May 7, 2022
The joy of a Washington Mystics season opener featuring Elena Delle Donne
Delle Donne played in a season opener on Friday for the first time since 2018, and it mattered for reasons beyond the final score
WASHINGTON – Over the past several months, Elena Delle Donne says, she got her life back. As a result, on Friday, the Washington Mystics star officially got basketball back, too.
Delle Donne had missed the past three season openers for the Mystics, one with knee soreness and the last two with a back injury that she sustained in the 2019 WNBA Finals and that required two surgeries and hours of rehabilitation. She said on Thursday that she had been in “constant pain” for a two-year stretch, and at times she couldn’t sleep, hold her dogs’ leashes on walks, or sit in chairs.
“I can’t really pick my favorite,” she said of the activities that she can enjoy again. “… Getting my life back has been massive.”
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To be sure, there are visible reminders that Delle Donne is still working her way back from an injury that many outside observers thought might end her career. She won’t travel with the team to Minnesota for Sunday’s game, as the Mystics want to avoid overworking her with three games in five days and are being cautious about aggravating her back with travel. In Friday’s season opener against the Indiana Fever, she added compression leggings to her usual game day uniform to keep her muscles warm. And after playing nearly 30 minutes in the 84-70 win, she told reporters that her recovery process would likely keep her at the arena for two extra hours, until around midnight.
“Damn,” teammate Shatori Walker-Kimbrough thought when she heard about Delle Donne’s postgame gauntlet. “I’m complaining about a 10-minute ice bath. … That’s MVP right there.”
Despite all of the recovery time, Delle Donne is now pain-free and practicing fully with the Mystics, and so she was healthy enough to be introduced last in Friday’s starting lineup. With the home crowd on its feet, she emerged from under a lights and smoke display in one corner of the arena and waved as she ran on the court.
“I’m really thrilled for her. No one has meant more to the game than Elena has, and it’s just exciting to see her back out there after a long two years. And I know it’s required a lot of patience and just really trying lots of different ways to get healthy on her part,” Fever head coach and former Mystics head and assistant coach Marianne Stanley said pregame. “But she’s one of the icons of this league and a tremendous player and an even better person, so I’m happy for her. I told her I’m going to cheer for her every game except when they play us … [It’s] good for the league, good for the Mystics, good for the fans.”
Delle Donne exploited Stanley’s young Fever team to finish with a game-high 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting along with nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Her baskets came on a variety of moves, including some deft pump fakes and footwork in the post and a layup that she got by driving all the way in from the 3-point line.
At times, though, Delle Donne didn’t seem to have the feel or rhythm of a franchise star. She shot just 1-of-5 from 3-point range and — shockingly for the career 94% free-throw shooter — missed a free throw in the fourth quarter. Five of her eight made shots were layups, and only one was from beyond nine feet.
“My shot looked like I had nerves,” she chuckled after the game. “I didn’t feel too nervous, but I was struggling a little bit to get in the flow and to trust in my legs.” Delle Donne had told reporters on Thursday that what pleased her most about her progress to date was the strength she had added in her legs to take pressure off of her back, but that strength made her body feel a little foreign to start the season.
“I have put many, many hours especially into these legs, so there’s times where it’s almost like I jump and [get] higher than I’m used to off the floor and it messes up my timing at times,” she added on Friday. “So [I’m] just kind of trying to figure out what it feels like to have a base and be able to move from below.”
Overall, Delle Donne seemed less emotional than she did in August 2021, when she returned to play three games before being sidelined with a recurrence of pain. Last year, she talked about having butterflies and nearly crying when she was introduced in the starting lineup, whereas this time around, she said she was excited but only thinking about the scout and strategy when she took the court.
The reason for that difference? Playing in the 2022 season opener was what she had expected to do all along.
“I try not to make any day feel much different than prior days. I try to prepare the same,” she told reporters on Thursday.
“It’s definitely a good start,” she added on Friday. “But again, it’s not really something I was surprised at because of how I’ve been preparing and feeling.”
The fact that Delle Donne was in the lineup, never mind able to play nearly 30 minutes and score 21 points, is a hopeful sign for the Mystics this season as they look to get back to their 2019 championship ways. Delle Donne last played in a season opener on May 20, 2018 — coincidentally, also a home win over Indiana — and finished with 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting, seven assists and five rebounds in 30 minutes.
It’s been so long that, of the Mystics’ four other starters in that game, three are out of the league. Myisha Hines-Allen and Ariel Atkins, now mainstays in the Mystics lineup, combined to play 23 minutes in their rookie debuts. Delle Donne herself had only played one season with the Mystics at that point.
Memories of that game have faded with time: Atkins came up empty recalling her WNBA debut, and associate head coach Eric Thibault successfully guessed the starting lineup but couldn’t remember the opponent or much about how the game progressed. And Mystics players were uniformly shocked to hear that it had been that long since Delle Donne had featured in a season opener.
“Wait, I missed [the] 2019 season opener?” Delle Donne asked.
“Dang, I didn’t even think about that,” Atkins told The Next.
Delle Donne playing in this game mattered, not because the Mystics absolutely needed her to win but because of the foundation it set for the season. Delle Donne has been practicing with her teammates throughout training camp, giving them time to develop chemistry. It also gives the Mystics continuity and consistency, two things that derailed them in an injury-riddled 2021 season, because they can feel confident that Delle Donne will practice most days rather than wondering daily about her status. Although she will not travel this weekend, she said on Friday that that step will come “hopefully soon.”
Beyond the statistics she accumulates, Delle Donne’s on-court presence also provides a less tangible lift for the Mystics. She has become a more vocal leader over the years, according to Walker-Kimbrough, and brings leadership, experience and poise on the court. Atkins said that Delle Donne is “a calming factor for us,” which was a sentiment many Mystics players also mentioned last season during Delle Donne’s brief return.
“I mean, she’s a three-level scorer, and she’s a two-time MVP for a reason,” Mystics analyst Christy Winters Scott said postgame on NBC Sports Washington. “… Again, it’s been four years since she’s had a season opener, so to have her on the floor, Washington definitely needed that, and she brought her experience and expertise.”
On Friday, Delle Donne’s return elicited joy from all sides, from Stanley embracing her pregame, to the fans who sold out the Entertainment and Sports Arena, to her teammates marveling at all she had endured to get basketball back.
“As her friend, as her family, it’s a beautiful thing to see her go through what she went through, all those trials and tribulations, and for things to come full circle for her and seeing her play out there tonight,” point guard Natasha Cloud said. “I looked at her at one point. I was like, ‘This is prime time Delle.’ … She’s going to continue to get better. But it’s an amazing thing to see how far she’s come.”
“Just to see her, it all coming together — this is two years, two and a half years, almost three years of her just grinding it out and not giving up,” Walker-Kimbrough told The Next. “I mean, I’m just so happy to see her out there doing what she loves.”
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.