WASHINGTON -- As Mystics star Elena Delle Donne will tell you, "leaders can come in all shapes and sizes." For her, now a seven-year WNBA veteran and the likely league MVP this season, it can depend on the day.
How she gets her message across to teammates is tailored for the time of need.
"Some days I need to be a voice and speak up. Some days it's a lead by example-type thing. And then other days it's just my presence and giving everybody confidence," she said.
Not all of that has come naturally. Delle Donne believes her ability to lead "has evolved" throughout her career.
It hasn't just been about learning to speak up, but when. Sometimes powerful messages can be conveyed by what isn't said.
Delle Donne is definitely a natural at that. She operates with a quiet intensity on the floor. At practice, her desire to improve rubs off on others as she charges through drills and scrimmages as if it were live, game action. It can be seen in her attention to the finer details, like communication on defense.
She leads by example by making the lessons to learn obvious. Teammates can see firsthand what makes her great.
But veteran leadership often calls for moments to speak up. Sometimes a message needs to be delivered from a peer rather than a coach.
Mystics head coach Mike Thibault has seen those skills mature in Delle Donne going back to the start of last season.
"I would say it's evolving," Thibault said. "When she first came here, I think she was a little more quiet, kind of walking on eggshells coming to a new team. I think her and Kristi [Tolliver] were both trying to tiptoe around and see because you don't want to disrupt a new team that you come to. I would say over the last part of last season, the playoffs and this year; she's used her voice and she's opened up."
When Delle Donne expresses her opinions, they carry weight because of her stature in the league as a star player. This season she averaged 19.5 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 51.5 percent from the field, 43 percent from three and a delectable 97.4 percent from the free throw line to join the prestigious 50-40-90 club.
But there is also some extra gravity in the fact she doesn't always raise her voice.
"I think if you're overly loud every day, it wears on people. She's learned to pick and choose the times that her teammates need to hear her. I think when she speaks up like that they go 'okay, it must be time,'" Thibault said.
"There are the days where she can raise her voice in a huddle or in a timeout and players know; 'Boy, if she's got something to say that she's mad about, we might want to listen because she doesn't do that every day.'"
Delle Donne, who turned 30 last week, believes in the group the Mystics have assembled. They have championship aspirations and this season for the first time will be playing with the expectations as favorites.
That will require a new challenge for the Mystics, to tune out the noise and not lose their edge by assuming anything before it happens. They are the team everyone wants to beat and they will have to remain sharp during a nine-day layoff between games. Delle Donne will have to help guide them through that.
She is happy with how the team has responded thus far in securing the No. 1 seed in the playoffs with a 26-8 record. Delle Donne thinks they have handled the pressure well by embracing it and keeping the work they do fun.
"Every day coming here is a lot of fun. Even on off-days, I miss it," she said. "I want to come in and see everybody and get back into the groove. That's when you know you've got a good group."
But the real business end of their season is about to begin on Tuesday when they host a yet-to-be-determined opponent in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals. It is a best-of-five game series with the winner advancing to the Finals, where the Mystics fell last season to the Seattle Storm.
This time, they hope to take the next step and win the first title in franchise history.
"I think pressure can make or break teams and I knew [early on] that this team was ready for the pressure," Delle Donne said.
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