August 27, 2023
With Elena Delle Donne’s return, Washington Mystics find joy and focus
‘To have the whole group out there felt so good, and I think you could just see it’
WASHINGTON — Late in the Washington Mystics’ 78-62 win over the Las Vegas Aces on Saturday, forward Elena Delle Donne caught the ball near the top of the key with five seconds left on the shot clock. She dribbled once to her left, then spun back to her right and swished a 14-foot jump shot as the clock struck two.
Delle Donne calmly ran back on defense, and as she slowed inside the arc, she gave a playful shrug.
A few minutes later, after the buzzer had sounded, the two-time WNBA MVP headed to the locker room with her teammates. As is a Mystics tradition after wins, a camera filmed the players walking down the hallway that leads to their lockers. “Woooo!” Delle Donne screamed with obvious joy, flinging a towel she was holding in the air. “Oops, dropped my towel.”
Delle Donne scored 21 points in her return from ankle and hip injuries that had cost her nearly two months of the season. Just as important as her offensive contributions, though, she helped the Mystics rediscover their joy — and find a new level of focus — as they fight for a playoff berth.
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Delle Donne had sprained her ankle first on June 30 and again on July 9, around the time that fellow starters Shakira Austin and Ariel Atkins were also injured. Austin and Atkins returned in mid-August, and the Mystics had hoped to get Delle Donne back then, too. She played the first half against the Indiana Fever on Aug. 18 but aggravated a hip issue that, according to head coach Eric Thibault, had “cropped up a little bit” while she was rehabbing her ankle.
Eight days later, Delle Donne returned to play her first full game since June 28. Though she didn’t look rusty on the court, a moment just before the third quarter began suggested it had been a while. Delle Donne reached to remove her gray warm-up shirt — right as her teammates were ready to exchange high-fives. She dropped her shirt hem, freeing up her hands. The shirt would have to wait.
Thibault set a relatively low bar for Delle Donne in her return, telling reporters pregame that he wanted to see her “look like she’s moving well, moving freely, playing with good tempo. And I just want her to get through pain-free and get a little confidence.”
Guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, though, couldn’t contain her excitement when asked on Aug. 13 about the prospect of Delle Donne returning soon. “She just scores whenever she wants to,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “… Whenever you need a bucket, you just kind of throw it to her and get back on defense because you know it’s going in. Everybody wants a cheat code like that. So that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”
Delle Donne lived up to both sets of expectations against the Aces, the WNBA’s best team. She was healthy and confident, and she made scoring look easy. She hit six of her 10 shots, including two 3-pointers, and made all seven of her free throws. She added seven rebounds, an assist and a steal despite being on a minutes restriction. In her 22 minutes, she helped the Mystics outscore the Aces by 28 points.
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The Mystics didn’t call many plays for Delle Donne, looking instead to get her touches within the flow of the offense. Facing a box-and-one defense to start the game, Delle Donne attacked the middle, scoring six quick points on two jump shots in the paint and two free throws.
“It’s a big difference,” Atkins said postgame about playing with Delle Donne. “Just simply the presence that she brings on the court and the attention that she commands, it obviously makes my life easier. … I enjoy playing with her. It means a lot to be able to be on the floor with her.”
Delle Donne saved her best for the fourth quarter, a time when the Mystics have struggled this season. They have been one of the best first-half teams in the WNBA, outscoring teams by 7.2 points per 100 possessions, but in fourth quarters, they are being outscored by a league-worst 9.9 points per 100 possessions. Delle Donne flipped that script with a game-high nine points in the quarter, helping the Mystics outscore the Aces 26-14 and break the game open.
“What do you want me to say?” Aces head coach Becky Hammon grumpily asked postgame. “She’s a former MVP. Yeah, she’s good. She affects the game. So when she’s healthy, yeah, she’s a problem.”
