four regular-season games, he expects her to play more often. “I think you could anticipate that she could miss a handful of games but probably not a third of the season like she did this year, or close to a third,” he said.
Throughout her recovery, Delle Donne has generally been optimistic with the media, sometimes opening up about the mental and physical challenges she’s faced but often insisting that her next milestone is right around the corner. Thibault is sometimes more tempered, but player and coach were aligned on the level they envision Delle Donne playing at in 2023.
“She feels confident, and I have no reason to not feel confident, that [her back is] going to keep getting better,” Thibault said. “… I expect her, and I know her expectation is, to be as close to the Elena of the past as she can be. I mean, there’s no other way to look at 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. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.