May 27, 2023 

With a ‘lift and flick,’ Elena Delle Donne continues to dominate for Mystics

Delle Donne’s back once threatened her career, but she’s making that a distant memory

With 38 seconds left in a tie game on the road, the Washington Mystics decided to play fast. Guard Brittney Sykes attacked the paint as shooters Ariel Atkins and Elena Delle Donne waited behind the arc on the weak side. Sykes found Atkins in the corner, and when Atkins’ shot fell short, she chased down the rebound and threw it one-handed to Delle Donne.

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Delle Donne set her feet and hit a 3-pointer, giving the Mystics the lead and, eventually, a hard-fought win over the Chicago Sky. She finished with 25 points on 10-for-17 shooting, including 3-for-5 from 3-point range, and added three rebounds, two assists and a block in 31 minutes.

“It’s nice to have her there late [in] games,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told reporters postgame in a clear understatement.

In the previous three seasons, Delle Donne wasn’t always available late — or at all — after suffering a back injury in the 2019 WNBA Finals that threatened to end her career. At times, nerve pain radiated down her legs, and she couldn’t sleep or sit in a chair long enough to have dinner with her family. She missed the entire 2020 season and played only 52 minutes in three games in 2021.

Last season, Delle Donne was in and out of the lineup, playing in 25 of 36 regular-season games. But when she played, she looked much like the player who had won two MVP awards before having as many back surgeries, and she finished strong, scoring 22 or more points in three of her last four games. After her first healthy offseason in five years this winter — three were lost to the back injury and one to a knee injury before that — Delle Donne told reporters on May 1 that she planned to play in every game this season.

Despite a daunting stretch of three games in five days to start the season, Delle Donne has done that so far. And at times, she has looked even better than she did last season.

Through four games, Delle Donne is averaging 21.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.3 blocks in 33.3 minutes per game. She is shooting 54.1% from the field, including a whopping 58.3% from 3-point range on three attempts per game. Against Connecticut on May 23, Delle Donne scored 27 points, her highest total since the injury.

Notably, Delle Donne is scoring in bunches this season despite getting to the free-throw line less often. Her free throw attempts per shot attempt (0.213) would be a career low for a season, as would her 3.3 free throw attempts per game. She’s not shying away from contact; instead, the whistles have been so rare that the normally unflappable Delle Donne called out the officials on May 21 for treating her “like a rookie with calls.” (The WNBA later fined her for those comments.)

Washington Mystics forward/guard Elena Delle Donne shoots a short baseline jumper with her right hand. New York Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince contests the shot with her right hand and appears to make contact with Delle Donne's right elbow.
Washington Mystics forward/guard Elena Delle Donne (11) appears to get hit on the elbow by New York Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince as she shoots during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Delle Donne has finished through contact and through double teams, and she’s also shown a deft passing touch. Her assist rate of 20.5% rivals those of the Mystics’ lead guards and would easily best her career high set last season (16.4%). That is partly because she is watching more film now, in the 10th season of her career, to anticipate what opponents will do and compensate for taking fewer reps in practice.

As she has matured, the 33-year-old Delle Donne has also helped the Mystics by using her voice, growing from a player who always led by example, to one who would occasionally fire up her teammates with a speech, to one who will now talk directly and often about what she sees. “[I’m] sharing my IQ with others,” she said after the win over the Sky. “Like, ‘Hey, hard roll.’ … More direct communication that has instruction and can clean something up really quickly.”

One beneficiary has been second-year center/forward Shakira Austin, who told reporters that Delle Donne frequently gives her tips in practices and games and sends her film to watch. Austin is averaging 14.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game this season, all of which are significantly better than her already strong rookie season.

Perhaps the most telling statistic for Delle Donne, though, is a simple one: Minutes played. She leads the WNBA with 133 total minutes played, and her current average of 33.3 per game would tie her career high for a season from 2015. That’s possible because, as she prepared to return to play in 2022, she overhauled her biomechanics to focus on pushing with her legs rather than relying on her 6’5 frame and moving from the top down.

“Sometimes your greatest strength of being tall and versatile can be your greatest weakness,” she said this month, “and [that] is what caused some of the back stuff.”