In her own postgame press conference, Delle Donne spoke about how happy she was to be playing again. She doesn’t take that for granted after suffering serious injuries in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs. The latter — three herniated discs in her back — required two surgeries, caused her to miss nearly all of the 2020 and 2021 seasons, and forced her to sit out of 11 games last season to rest. The ankle and hip injuries this season weren’t nearly as serious, but they sent her to the sideline all the same.
“It felt so good to be out there,” she said. “When the game is taken from you for a few weeks, I think we all have felt it. And just to have the whole group out there felt so good, and I think you could just see it. We were just playing with joy.”
When Delle Donne returned to practice in early August, she was tentative at times. She told The Washington Post that she was thinking too much as she battled for rebounds about how crowded the paint was. Part of her was on red alert for feet she might step on.
By Saturday, though, those worries had dissipated, replaced with aggression and excitement. “I’m playing free,” she said. “… I don’t think about injury or like, ‘Ooh, what if I step on a foot again?’ It’s basketball. You just got to enjoy the moments you’re out there and play as hard as you can.”
Her teammates and coaches, too, soaked up those moments after watching her painstakingly rehab her back for years, then approach her ankle and hip recovery with the same resolve.
“I think it shows how much she loves basketball,” Thibault said. “… It’s hard not to have an appreciation for what she does when she’s here every day for now three years basically, putting herself through the regimen that she has to to get herself ready to play. And … it’s just satisfying to see her out there on a very personal level.”
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love this,” Delle Donne confirmed. “It’s been a heck of a journey and a lot of tough spots mentally. But … if I stick to my game plan, stick to all the things that have gotten me back from the awful back injury, I know that I can really get through whatever it is.”
Delle Donne’s return invigorated the Mystics, and her joy on the court became all of their joy. The ball zipped from player to player, moving with a decisiveness that had eluded the Mystics for weeks. They figured out where and when to cut for each other and dished out 22 assists, their fifth-highest total this season. And they played one of their most connected games of the season defensively, forcing 19 Aces turnovers and holding the Aces to their second-lowest point total of the season.
After the win, when the players broke their huddle at center court, forward Myisha Hines-Allen made a beeline for Delle Donne and chest-bumped her. Minutes later, in the locker-room video, Hines-Allen roared, “They let the whole squad loose, baby!”
With Delle Donne, Austin and Atkins all back in the lineup, the Mystics hope they can finally build on lessons from early in the season. They opened the year with a statement win over the New York Liberty, the WNBA’s second-best team, but followed with several weeks of inconsistent play. Right when they started to figure out that problem, injuries decimated the lineup for weeks.
While they were shorthanded, the Mystics still got better: Guard Brittney Sykes started scoring nearly at will, and guard Natasha Cloud figured out new ways to lead a fatigued and sometimes demoralized team. Once they got back Austin and Atkins, all they needed was their superstar. Along with the joy Delle Donne brought, she also helped them lock in mentally.
“The amount of focus that we [had] for 40 minutes, we have not done that all season,” Atkins said. “And I think everybody kind of took a deep breath and realized what that actually felt like.”
Delle Donne added, “Seeing what we can do when we’re all locked into the game plan, we’re all trusting in each other, is massive.”
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In the preseason, the Mystics were projected to be one of the WNBA’s best teams, and the season-opening win against New York cemented those expectations. But the injuries robbed them of so much of their potential, and as the season stretched on, that vision of who they could be seemed increasingly remote. Even with Saturday’s win, the Mystics are two games under .500 at 16-18, and they have yet to clinch a playoff berth.
But Saturday’s performance reminded them that they can still deliver on their potential, Thibault said. Now the key is extending the consistency they played with for six more games to end the regular season.
“Our work is not done by any stretch,” Thibault said. “Winning one game with six to go helps, but it doesn’t get you where you want to be. We’re not [definitely] in the playoffs. … We haven’t won anything yet.”
For one night, though, it felt like the Mystics were exactly where they want to be. And behind a healthy Delle Donne, there’s hope that the feeling will last.
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 and Power Plays.