When Elena Delle Donne took the court for the Washington Mystics on May 6, it was her first appearance in a season-opener since 2018. The two-time MVP had played in just three total games in the previous two seasons, but she has picked up in 2022 right where she left off before a back injury derailed her career — and it’s making all the difference for the Mystics.
After two consecutive years finishing with a losing record, Washington is over .500 again, starting the season with a 7-3 record and tied with Connecticut for the WNBA’s second-best winning percentage, trailing only Las Vegas. Delle Donne is averaging a team-high 17.9 points per game (eighth in the league through June 1) and has reached double-figure scoring and grabbed at least five rebounds in each of her seven outings this season, similar to how she started in 2019 — Washington’s best season in franchise history — with six such outings.
The team is managing Delle Donne’s load as she readjusts to being on the court, and she has missed three games for rest. But she is finding her form again — and quickly.
“My shot looked like it had nerves,” she said after scoring 21 points in this opener against Indiana. “I was struggling a little bit to get in the flow and trust my legs. So I guess I might call that a little bit of nerves, or it’s been a while. But I was able to play my way into it. The game just kind of comes to you. This is a fun, exploratory season for me being back out there.”
Delle Donne is the only player in WNBA history to record 50/40/90 shooting splits over an entire season, as she did in 2019. But this season, she is on pace for her lowest 3-point percentage in seven years at 37.1 percent on a career-high 5.0 attempts per game. Instead, she has thrived on looks near the basket.
Over 38 percent of her points are coming from the paint this season, a mark that would be her highest in her nine seasons in the league. She is second among the Mystics in paint points and fouls drawn despite missing three games. In fact, in this year’s season-opener, Delle Donne’s 14 points from the paint tied her second-best single-game mark in 117 career appearances with Washington.1
Delle Donne has been honest about relearning what it takes to best resemble her peak self.
“What this new body I created can do,” she said in May. “I have put many hours, especially into these legs. There’s times where it’s almost like I jump and get higher than I used to off the floor and it messes up my timing, at times. Just trying to figure out what it feels like to have a base and be able to move from below.”
That work has paid off. Late last month, Delle Donne became the 40th player in WNBA history to reach 4,000 career points, reaching the milestone in a 20-point Mystics victory over the Atlanta Dream., She finished with 15 points on 7-for-13 overall shooting, six rebounds and a season-high three blocks.
The Mystics are outscoring opponents by over 13 points per 100 possessions when Delle Donne has been on the court this season; their net rating nearly triples when she plays versus when she sits. But she’s not doing it alone, of course. In particular, her chemistry with fifth-year guard Ariel Atkins has been key to the Mystics’ hot start.
Atkins developed into an All-Star while Delle Donne was out in 2021, posting career-highs in scoring average (16.2 points per game), total 3-pointers (66), free-throw attempts (118) and usage rate (25.0 percent). This season, Atkins has upped her scoring average to 16.4 points per game overall and 17.0 points in the three games Delle Donne has missed. And when Delle Donne and Atkins share the court together, Washington is outscoring opponents by 20 points per 100 possessions.
Delle Donne has also gotten plenty of help from the other playmakers on the team. Do-it-all guard Natasha Cloud is dishing out a career-best 7.0 assists per game, tied for second in the league, taking pressure off of Delle Donne to create off the dribble. The Mystics as a team are tied for second in the league in per-game assists.
With a hand from her teammates, Delle Donne has powered Washington back to the top of the WNBA standings. She’s not taking anything for granted — and neither is her coach.
“She loves being out here,” Mike Thibault said about Delle Donne’s return to the court. “You can see it — she’s laughing, smiling. Feels good to be doing what she loves most. It was taken away from her for a while, and part of that — I mean, she will tell you, there’s an appreciation to be able to do it again and an appreciation for what she went through to get back to this.”
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