June 23, 2022
Is Elena Delle Donne the same as she ever was?
The fact that we can even ask the question shows how far Delle Donne has come
It feels audacious to even ask, after all that Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne has been through with her health, whether she is back to the player who won two WNBA MVP awards and recorded the most efficient shooting season in league history. This is someone who played through three herniated discs in her back to lead the Mystics to the 2019 WNBA championship and then underwent two back surgeries that cost her all but three games over the next two seasons. This is someone who also has spinal stenosis, a condition that can cause pain, numbness and muscle weakness and has ended athletes’ careers. And this is someone who was so hobbled at times that she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t walk her dogs, and wondered whether playing through her injury had been worth it.
Yet Delle Donne has played, free of the radiating nerve pain that once immobilized her, in 11 of the Mystics’ 19 games this season. She must still prepare and recover extensively for games and practices, and travel is tough on her back. But she is producing similarly to previous seasons, averaging 14.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 blocks in 26.8 minutes per game. That begs the question:
“Mentally and physically, when your shots are falling in a game, do you feel like the MVP?” I asked her on June 18.
Delle Donne didn’t hesitate. “Oh, hell yeah,” she said. “And even if they’re not falling, yeah. Yes.”
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So let’s look at the numbers and see whether Delle Donne is truly playing like she did before the injury — a very high bar to reach — or whether this is a different Delle Donne at age 32. I chose 2017-19 as the pre-surgery seasons for comparison because looking only at 2019 would create an impossible standard: That season, Delle Donne shot over 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the free-throw line, a feat that no WNBA player has ever matched.
I also omitted Delle Donne’s four seasons in Chicago from 2013-16 from the comparison because, as she told me, she was at a very different stage of her life and career then:
“[In] Chicago, I was still young, so still trying to figure out who I was, what type of leader I wanted to be. So here, obviously, things in my life changed. I got married. So all that helps build the person also on the court, just makes you more comfortable in being a leader, being who you are and finding your own voice and finding what that should look like.”
The data in this article are primarily from Basketball-Reference.com, but the scoring splits (e.g., the share of Delle Donne’s points that come in the paint) are from stats.wnba.com. The offensive and defensive ratings are from Her Hoop Stats. The advanced statistics for 2017-19 are weighted averages based on minutes played. In addition, a few shooting statistics are only available dating back to 2018; that is noted where applicable.
Overall, the statistics suggest that Delle Donne has made an incredible comeback and is generally playing like her pre-injury self. At the same time, there are also subtle differences in Delle Donne’s game that are worth exploring.
The same Elena Delle Donne …
“I don’t think she looks like she’s missed a beat,” Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller said on June 19.
The numbers back that up, and in some ways, Delle Donne’s production in 2022 is eerily similar to her production from 2017-19. This season, she is shooting 48.1% from the field and 40.0% from behind the arc, compared to 49.9% and 41.0%, respectively, from 2017-19. The average distance of her shots is 14.5 feet this season compared to 14.0 before her surgeries, and she’s still taking a healthy variety of close-range, mid-range and 3-point shots. She has always been a player who is difficult to speed up and disrupt, Miller said, and that hasn’t changed.
“It’s like having a safety net sometimes with her out there,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said on June 14, “because you can throw her the ball in certain situations and know you’re going to get a pretty quality possession.”
In addition, Delle Donne is actually shooting better from close range in 2022 than in 2018-19 while taking a slightly higher share of shots from that distance. That suggests that she’s not changing her form to compensate for her back or shying away from physicality near the rim.
|Shooting Percentage from 0-3 Feet
|Shooting Percentage from 3-10 Feet
|Percentage of Shot Attempts from 0-10 Feet
Crucially, because Delle Donne is shooting similarly to her pre-surgery self, opponents still focus heavily on her and guard her in the same ways, which opens up the offense for her teammates. “She’s a great player. She’s a very active player,” Phoenix Mercury forward Brianna Turner, a two-time WNBA All-Defensive First Team selection, told The Next on June 14 as she prepared to guard Delle Donne. “… It’s going to take a full team effort, not just me but the whole entire team has to be involved.”
The Mercury were up to the challenge, holding Delle Donne to seven points on 3-of-5 shooting. But that attention to Delle Donne gave players such as Shakira Austin (16 points) and Elizabeth Williams (10) room to operate inside, and Delle Donne was a willing passer with three assists.
“They kind of played her nose-to-nose most of the night,” Thibault said afterward. “… She’s what I would call a significant decoy sometimes because … to have somebody be guarded that closely [can] open up lanes for other people.”
Delle Donne even commanded a double team from the Sun, a team that starts three players between 6’2 and 6’6, after scoring 15 first-half points on 6-of-9 shooting on June 19. But she was again able to pass out of it effectively. This season, Delle Donne’s assist rate is up, from 12.7% pre-surgery to 15.6%, and guard Ariel Atkins is her most frequent target.
“That’s kind of where we were a few years ago with her is that it’s your ‘pick your poison’ moment,” Thibault said postgame.
“She’s one of the players in the league that puts you in rotations,” Miller said pregame. “Every decision you make out there, you worry about what’s happening from her, like so a traditional rotation off of a power forward … gives you all this angst about, can you leave Delle Donne? … She can really hurt you, and not only with her efficiency offensively. She’s an unselfish player, and she’ll make extra passes and she’ll find the right player.”
