WASHINGTON — The real work for Elena Delle Donne started almost immediately after the Washington Mystics defeated the Indiana Fever 84-70 in the 2022 WNBA season opener.
So it goes for a 32-year-old former MVP who’s finally looking like herself — a game-high 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists on Friday as proof — after back injuries held her to three games last year.
“I was pretty confident that I’d be back,” Delle Donne said. “The past few months now I’ve been making really nice gains and consistently feeling good. So I had a really good feeling that tonight would happen. But from past experiences, you never know what tomorrow brings.”
To eliminate some of those doubts, Delle Donne said she’ll spend two hours at the arena after a game to properly recover and return early Saturday — also to put up more shots after a 8-for-16 performance (1-of-5 on 3-pointers) that left her partially disappointed, even though it was the first time she scored more than 20 points since the 2019 WNBA Finals.
“My shot looked like I had nerves,” Delle Donne said. “I was struggling a little bit to get in a flow and trust in my legs.”
Delle Donne didn’t play in the 2020 season inside the league’s bubble in Bradenton, Florida because of medical concerns.
“It’s a fun, exploratory season for me, being back out there,” she said.
Part of what Delle Donne is exploring, she said, is how to use the “new body” she’s created during her rehab.
The hours of work particularly benefited her legs, to the point she jumps and soars higher in the air than she’s used to, messing up her timing. Delle Donne said one of her three blocks from Friday was a play she wouldn’t have made before.
“I’m thrilled for her because it’s been a long road,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said.
Although the six-time All-Star played 52 total minutes last season, she left an impact on her teammates, said guard Natasha Cloud (17 points, six assists).
“In at 5 a.m., staying for our practices, out of 5 p.m., and that’s every single day. She still continues to do that while playing,” Cloud said. “… When you have your franchise player leading in that way, how could we not get in and put in that extra work? How could we not get in and take care of our bodies? More so than anything, as her friend, as her family, it’s a beautiful thing to see her go through what she went through — all those trials and tribulations — to come full circle.”
Cloud even said she thought she saw “Primetime Delle” after one of her rejections at the rim.
The key between this season and last, Delle Donne said, is that she didn’t experience any setbacks during her ramp-up to game shape. In 2021, something would go wrong, and the subsequent week or two off from basketball-related activities threw everything off.
Load management has become taboo among NBA stars, but Delle Donne and the Mystics staff are embracing it. Delle Donne, her trainer Mike Davis and Thibault meet every week to discuss her workload. The trio decided earlier this week she’d skip the road trip this weekend to play the Minnesota Lynx and instead recover for a few days to be ready for Tuesday’s home game against the Las Vegas Aces.
They’ve also already circled certain weeks on the schedule that could be stress points and have started mapping which games she could sit.
“We’re all on the same page — even my teammates know,” Delle Donne said.
“Obviously I want to be in every single game, but I know the importance of having the proper rest and having the proper return to play protocol,” she added. “I’ve put all my faith in my trainer at this point. We’ve learned from last season. I don’t need to go game, game, game. We can probably space it out a little and see how I’ll continue to respond.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.