WASHINGTON – Ask anyone close to the Washington Mystics or Elena Delle Donne and they’ll tell you her 20-month absence was a long one. Nearly two years without stepping on the floor during a professional basketball game, nearly two years without scoring a single point. Yet, her comeback might have been the most impressive feat of her career.
But all she needed was one game to reacclimate. Then, the two-time WNBA MVP was playing like an MVP once again.
Playing in less than 17 minutes Tuesday against the Los Angeles Sparks, Delle Donne posted 18 points on 5-for-9 shooting, with five rebounds and an absurd +36 in a 78-68 win. Most of those numbers she posted in the first half, as the team led by at least 25 points up until the end of the third quarter.
“That's an MVP right there,” Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said postgame.
Unlike the timid, carefully placed step debut Delle Donne had on Sunday, she took off the restraints just two days later. She had confidence in every move she made and was making the difficult shots look easy in a way that only Delle Donne can. There was a rhythm to her game and a calmness when she was on the floor.
It paced the Mystics to a 33-point lead at halftime. Even with the Sparks mounting a comeback, that padded lead was enough to snap the team’s four-game losing streak.
It’s still not the full Delle Donne experience. After the long hiatus, though, everyone involved is more than pleased that it’s a process.
“She’s feeling good. She shot threes, she shot... I mean that three that she took across from our bench way behind the line, that's the actual Elena from a couple years ago. Transition, find her, no hesitation,” head coach Mike Thibault said. “She got some post-ups. She made good passes. Knock on wood, if we get that Elena for enough games, that's going to be a huge factor for us.”
Signs that she’s still recovering from her two back procedures are prevalent. When she was called off the floor, Delle Donne would consult with Dr. Mike Davis from Monumental Basketball overseeing her treatment behind the Mystics bench. Coming out from halftime, they worked on stretching together with body bands at midcourt.
Her warm-up routine is methodical, more than most professional athletes. It’s as if her routine is a precise scientific formula that can’t afford a slight miscalculation.
Right now, her whole recovery and insertion into the team is a day-to-day situation. With games every other day, her gameday status won’t be 100% until the morning of the contest. From Sunday to Tuesday, everything was great. There was a sense of relief from Thibault when he found out. No one knew what to expect in that first game, Delle Donne included.
“I think the progression just to be playing basketball, to see for the last year and a half what she's going through, to do this is just this, it's phenomenal,” Thibault said.
“A lot of people have dedicated time but nobody more than her. There's days that she's literally been here for eight hours doing rehab, like three or four in the morning, three or four evening or late afternoon. And that's, that's perseverance personified. And when you have a heart as big as hers, to want to play and be great, that's what you get.”
Two performances have shown that Delle Donne is going to be back and performing at just as high of a level as she was pre-injury. The only question is the timeline for her to be at that point consistently every game.
Even in the waning moments of the ballgame, some of her swagger was beginning to become pronounced. After a slightly misplaced dribble, she began walking the ball back to the arc before unleashing a no-look pass to Leilani Mitchell for an open three. Settled back in a defensive set, a sly grin spread across her face. One of many that she and the Mystics organization have had in the past four days.
“It’s a special feeling just for me because I know the work that she's been putting in and honestly I don't even know the full story because I just got on the team,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “I joke with her and ask her if she has a bed in here somewhere because I just never see her leave or come.”
As much as there is to celebrate about Delle Donne, there’s still a daunting reality. Washington is still outside of the playoffs and must win games with the WNBA’s leading scorer Tina Charles out for the foreseeable future. Maybe one former MVP can offset the loss of the other just enough to get this team into the postseason.