Elena Delle Donne could only talk to reporters at practice Tuesday once she took off some of her exoskeleton.
The Washington Mystics star has become the WNBA’s version of Iron Man, still playing like a superhero although her uniform now includes a knee brace and a face mask. The medical items have not slowed her down — she’s kept her status as one of the league’s best after a left knee bone bruise during last year’s postseason and a broken nose in July.
“I’m putting on all my armor,” Delle Donne said. “It’s like a joke with the team now, too. ‘Did you pack your face? Did you pack your leg?’”
Since missing three games due to her nasal fracture, Delle Donne has rattled off three straight Eastern Conference Player of the Week awards — bringing her season total up to five, alongside both Player of the Month awards. From preseason to the present day, she’s been favored to win the big one: league MVP.
She just might do it. Delle Donne’s teammates and coach agree: On and off the court, one of the best in the game has gotten even better.
Entering Wednesday’s WNBA Finals rematch with the Seattle Storm, the forward is the only player that ranks top five in the league in both points (second, 19.1) and rebounds (fourth, 8.3) per game. She’s shooting a career-high .512 from the field, and she’s still one of the all-time best from the charity stripe, carrying a .952 free throw percentage this year.
“I think in the past, people have tried to play her like, ‘Oh, she always goes left,’” LaToya Sanders said after a recent game. “She can go left, she can go right. She can spin. She can fade. She can shoot threes. She can do pull-ups. She can go all the way to the basket. She has a well-rounded game, and you know, her percentages this year from the field are like, ridiculous, for a person who doesn’t necessarily post up to get most of her points.”
Offensive dominance aside, the Mystics say Delle Donne has improved in other areas — namely, defense and leadership.
“She’s become a better help defender, seeing more situations occurring in front of her so that she can react quicker,” Thibault said. “Her shot blocking has been huge. When she was out, we missed her defense as much as we missed her offense — and I never thought I’d say that.”
Where did that leap come from? While rehabbing her knee in the offseason, Delle Donne doubled down on film study.
“Just kind of focusing on angles and film as to where I can get better,” she said. “And then when I was able to get back out there, I was trying to defend guards more, using my feet, use angles and be smart with my length and be able to pressure teams better.”
It’s paid off in making Washington’s team defense better, as well as appearing on the stat sheet. Delle Donne ranks top 10 in the league with 1.3 blocks per game, and she’s grabbing a career-best 6.9 defensive boards per game.
Others around the team, including fellow veteran Kristi Toliver, say Delle Donne has gotten more vocal in her leadership style.
“She calls a spade a spade,” Toliver said. “That’s the hardest part sometimes when you are a leader: Being able to send a message to somebody and not making it personal, but making it direct and showing it’s important for the team. She’s been able to do that in situations where, if people have been in the wrong, she’s corrected that.”
“Every practice, every game, she’s talking before the game, during the game, timeouts. She’s there,” Emma Meesseman added. “I can really, really see the change. It’s kind of inspiring.”
Intangibles like that likely won’t count when it comes time to select an MVP, though the media members who have a vote may factor in the injuries Delle Donne has played through, plus how the Mystics finish the regular season. Washington (17-7) has a slim one-game lead for first place in the WNBA entering Wednesday.
If you subscribe to the definition of “Most Valuable Player” as “the player most important to their team,” the case for Delle Donne is simple. In games she missed or didn’t play more than one minute, the Mystics are 0-4. With her in the lineup: 17-3.
Delle Donne was the preseason favorite for MVP as voted on by WNBA coaches, and everyone from women’s hoops expert Howard Megdal to Sports Illustrated to WNBA.com still listed her atop their lists around All-Star break.
It would be her second MVP award, but her first with the Mystics, which means something more to her.
“It’d be amazing, especially to do it with this team,” Delle Donne said. “When you get an award like that it’s never an individual award. This isn’t an individual sport. They’re the ones that have really made this such a great season.”
Her teammates, in exchange, never run out of praise for her.
“Her defense has gotten better this year, with her blocks and staying in front of guards when we have a switching game plan. And when you try to double her, she’s a good passer,” Sanders said. “People just gotta …”
She cut herself off. “I don’t know. It’s not my job to figure out for other people how to guard her,” she laughed. “I love it.”
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