This offseason, she paired the new biomechanics with strength training and set personal bests in the weight room. The result is that she feels fresher and more durable on the court, even when she is playing heavy minutes and putting up lots of shots. In essence, Delle Donne took her “greatest weakness” and turned it into a strength.

“I feel great … I just feel so strong,” she said after Friday’s game. “I feel like my movement is much more efficient, so I don’t get as tired.”

Both Delle Donne’s longtime teammates and those who are new to the Mystics this year have taken notice. “She’s our workhorse. It feels good to see her playing back to her normal self,” longtime Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins told The Next after Delle Donne’s 27-point performance against Connecticut. “She made some big-time plays.”

One play in particular caught the attention of first-year Mystics center Amanda Zahui B., who has been studying Delle Donne’s elite footwork. “Elena had this move off one leg last game,” Zahui B. told reporters on May 25, “and I kind of just fell on the ground because I was like, ‘That was fucking amazing.’ Excuse my language.”

Zahui B. added, “I was like, ‘There’s no freakin’ way she’s doing this.’ Like, ‘Why are you doing that to them? I love it. But like, how?’”

Washington Mystics forward/guard Elena Delle Donne shoots a jump shot with her right hand. Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas is late to contest the shot with her left hand.
Washington Mystics forward/guard Elena Delle Donne (11) shoots a jump shot during a game against the Connecticut Sun at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

On Friday, Delle Donne returned to the city where she had played her first four WNBA seasons before joining the Mystics in 2017. She scored from all over the court, starting with two 3-pointers in the first quarter. A screen by Sykes freed her up to shoot the first one as soon as she caught the pass from point guard Natasha Cloud, but on the second, she created her own space. After catching the ball on the wing, Delle Donne ball-faked to her right, took one dribble to her left, stepped back and swished the 3-pointer.

Then Delle Donne imposed her will inside the arc for much of the second and third quarters, and the Mystics took control after Chicago had started the game on the front foot. In particular, Delle Donne scored six of the Mystics’ first 10 points after halftime, including an impressive 13-foot fadeaway jumper. She caught the ball in the mid-range facing away from the basket, took one dribble, faked, and turned and shot in one fluid motion.

Chicago, though, started pressuring the ball more after a Delle Donne pull-up jumper gave the Mystics a 16-point lead midway through the third quarter, and the Sky eventually tied the game late in the third quarter and several more times in the fourth. It got tougher for the Mystics to run their offense — and to find their star. Delle Donne was held without a shot for a seven-minute span between the third and fourth quarters, and she didn’t score between the 4:26 mark of the third and the 6:11 mark of the fourth.

That shot at 6:11, another 13-foot fadeaway, broke a tie at 60, and she would break the game’s final tie nearly six minutes later.

“You just can’t rattle her,” Thibault said. “She just stays at her speed. Her confidence doesn’t drop. They were making it hard for her to catch it, so she’s versatile enough that she can move around in different spaces and give them different looks. …

“We were on the losing end [on] a couple of those shots before we got her, and now we’ve been on the right end of a few.”

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On the pivotal 3-pointer that gave the Mystics their final lead, Delle Donne credited Atkins, who missed all three of her 3-point attempts on Friday but got her own rebound to extend the possession. When Delle Donne caught the ball, she didn’t hesitate, and she wasn’t thinking about the score or the gravity of the moment.

“I felt like I had the look, I had my feet set, and [I] just let it fly,” she said. “… For me, it’s just about the process of my shot. I know if I get my feet set and I’m turned properly, all’s I have to do is really lift and flick.

“So focusing on the process of whatever it is I’m trying to do in that play instead of like, ‘Whew, it’s tied,’ or ‘We got to hit a big shot’ — you don’t think about those things. I’ve done it a million times. So when the time comes and you’re called upon, you’re ready.”

It was never certain that Delle Donne would be ready for that moment because, with all that she has endured, it wasn’t certain that she would ever be ready for another WNBA season. But her dominance in the first four games has a way of clouding that memory and making her shot on Friday feel inevitable, just like it so often did before the back surgeries.

“Coming back from something like that is not easy,” Atkins said pregame, “and to come back better than what she was before, like, who does that?”

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, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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