WASHINGTON -- At Washington Mystics media day, Elena Delle Donne was clear in her personal goals for 2022: to be smart in how she comes back this year. Not a tangible goal - to be an All-Star or lead the team to a WNBA Finals berth, but to come back fully healthy.
To accomplish said goal, and ensure that her second comeback is not limited to three games as it was in 2021, Delle Donne won't be playing all of the team's 36-game schedule this year. Rest days will be built into the schedule.
The first of those rest days will come on Sunday for the second game of the season when the Mystics travel to Minnesota. Head coach Mike Thibault told the media on Monday they're doing so is because they anticipate having Delle Donne for both the opener on Friday vs. the Fever (7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington) and on Tuesday against the Aces (7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington).
"With Elena, we're trying to select days that we're going to hold her out of games," he said. "Out of 36 games, she might not play six, seven, eight games, kind of spaced them out with how many games you're playing in a week and what travel looks like."
Over the past two seasons, the two-time WNBA MVP has only played three games. Two back procedures after three herniated discs hasn't given her much time on the court since winning the 2019 WNBA championship.
Those games she did play last season were incredible for the journey she's been on. It didn't look like she missed a step. Her first two 'complete' games saw her average 17 points and four rebounds while shooting 10-for-20 from the field, all while averaging less than 19 minutes in both contests. Her third appearance was limited to 12 minutes after she felt something odd when she was trying to tip in a missed attempt at the basket. She never played again after that.
Now she's back up to full strength and ready to go. This time, the organization's hope is that a load management plan can maximize how much Delle Donne can play this season. Keep her fresh until the playoffs and allow her to peak at the end of the year.
"We want to prepare and we're gonna sit down and look at the entire season and look at moments where, 'hey, maybe that's a crazy travel that I shouldn't partake in' or 'maybe there's too many games packed into this week and we should figure this out,'" Delle Donne said on media day. "So keeping me straight on that too where obviously I'm a competitor. I want to play every single game, I want to play as many minutes as I can, but having people in my corner who can help put together the best season possible for me to be, the best I can at the right time and the rest of the team to be peaking at the right time."
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The timing to rest Delle Donne and the timing on which opponents the Mystics play are going to be pivotal this season. Last year was the first time since 2016 that Washington missed the postseason. Whereas last year's team navigated absences and injuries up and down the roster, this is a team that believes they are positioned to make a championship run again.
Depth-wise, they're deeper. There's also a familiarity of the system with six players back from the title-winning team. The team hope's these factors will be enough to balance Delle Donne's rest.
That also means they could be competitive in the Commissioner's Cup - where the players on the winning team claim a $30,000 bonus. Because of that, a majority of the games in the first half are in the Eastern half of the country. Of the first 24 games of the season, 18 will be at home or against an Eastern Conference foe - meaning a two-hour flight or less.
There will be strategy invovled. Mostly, it's going to come down travel. Limiting how long Delle Donne is in a plane being one of the biggest factors stated by the team.
The first rest day we know of will be against the Minnesota Lynx. In addition to missing Delle Donne, free-agent acquisition Elizabeth Williams remains in overseas competition and there is a strong likelihood Alysha Clark won't be available either as she edges closer to a return from a Lisfranc injury.
But before then is the season opener against the Fever where Delle Donne will be playing. Hopefully this return from injury will be for good.