February 8, 2024 

Why Elena Delle Donne is stepping away from basketball

Washington is left searching for answers to fill out its roster

Two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne is not expected to play for the Washington Mystics — or any WNBA team — in 2024. Instead, she will take time away from basketball, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne was first to report on Wednesday night, with that report confirmed by Howard Megdal at The Next.

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Delle Donne is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but on Jan. 13, the Mystics used the core designation on her. That meant that she was offered a one-year protected contract at the supermax salary of just under $242,000 for 2024, and in exchange, the Mystics got exclusive negotiating rights.

The Next had previously reported that Delle Donne was expected to move to another team this offseason, and that was the expectation of both player and team for several weeks that followed. But between Jan. 13 and Wednesday, general manager Mike Thibault did not execute a sign-and-trade that would get Delle Donne to a new team and give the Mystics assets in return.

As the days passed, other teams’ salary caps started to fill up, and the possible landing spots for Delle Donne decreased. The Mystics’ leverage in any potential trade was also rapidly decreasing, as other teams presumably knew Delle Donne wanted to leave and knew the Mystics, who learned of Delle Donne’s wishes late in the offseason process, were running short on options.

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Shelburne reported that the 34-year-old Delle Donne “needs more time to think about her future in the game,” but it’s not known how long her break from basketball will last. If she sits out the entire 2024 season, the Mystics can core her again in 2025, as long as they don’t withdraw the current offer in the coming weeks or renounce their rights to her. Further complicating her decision-making process is endorsement deals she has, such as one with Nike, that are partially dependent on whether and how much she plays in the WNBA.

Delle Donne, a 6’5 forward, was drafted second overall in 2013 by the Chicago Sky. She played four seasons there, winning Rookie of the Year in 2013 and her first MVP award in 2015. But she requested a trade to be closer to her family in Delaware, and she joined a Mystics team that was climbing out of the WNBA cellar under Thibault, the head coach at the time.

Washington took a big leap forward with Delle Donne and guard Kristi Toliver, who signed with the team in free agency the same year. The team won five more games in the 2017 regular season than it had in 2016, and it upset the New York Liberty to make the WNBA semifinals for only the second time in franchise history.

In 2018, the Mystics made their first-ever WNBA Finals appearance, and Delle Donne averaged 20.7 points per game, which is still her career high in Washington.

Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne shoots a midrange jump shot as two Connecticut Sun defenders watch without contesting it.
Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne (11) shoots during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29, 2019. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

But Delle Donne’s best season in a Mystics uniform came in 2019, when she won her second MVP award and led the Mystics to their first WNBA championship. She averaged 19.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 blocks per game while reaching a historic level of offensive efficiency. She became the first WNBA player ever to shoot better than 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the free-throw line for an entire season (minimum 100/25/50 makes).

The cherry on top? She also had the lowest turnover percentage in the WNBA, just as she had had in five of the previous six seasons.

With Delle Donne as their leader, the Mystics broke several franchise and league records on the offensive end, becoming one of the best teams in WNBA history.

However, Delle Donne suffered a severe back injury in the 2019 WNBA Finals — her second straight playoffs in which she was hurt after dealing with a knee injury in 2018. She had two surgeries in 2020 to repair three herniated discs, and she also dealt with stenosis, a condition impacting the nerves in the spine. She played in just three games in 2020 and 2021 combined as she dealt with the long-term effects of the injury.

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Delle Donne returned in 2022, at age 32, to play in 25 regular-season games, with regular rest days scheduled to avoid overtaxing her back. Miraculously, she was able to play at a similar level to her pre-injury self, and she felt like her old self, too.

Last season, Delle Donne appeared in 23 regular-season games, missing 17 due to a twice-sprained ankle, a hip ailment and a stiff neck. She also dealt with back stiffness in the team’s final game, a playoff loss to the Liberty.

“I feel good, really good,” she said the day after the Mystics’ season ended. “… I’m the strongest I’ve ever been. I’m in great shape. I feel like I have a lot more basketball to play, and I want to win.”

But between Sept. 20, when Delle Donne said those words, and Wednesday, enough changed to prompt her to step back from chasing another WNBA title. She will not sign the supermax contract with Washington, which presumably ends her career in the nation’s capital.

Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne points ahead of her with her left hand as she runs down the court.
Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne points to a teammate in acknowledgment during a game against the Atlanta Dream at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 28, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

If this is the end of Delle Donne’s career as a Mystic, she leaves as arguably the most important player in franchise history, given her starring role on the franchise’s lone championship team. She gave the Mystics everything she had and more, nearly sacrificing her long-term health to win the 2019 title.

In six seasons in Washington, she averaged 18.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 blocks across 136 regular-season games. She was mere percentage points away from a 50-40-90 career in Washington, shooting 49.3% from the field, 40.2% from 3-point range and 93.6% from the free-throw line.

And Delle Donne was flat-out indispensable to Washington’s success: With her in the lineup, the Mystics posted a 92-44 regular-season record between 2017 and 2023 (not including a win by forfeit in 2018). Without her, they went 35-60. They won by an average of 6.8 points per game with her in the lineup and lost by an average of 4.2 points without her. She also appeared in all 12 of the Mystics’ playoff wins in that span.

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Delle Donne’s decision leaves the Mystics in a challenging position for 2024. Her supermax salary offer from the core designation counts against the Mystics’ salary cap right now, leaving the Mystics with only $154,517 to offer free agents. Unless Delle Donne is traded or the Mystics withdraw her core offer — neither of which is expected to happen — that salary will not come off the Mystics’ books until the offer expires on March 7.

In the meantime, the Mystics need to do their best to fill out their roster. They currently have just seven players signed to non-training camp contracts. And while the roster does include several starters from last season, it noticeably lacks two of the best players from that seventh-place team in Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud, who signed with the Phoenix Mercury on Feb. 1.

As it stands now, the Mystics need more upper-end talent and more depth to compete in 2024 — but at this point in free agency, both will be hard for Thibault to come by. And an offseason that began with Delle Donne planning a next chapter in the WNBA seems to be ending without a clear sense of when or if she’ll write it.

Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this piece.

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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