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Elena Delle Donne's leadership will be needed as Mystics play as favorites in WNBA playoffs

Elena Delle Donne's leadership will be needed as Mystics play as favorites in WNBA playoffs

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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Expectations weren't high, but at 2-7 are the Wizards underachieving?

Expectations weren't high, but at 2-7 are the Wizards underachieving?

Should the Wizards be better than this?

Certainly, what has transpired so far this season has not been all that surprising. They let more talent leave than they brought in over the summer, but by-design to get younger players with more long-term upside and more financial flexibility. With the roster they put together, few out there had any delusions of them contending for a top seed in the Eastern Conference.

But after nine games they sit 2-7, as certifiably one of the worst teams in basketball. No teams have fewer wins than the Wizards and only three have more losses. Those three are the Pelicans (Zion Williamson got hurt), the Warriors (everyone got hurt) and the Knicks. Hey, at least they're not the Knicks.

A 2-7 record, though, is a 2-7 record and some of the numbers aren't pretty. The Wizards are allowing 120 points per game, fourth-most in the NBA. Their 114.6 defensive rating is 29th out of 30 teams.

To be fair, we knew they were going to be dreadful defensively. Though they made some astute moves in the offseason, they basically brought in all offensive-minded players. 

Yes, much of what has happened for the Wizards this season has been predictable. But when you bring a magnifying glass over the big picture things have been, well, just okay so far.

When it comes to individuals, it's a mixed bag. Rui Hachimura has been a nice surprise because of how quickly he has translated to the NBA as a rookie. Thomas Bryant looks at least marginally improved. His trajectory appears to be continuing upward.

Moe Wagner has been solid, at least showing enough to prove he isn't the bust he resembled last year in L.A.. Davis Bertans has been excellent, giving general manager Tommy Sheppard an early feather in his cap by possibly beating the vaunted Spurs in a trade.

Isaiah Thomas has been mostly good so far. He may not be the All-NBA star from his Boston days, but the Wizards are at least getting more than Denver got out of him last year. 

But there have been some relative disappointments. Ish Smith and C.J. Miles haven't gotten going yet, though their long veteran track records should present some hope.

Troy Brown Jr. has not shown anything to suggest a second-year leap, but he missed all of the preseason with a calf injury and may need some time to catch up. Jordan McRae hasn't been great either, but should also be graded on a curve because of his injury.

We haven't seen anything conclusive yet from Admiral Schofield or Justin Robinson. Isaac Bonga was okay when he started the first seven games of the season, but showed nothing to write home about.

There have been some positives and some negatives, which is to be expected. Their latest loss was understandable, as they fell in Boston to the NBA-best 9-1 Celtics on Wednesday night. But their loss the game before, by double-digits at home to the Cavaliers, was a head-scratcher.

And still, 2-7 is 2-7. Right now, the Wizards look safely headed towards the lottery, hoping the ping-pong balls bring them a future star in James Wiseman or Cole Anthony.

Really, if that happens and they fall well short of the playoffs, it's okay. They are going to need more building blocks, anyways.

The Wizards are a franchise in transition, having just restructured their front office. The early part of this season is essentially baseline testing. It's not about how they look now, it's what they turn into by the end of the season and the foundation they lay for the future.

This year will be viewed as a success if Hachimura and Bryant continue to ascend, if Brown Jr. turns a corner and if some combination of Wagner, Schofield and Bonga show promise. Maybe Bertans, Thomas and Miles are flipped at the trade deadline for future assets.

It's still very early. We are just getting a good read on what the Wizards are at the moment.

As long as they make progress and trend up from here, things will be fine. If they don't, then there might be a different conversation.


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Rui Hachimura bluntly describes Wizards' defensive struggles this season

Rui Hachimura bluntly describes Wizards' defensive struggles this season

The Wizards didn't just drop their third straight to fall to 2-7 Wednesday night in Boston, but they again gave up an obscene amount of points. 

Washington fell 140-133, marking the fifth time in the first nine games in which they've given up more than 120 points. They've held an opposing offense under 100 twice. 

After the loss, Scott Brooks said the team's defensive issues started with the scouting report. Players weren't familiar enough with the Celtics' tendencies so when Washington needed a stop, they couldn't get one. 

Rookie forward Rui Hachimura put it a bit more bluntly. 

“From the beginning of the season, our defense has been no good," he said. 

With Hachimura, Bradley Beal and Isaiah Thomas, the Wizards shouldn't have any issue scoring this season. They have the sixth-ranked offense in the NBA, but the fact that they still have a -4.4 net rating is telling to how bad they've been on the other end.

The Wizards are in the midst of a rebuilding year. The goals for teams like these are to acquire young talent and hope they develop into foundational pieces. As important as obtaining talent is, building good habits can make or break a young player's development, especially in the age of the one-and-done.

They'll have to commit more to the defensive end if they have any hopes of putting multiple wins together. The question is whether they have the personnel to do it.