Since hoisting the 2019 WNBA championship trophy, Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne has played just three games. The two-time WNBA MVP, who is immunocompromised, sat out the 2020 season because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, after offseason surgery, Delle Donne managed about 52 minutes before back issues derailed the remainder of the year.
“It’s a whole different year; I feel so much better,” Delle Donne said at the team’s preseason media press conference. “I’m not sitting here needing to stand up because I’m in pain — that’s the biggest thing.”
Delle Donne also talked about learning how to move her body to take pressure off her back. At 32 years old, the Delaware native spent the offseason with trainers and team staff focusing on strengthening her base and evenly distributing her weight from her upper to lower body.
“The importance of my base, which is my feet and the way my feet are interacting with the ground and the way I’m able to push,” Delle Donne said of how she changed her approach this season. “I used to be a top mover, which obviously puts a lot of pressure on your spine. Now moving through the floor with my feet, it’s helped me to be able to have different options on the court.”
Even though the six-time All-Star better understands how high-impact movements engender injury, head coach Mike Thibault plans to be cautious in reintegrating his franchise player.
“Elena and Alysha [Clark] will probably do somewhere between 60 and 70% of practice,” Thibault said. “There are parts that we’re going to hold them out. It’s not something they’ve been doing every day yet, and we’ll work our way gradually into that.”
Thibault also said the pair is unlikely to suit up for the preseason.
During the 2021 season, Delle Donne and Clark, who missed the entire campaign after undergoing surgery for a Lisfranc injury, spent time watching from the bench, supporting their teammates and rehabbing.
Through the recovery process, which extended into this past summer, Delle Donne and Clark both worked to get back on the court, which helped the two develop a deeper bond.
“Seeing each other in here every day,” Clark said, “the grind of it, the long days that we had in here it just looking back now, it’s like, ‘Man, I’m glad that at least I had somebody in here to be able to talk to to be able to connect with in that way.’ It definitely helps when you can go through something like that with one of your teammates.”
And while the Mystics will be patient with Delle Donne so that she can be ready for an expected playoff push, the former scoring champ feels more joyous than ever.
“It’s a newfound me,” Delle Donne said, “a newfound joy of the game, knowing that this game was nearly taken from me and could be at any point. You never know what’s ahead or what tomorrow could bring, so the importance of enjoying today is something I can hopefully bring to my teammates.”
A litany of injuries in 2021 left Washington shorthanded most nights, and building chemistry as a team was nearly impossible. So the impact of Delle Donne’s return extends past the scoresheet.
“Who do I look like without my Batman?” guard Natasha Cloud said when asked how excited she was to have Delle Donne back. “Obviously, Elena is the best player in the world; I’m always gonna say that. But just to have her presence back in our locker room, that means a world of difference, and it makes the world a difference in how you approach this season.”
While there is room for optimism, the aura around the team’s health is eerily reminiscent of the 2021 season; after surgery, Delle Donne felt like her return would help reestablish the Mystics as a powerhouse. Then the discomfort returned to her lower back, and the Mystics faltered.
With Delle Donne learning what it will take to stay healthy, Thibault knows that monitoring his star player’s health will be a day-to-day exercise.
“As we work through the rest of the training camp,” Thibault said, “I think every two or three days, we’ll re-gather our medical people and coaches and say, ‘Okay, where are we with each of them?’ I can’t give you an answer about what it looks like two weeks from now; I don’t know. I just know that we have a plan for this first week, and we’ll see how that goes.”
Nobody knows if Delle Donne will dress for the Mystics’ home opener against the Indiana Fever on May 6. But one thing is certain: Delle Donne is full of joy ahead of her ninth professional season.