Elena Delle Donne is finally on top of the WNBA

by Howard Megdal

Elena Delle Donne has followed her own path to the top of the WNBA mountain, overcoming everything the Basketball Gods have thrown at her.

Why does Elena Delle Donne, remarkable basketball talent and now champion of the WNBA world, seems to get hurt at the worst possible times? The 2014 WNBA Finals. The 2018 WNBA Finals. And again in the 2019 WNBA Finals.

Rest assured, Delle Donne’s considered it even more than you have. She’s got some theories.

“So I’ve contemplated long hours over why every time I get to a Finals something happens, and I think it’s because I pissed the basketball gods off years ago when I decided to step away,” Delle Donne said with a wide smile, referring to her college sabbatical from the game, after her Washington Mystics captured Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, 89-78. “So I’m hoping this ends this little drama that I’ve been having in the Finals.”

No one had the right to question Delle Donne’s greatness, even prior to this ultimate triumph. Not when she’s seven seasons into a career that’s included an All-Star appearance every season the league has held one with her as a professional, and eye-popping totals born of efficiency as much as volume that places her in elite company were she to retire already.

Fortunately for the basketball world, there’s little danger of that. She has an entire offseason to heal those three herniated disks that hobbled her in the 2019 Finals.

Once she returned to the court in Game 3, after the pain knocked her out of Game 2, there wasn’t much chance she’d leave the floor again until she’d done everything in her power to make the Mystics champions. No one who saw her last year, for instance, play through a bone bruise in her knee that took months to heal thought she’d allow a back injury, no matter how severe, derail her championship aspirations.

There’s been a lot misunderstood about Delle Donne’s arrival in D.C. Sure, to be close to her family, a quick hop on the Amtrak Acela from her sister, Lizzie, with special needs, and a close-knit group that helped raise her a basketball player with the kind of fundamentals seldom seen, that was a draw.

But so, too, was Mike Thibault, the team he built, the principles that cry out for someone like Delle Donne, positionless in a league that now embraces the concept, but was centered around traditional 5s and yesterday’s offenses when Delle Donne entered the league in 2013.

So DC wasn’t just about Lizzie, and it wasn’t just about winning, but it was very much about both these things. And a star unafraid to chart her own path — she did step away from basketball, she balked at the chance to be the next star on the UConn assembly line, she has had the strength of character to find her own way since she was a teenager — shouldn’t have been doubted, and at age 30, a champion, cannot be denied.

This is part of what Delle Donne does, too: she puts up a shield, she doesn’t often let people in beyond her close circle. But with a trophy in front of her on Thursday night, she explained how, in her own mind, she’d arrived at this point.

“She’s been my path, and somehow she’s gotten me to this moment,” Delle Donne said of Lizzie. “You know, it’s been a crazy journey. It’s been my own path. It’s been different from everyone else’s. I’ve just kind of believed in it, and you’ve got to follow your heart, and I’ve always trusted in her. Another reason I can battle through injury is like she’s been dealt the worst cards possible with her disabilities, and every day she gets up, she smiles, she laughs, she loves. So she’s always just been my inspiration. I was talking to her all game long, like trying to have them miss free throws. Like come on, Liz, give me a little something.”

Delle Donne added, her eyes glassy, that Lizzie doesn’t even know Elena is a basketball player. It’s a striking bit of empathy in that moment, reflective of who and how Delle Donne has lived her life. This, too, is worth considering about Delle Donne, when we imagine how we’ll look back at her career: the course she is charting is going to put her alongside the greatest to ever play the game.

By Win Shares, she’s at 42.67 already. As career marks go, that’s 21st in the history of the league, ahead of the career totals of Cappie Pondexter, Seimone Augustus. But there’s little reason to think she’s close to the end, following an MVP campaign that concluded with a championship.

She found another level of play in 2019, her rebounding percentage jumping from 13.5 to 17.2, mostly powered by defensive boards, and her assist percentage remained above what she routinely put up in Chicago, a consequence of trusting her teammates more.

If she is merely an average of her three Washington Mystics seasons from 2017-2019 — an average of 6.3 Win Shares per season — here are some of the names she’ll pass: in 2020, Becky Hammon, Rebekkah Brunson, Penny Taylor, Katie Douglas. In 2021, Taj McWilliams Franklin. In 2022, Sheryl Swoopes, Yolanda Griffith, Katie Smith, Lindsay Whalen, Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson.

That’ll put her in top-five company before she’s 33. That’ll put Lauren Jackson‘s career within striking distance.

But catch-all stats aren’t truly up to the task of measuring Delle Donne’s greatness, either. She has a broad base of skills, sure, but normally that comes at the expense of being best at anything. Delle Donne, though, is best or near-best at lots of things. No one turns the ball over less than she does in the history of the league. No one is a better free-throw shooter in the history of the league, either, and she somehow got even better in 2019, hitting 97.4 percent of her free throws. The shock that rippled through the building in Washington Thursday night when she missed one early in the fourth quarter was justified — she missed three free throws in her entire regular season this year.

She is one of the best spot-up 3-point shooters in the game, and the best iso creator in the game. Either of these skills would be enough to make someone an offensive star. We’ve never seen a player this elite at both before.

Next: How the Mystics built the WNBA's best-ever offense

So this is Delle Donne at the top of the basketball mountain, a player who has reached, if not surpassed, the unreal expectations put upon her since she was packing high school gyms with fans all over Delaware. Her teammate, Kristi Toliver, who came to Washington expressly to play with her, had simple instructions to her team prior to Game 5. She told them to “regret nothing.”

And as Delle Donne put it, “And we didn’t regret anything.”

Not Thursday night. And not, as Delle Donne reflects on her journey to the title and her life at age 30 as the vital center of the WNBA’s ecosystem, anything else, either.

Writer at the New York Times, VICE Sports, POLITICO New York and other outlets. Host of the "Locked On Women's Basketball" podcast. Books: The Cardinals Way, Wilpon's Folly, Taking the Field, The Baseball Talmud.