WASHINGTON — When a player of Elena Delle Donne's stature returns after a long absence, the entire sport can feel the impact.
Her coach, her Washington Mystics teammates, and even her opponents like what they see so far.
“She’s not 100% healthy, but to be able to do what she does, she’s a Hall of Famer," Dallas Wings coach Vickie Johnson said after a win at Washington on Friday night. “We can’t stop her. It doesn’t matter if she practices or only plays home games or whatever, she’s still Delle Donne. She’s still very effective shooting the basketball and affecting the game in so many ways."
The last time Delle Donne played a full season was 2019, when she won her second MVP award and led the Mystics to a WNBA championship. Back problems and coronavirus concerns then limited her to only three games over the past two years. Washington is hoping a healthy Delle Donne will help the team rejoin the league's elite, and she's showing at age 32 that she can still make a big impact after all that time away.
In three games this season, the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne has given the Mystics consistent production, scoring between 19 and 21 points each time out, while playing between 29 and 32 minutes. Those stats are similar to what she did in 2019.
“I was pretty confident that I’d be back," Delle Donne said. "From past experiences, you never know what tomorrow brings. So I always try to just live in each day, and treat each day with the same importance. I feel like that’s kind of been how I’ve gotten through all of this.”
Delle Donne called this an “exploratory” season for her, which suggests she doesn't want to put too much pressure on herself, especially this early. While her health seems good now, there's an adjustment process as she returns to the day-to-day grind of playing game after game — and her body responds in ways that may be a bit surprising.
“I have put many, many hours, especially into these legs, so there’s times where it’s almost like I jump and get higher than I’m used to off the floor, and it messes up my timing," she said.
When the Mystics opened with three games in five days, Delle Donne sat out the middle one.
“Even before the season started, we sat down and looked at the schedule and looked at weeks that might be too much of a load and too many games," she said. "It’s something we’re all on the same page, and even my teammates know, so they’re aware.”
It's been an encouraging start for the Mystics, who also have veteran Alysha Clark back after she missed all of last season with foot issues. Washington won its first three games before fading in the second half against Dallas. The Mystics play the second half of a home-and-home with the Wings on Tuesday night.
“I think every teammate knows that they have a star player out there, who is starting to get it back," Washington coach Mike Thibault said prior to Friday's game. "She feels like she doesn’t completely have her total shooting rhythm yet, which is scary for other teams.”
Although the Mystics lost to Dallas, Delle Donne scored 20 points — and she went 4 of 6 from 3-point range after going 2 of 10 through her first two games.
For a Washington team that's trying to contend for a championship again after going basically two years without its biggest star, there are plenty of positive signs.
“She’s the best player in the entire world. I’m going to say that until I’m blue in the face, until I’m in my casket,” guard Natasha Cloud said. “She’s going to continue to get better, but it’s an amazing thing to see how far she’s come.”
And for a league that can always benefit from the presence of someone like Delle Donne, her improved health is a welcome development.
“I have been getting a lot of support, which certainly means a lot, to feel like you’ve been missed — even by opponents," Delle Donne said. "It’s always touching when they reach out and say they’re happy to have me back.”