Elena Delle Donne is back for the Washington Mystics. Back after a year off from recovery on her back surgery and concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. It was her first year off as a professional and she's ready to lace up for the grind of the WNBA season.
And while Delle Donne returns, her most recent campaign being her second MVP season -- one of the best in WNBA history. The only issue with this training camp is that she's not at her MVP-self just days into preparation for the 2021 season. She's far from it coming off back surgery and a full season of not playing.
There will be time for her to ramp it up, but unlike most players that will do that at the initial point of camp, Delle Donne's will be a work in progress.
"I'm feeling good. And every day I feel like I'm adding and continuing to build," Delle Donne said on Mystics media day. "Some days it might feel like small steps but when you've had back surgery, like, 'Okay, I need to listen to my body a little bit more,' so I'm being smart. I'm building strength and I'm working with the best people possible so I feel like I'm in a really good place right now.
"And I'm excited to just be here with my team. Like it's been a long time and it's so nice to have everybody around and I feel like just the energy is something I've missed so much."
Right now, the 31-year-old is strictly stuck to only individual drills on the side during Mystics practices. No five-on-five drills and certainly no live-action situations for at least the first week. Even her status for the first game of the season on May 15 is unclear until they see her progression.
Simply getting comfortable on the court again is her biggest challenge. Learning how to move in a certain way and sit a certain way where she doesn't put her body in a position to get hurt are top of mind. Then, doing that while playing is the next.
Head coach and general manager Mike Thibault says everything is on track. But he doesn't just want her for the season opener, the goal is to have her fully healthy for most of the season.
"I've talked to our trainer and doctors, they feel reasonably confident that she's making a lot of progress and that by our first game, she may be able to play some," Thibault said. "But I'm not risking any of it if it jeopardizes anything. We want her to be healthy for the season so I suspect she'll be on limited minutes for a while."
Limited minutes and participation for the best player on a roster, especially at the beginning of the season, is sometimes cumbersome. It's that time where new players get ingrained in the team's culture, find out everyone's roles on the team and allows time to bond.
With the coronavirus pandemic still being a constant issue, COVID-19 protocols also make the opening weeks of camp even more critical.
Even without playing last year and being in a limited role to start this one, Delle Donne remains the face of the team and the franchise. While Natasha Cloud and Tina Charles have the experience to lead -- and last year saw Ariel Atkins emerge as a voice on Washington's roster -- it's still Elena's team. She's making the effort to provide the leadership needed from her position.
"With COVID It's like super tough to have these like outside team meetings, getting people together," Delle Donne said. "So I'm trying to find ways where we can build that camaraderie. I think the first thing is just being with one another in the locker room, in moments like this with Media Day like hanging out while we're waiting to get our photos taken. And from there, hopefully, as long as COVID and protocols work out, I love to do things outside of the gym where we can hang out with one another whether it just be at someone's house, but for now, we were just doing as much as we can in the building, and building on and off the court camaraderie."
Delle Donne is not the only one that is still nursing some injuries at camp. Not even every player, like Myisha Hines-Allen and Kiara Leslie, has shown up due to overseas obligations.
But right now, the message is simple from the coaching staff down to all the players. The Mystics aren't going to win a championship at training camp or during the first week of the season. Get everybody in a position to be healthy and at peak condition when the season matters most. That's more important for Delle Donne.
"I'm so excited to get back out there, just trying to continue to gain strength gain body awareness. I'm moving differently and trying to just figure out new ways to move my body that do not put pressure on my spine and other issues that we've been able to kind of clear up and clean up. I'm excited about a new me, a new season and just getting back out there and being able to compete with my teammates," Delle Donne said.
"It's not a sprint. It's a marathon and I need to be right for when we need it," she added later.