WASHINGTON — The ovation Mystics fans gave Elena Delle Donne when she was introduced in the starting lineup wasn’t just for the team’s biggest star on opening night.
They were welcoming back a player who had played just three games since the end of 2019, the year Delle Donne led the team to the only championship in its 25-year history.
Even in those three games, all last August, she wasn’t at her best after two operations to repair herniated disks in her spine. Delle Donne admitted at the last of them that she didn’t feel right, and she didn’t play in the season’s final eight contests.
Now, Delle Donne is back at full health, and she looked the part in Friday’s 84-70 win over the Indiana Fever. The Wilmington native delivered a game-high 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting, plus nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
It took a little while for Delle Donne to get in rhythm, but not too long. She dropped a highlight-reel play in the first quarter, backing down Indiana rookie NaLyssa Smith before cutting left for a layup that left Smith in the dust.
“I didn’t feel too nervous, but I was struggling a little bit to get in a flow and to trust in my legs, so I guess I might call that a little bit of nerves — or just, it’s been a while,” Delle Donne said after the game. “But I was able to play my way into it, my teammates were still trusting me, we were still finding the right people where we needed to, and the game kind of just comes to you.
“This is a fun, exploratory season for me of being back out there. So I feel like trying to not beat myself up too much and just continuing to play the game and let it come to me.”
That word “exploratory” got the media’s attention. It’s not one a nine-year pro often gets to use. What did Delle Donne mean by it?
“What this new body I’ve created can do,” she said. “I have put many, many hours, especially, into these legs. There’s times where it’s almost like I jump and get higher off the floor than I’m used to, and it messes up my timing.”
You never know for sure if a player is fully back until they’re in live games. But veteran Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, a Broomall native and St. Joseph’s alum, saw signs in the preseason that Delle Donne was ready.
“I think last year she really did try, for us, for her team, understanding what she means to us, what she means to this organization,” Cloud said. “But she wasn’t necessarily 100% ready. This year, totally different — she’s 100% ready, she’s feeling great, she looks strong, she is stronger.”
And for as much talent as the Mystics have, there’s no question in the locker room about who’s No. 1.
“She is a total example of how to be your franchise player, how to be a good person, how to be a leader on and off the court,” Cloud said. “And her presence on the floor obviously makes us better — just her presence alone, not even her talent. … To see her work and go through all those hardships and now to be back on the floor, it’s amazing.”
Cloud played well, too, by the way: 17 points, six assists, four rebounds, and a viral stepback dribble on Indiana’s Lexie Hull late in the second quarter that sent Hull to the floor.
Mystics coach Mike Thibault said before the game that Delle Donne’s playing time will be limited early in the season. It’s already set that she won’t travel to Washington’s road game against the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday, meaning her next game will be Tuesday at home against superstar forward A’ja Wilson’s Las Vegas Aces.
Against Indiana, there was a minutes restriction. Or at least there was in theory.
“I would have liked to have kept her minutes a little bit lower, but I think that she felt good,” Thibault said afterward. “And she’s not going to play again until Tuesday. She’s got plenty of recovery time.”
Delle Donne is on board with the plan.
“We’ve learned from last season, like, I don’t need to go game-game-game — I need to probably space it out for a little and see how I continue to respond,” she said. “It’ll certainly be tough not being able to be there with them and traveling, having fun going out to dinner, those are some of the things I certainly miss. But the time will come, and I’ll be on road trips hopefully soon.”
If the plan pays off, the rest of the WNBA will be on notice. Then again, after a game like Friday’s, they might be already.