Twice now, this 6-foot-5 basketball prodigy has taken her career, and her life, into her own hands with startling force.
The first time, Elena Delle Donne left in the middle of the night. She was 18, burned out, homesick and unwilling to cede any more of herself to the sport. She returned home to Delaware from the University of Connecticut for what she needed — a reprieve — before finding her way back to basketball on her own time and eventually becoming the No. 2 pick in the WNBA draft.
She left again nine years later, this time after spending the first four years of her professional career with the Chicago Sky. She demanded a trade to the team she believed could give her what she wanted — the chance to become a better basketball player, a team culture she could love, and the opportunity to spend more time with her family.
Now with one full regular season and one momentous playoff victory under her belt, Delle Donne judges that her second move, to the Washington Mystics in February, was just as successful as her first.
"I love it here. I really love it," Delle Donne said emphatically, hunched over and sitting on a massage table after practice this week at Capital One Arena. "I love my teammates. I love my coaching staff. It's just a great group of people. It's infectious to be around. I really just enjoy coming to — I mean, I'll call it work — every day."
While Delle Donne found happiness in her move to Washington, the Mystics are overjoyed.
Delle Donne raised the ceiling for what Washington can achieve the moment she arrived. On Wednesday, she scored 25 points, one shy of a franchise playoff record, and added 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks to lift the Mystics past the Dallas Wings and into the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They now head to New York for another single-elimination game against the Liberty on Sunday.
During the regular season, Delle Donne dealt with ankle and thumb injuries and played through pain all while leading the team and ranking fourth in the WNBA with 19.7 points per game. In the regular season, she ranked in the top 15 in the league in rebounding (6.8, 13th), blocks (1.4, eighth), field goal percentage (49.4, 15th), three-point field goal percentage (38.8, 10th) and free throw percentage (95.3, first).
"She's the biggest presence that we have out there on the court," point guard Ivory Latta said. "Physically, mentally, everything. She's a top player in the WNBA, so she attracts a lot, and she opens it up for everyone else. It's just confidence. She gives us confidence."
Part of what Delle Donne appreciates in Washington is that, though her talent makes her the largest presence on court, she doesn't have to be the loudest voice in the locker room.
Krystal Thomas, a sixth-year pro, is one of the team's most vocal leaders. Latta, who has spent a decade in the WNBA, keeps the locker room energized. Delle Donne, though unmistakably the Mystics' franchise player, isn't the team's sole engine.
Being able to share that responsibility is a break from the norm.
"She's had to be the star since she was a freshman in high school, and she was a starter on her state championship team as an eighth-grader," Coach Mike Thibault said. "That's a lot of pressure."
Delle Donne craved that type of all-hands-on-deck culture that Thibault has cultivated since he signed on as the team's coach and general manager in 2012. She has been open to working with him since at least 2013, when the Mystics tried to orchestrate a draft-day trade for Delle Donne with her blessing.
Said Thibault, who has known Delle Donne since she was a junior in college: "I think part of it is she's family-oriented, and we have tried to develop a culture on and off the court where the players — you don't have to have best friends, but you have to have a respect for each other and a liking for going to work with each other every day."
Delle Donne also craved good basketball advisers, and Thibault came highly recommended from friends around the league. He tutored 2012 league MVP Tina Charles and has worked with USA Basketball for decades. Injuries derailed Delle Donne's progress somewhat this season, but she has been able to work on improving her defense and the superb passing skills that helped make her a star.
"I really feel like I'm improving on court, but also really as a leader," Delle Donne said. "And that's what you want to see, is just growth. In all areas."
As far as winning championships, Delle Donne believes that the Mystics will be WNBA title contenders in due time. Thinking about the future in Washington doesn't scare her — it's where she wants to be. It's the type of situation that makes Delle Donne think about playing in the WNBA longer than she ever previously imagined.
"It's so enjoyable that I hope my body holds out for many, many years and I can continue to do this, because it's fun," she said. "Who wants to go work a 9-to-5? I hope I can last for a long time and be a part of this. Because it's really special."