Elena Delle Donne and her shooting coach have one simple rule: He isn’t allowed to approach the Washington Mystics star with unsolicited advice. Both trust that the six-time WNBA all-star knows when to ask for help.
“She said, ‘Dad, can we get to the gym tomorrow and work on my shot?’ ” Ernest Delle Donne said.
After a subpar start to her season thanks in part to a lingering left knee injury, Delle Donne turned around her season not by magically rediscovering her rhythm or repeating shooting drills for hours on end. She needed just 35 minutes in the gym with the man who first taught her to shoot on a plastic, four-foot hoop.
The results of Delle Donne’s early morning, mid-June workout with her dad were almost instant. Through her first six games of the season, Delle Donne shot 39.3 percent from the field and averaged 14.8 points, well below her previous career low of 17.9 over a full season. But in her past nine games, she has shot 52 percent and averaged 18.6 points.
On Wednesday, she became the second-fastest player in WNBA history to reach 3,500 career points when she scored 11 in a 79-71 win at the Minnesota Lynx — a down game for Delle Donne, who had scored 28 in each of her two previous games.
She reached the milestone in 174 games, just two more than it took Diana Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer.
On Saturday, Delle Donne will celebrate by serving as one of the captains in the WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas. She received the most overall votes collected from fans, WNBA players and media members.
“I needed to get my mechanics back,” said Delle Donne, whose season average of 17.1 points ranks fifth in the league. “My dad has taught me how to shoot my whole life from when I was 5 years old, and there’s nobody that knows my shot better than him.”
Ernest didn’t just pass down his love of basketball to his daughter; he also gave her a passion for golf. The latter sport influenced Delle Donne’s shot mechanics as much as the former.
Ernest, who played basketball and studied physics and biochemistry at Columbia University, approached basketball from a golfer’s point of view when he taught his daughter how to shoot. He stresses those same mechanics when he works out with Delle Donne to this day.
“As a golfer, alignment, square delivery, repetition, efficiency of the strike, those things are all very, very important,” Ernest, who works in real estate, said in an interview this season. “So I thought, ‘Well, they’re probably very important shooting the basketball as well.’ It’s a very simple approach to shooting with Elena, and it takes a lot from Tiger Woods’s putting stroke, and it takes a lot from Michael Jordan’s shooting form.”
In trying to teach his daughter a dependable, efficient shot, Ernest focused on the basics. He emphasized keeping her elbow at a 90-degree angle, forbidding her from shooting on a 10-foot rim until she was 9 years old so she wouldn’t try to heave the ball into a taller hoop and thereby bending her elbow. He taught her to maintain a high release point by putting a broom on a ladder in the driveway and instructing her to shoot over the handle.
The most important facet of the motion that has landed Delle Donne among the league’s top nine shooters for five of her seven years in the league is in the shoulders. Even when she shoots free throws — and she is one of the best free throw shooters in WNBA history — Delle Donne doesn’t square her shoulders to the basket, She turns sideways so her hand is naturally flat to the back of the basketball, not off to the side. The fundamentals stay the same for her layups, jumpers and three-pointers.
“Think of putting a golf ball,” Ernest said. “When Elena’s shooting well, the index finger and the hand is almost like the putter to a golf ball. It has to be uniformly applied in a powerful stroke to the exact back of the ball. … Because of her knee injury, her legs were getting a little screwed up in terms of her alignment of her shoulders toward the rim, and it was just giving her a glancing blow across the ball and not that powerful, effortless stroke that’s efficient and repetitive.”
All Delle Donne and her father — who lives in Delaware and regularly attends Mystics home games — worked on the Saturday morning after the Storm loss was shoulder alignment. He had noticed his daughter’s form was off but sat tight-lipped until his daughter came to him for help.
Ernest learned that little key to their relationship decades ago, when Delle Donne was on a 7-year-old YMCA team he was coaching and he corrected her shooting in front of teammates.
“This little girl went to the back of the line, looked at me and raised one of her fingers on one of her hands. So I knew then and there that this wasn’t some wilting violet,” Ernest said with a laugh. “In retrospect it was so cute. But in all honesty, she’s always been expected to perform at such a high level it became pretty apparent the last thing she needed was interference. She just needed help. And when she needed it she was smart enough to ask.”