With Delle Donne shooting as efficiently as ever and commanding the same defensive attention, it’s no surprise that the Mystics continue to be much more successful when she plays. From 2017 to 2021, the Mystics won 69% of the regular-season games she played and just 38% of the games she missed, per Basketball-Reference’s Stathead tool; this season, they have won 73% of the games she has played and 38% of those she has missed.
… But with subtle changes
Over the past two years, there has been a pattern where Delle Donne tends to be optimistic about her recovery and Thibault sometimes walks it back or tries to temper expectations. That pattern has continued this season, as Thibault said on June 7 and again on June 14 that he didn’t think she was fully herself on the court.
“I’m not expecting the MVP Elena right now,” he said on June 14. “I’m hoping we have that kind of caliber by the end of the year. But her good is pretty good. We aren’t at great, but good is pretty good.”
To Thibault’s point, Delle Donne is averaging 5.1 fewer points per game than she did from 2017-19, which is a 26% decrease. Her minutes have decreased slightly, too, but even per 40 minutes, her scoring remains down from her pre-surgery levels. She’s taking a similar number of shots and shooting a similar percentage, but the biggest difference is her free throws. Delle Donne is attempting a career-low 2.4 free throws per game, about half as many as she averaged from 2017-19, and she’s making 84.6% of them. That would be an excellent percentage for nearly any other player, but it would be a career low for her. As a result, she’s getting 2.3 fewer points from the line per game than she did pre-surgery.
Delle Donne’s shot selection has changed somewhat, too. Over a third (34.4%) of her shot attempts are coming 3-10 feet from the basket, up from 21.0% pre-surgery. She is taking correspondingly lower shares of shots from 0-3 feet and the midrange, while the share of 3-pointers she is attempting has remained virtually the same.
On a related note, Delle Donne has gotten a much higher share of her points in the paint this season, and the share of points she is getting from 2-pointers outside the paint has decreased accordingly. In fact, her current share of points in the paint (40.2%) is on pace to be a career high, and her share from non-paint 2-pointers (17.1%) is very close to her career low of 16.8%.
|Percentage of Points in the Paint
|Percentage of Points from 2-Pointers Outside the Paint
Delle Donne is also getting a larger share of her baskets off of passes from teammates rather than creating for herself. Over two-thirds (68.1%) of her 2-pointers have been assisted this season, up from just 50.4% between 2017 and 2019. From behind the arc, 93.8% of her makes have been assisted this season, up from 86.3%.
Some of those changes may be the result of the Mystics coaching staff experimenting with how to use her rather than conscious choices on Delle Donne’s part. When Thibault was asked on June 7 whether he thought Delle Donne was playing like her pre-surgery self, he said, “I think she’s trying to. We need to help her as coaches a little bit more, put her in kind of comfort zone areas a little bit more. … Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll make some of those adjustments.”
Beyond scoring, Delle Donne’s rebounding numbers have also decreased slightly, and her incredibly low turnover rate — she currently has the lowest career rate in WNBA history — is slightly elevated. The rebounding numbers may be a product of playing alongside 6’5 rookie center Shakira Austin, who has the fifth-best rebounding rate in the league, and the turnovers may simply reflect the challenge of getting her in rhythm as she shuffles in and out of the lineup.
“It feels like the old Elena,” Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault told The Next on June 8. “… It’s just going to take a minute for her to be back fully in rhythm, fully confident. So I think right now she’s getting her game timing, learning new teammates, all of that as much as anything.”
Though Delle Donne’s offensive rating has decreased because of the lower points and higher turnovers, she has somewhat offset that with an improved defensive rating. That mirrors how the team has improved defensively but been worse offensively compared to 2019.
Where does Delle Donne go from here?
Remarkably, Delle Donne largely looks like her pre-surgery self this season, and that qualifier should disappear if she gets to the free-throw line more and continues to settle in with her teammates. Like many of her teammates and coaches, she has answered countless questions about the challenges of developing chemistry as she moves in and out of the lineup, and she acknowledged how difficult that situation is for everyone.
“I think this struggle that our team is in is having me some games and not, so sometimes when I’m out there, getting the flow back of what it should look like, we’re still working on it,” Delle Donne told The Next. “… It’s hard for us to understand what the offense should look like, where the ball needs to go. So I’m going to try to be better at getting the ball, demanding things and doing a little bit more.”
But the lack of rhythm is about more than just Delle Donne’s absences. Starters Alysha Clark and Natasha Cloud have also missed games due to injury and COVID-19 protocols, and nine players have started at least two games. In fact, Thibault’s preferred starting lineup of Cloud, Atkins, Clark, Delle Donne and Austin has played just five games and 44 total minutes together all season. (In contrast, one Las Vegas Aces lineup has played 14 games and 296 minutes together.)
In that light, what Delle Donne has accomplished this season is even more impressive. Not only has she returned from a career-threatening injury to be an All-Star-level player, but she has played at that level while her team is still figuring out what it can be offensively.
“It doesn’t matter what you do” to stop her, Miller said. “… She’s just one of the elite offensive players to play in this league.”
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.