The Washington Mystics have acquired 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault announced Thursday morning, completing one of the most significant moves in franchise history.
The Mystics sent the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft along with center Stefanie Dolson and second-year guard Kahleah Copper to the Chicago Sky in exchange for Delle Donne, a 2016 Olympian.
“I think when you get this talented group, a coach, such a winning coach, the winningest coach in the WNBA, I think that’s a great combination and definitely makes us a contender,” Delle Donne said at an introductory news conference Thursday evening. “ I’m going to work my absolute hardest. Obviously it’s a goal of mine to bring a championship to this incredible city, so I’d be lying if I said I have not thought of that and dreamt of that.”
Delle Donne had been a restricted free agent, meaning that Chicago would have been able to match any offer. The 6-foot-5 guard-forward was threatening to sit out this season, however, rather than play for the Sky, citing a desire to be closer to her home in Delaware.
According to prominent national television analysts, the addition of Delle Donne transforms Washington into an immediate contender. The Mystics missed the playoffs last year for the first time since Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history, took over in 2013.
“She takes pressure off everybody else,” Thibault said. “She can raise their level, and they can also do the same for her. She’s had good teammates, but the feeling I always got when we played them is down the stretch in games, there was a lot of pressure on her to go make a play for [them]. She’s going to be surrounded by a lot of good offensive players where they can take the pressure of of each other.”
Delle Donne helped Chicago reach the playoffs, including the 2014 WNBA Finals, in each of her four seasons in the league since being selected No. 2 overall in the 2013 draft. In 2015, she averaged 23.4 points per game to win the WNBA scoring title in addition to posting career highs of 95 percent free throw shooting, 8.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. She was a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. basketball team at the Rio Olympics.
“It’s huge for them to get Delle Donne,” said Kara Lawson, a basketball analyst for ESPN who played for the Mystics in 2014 and ’15. “To get a player that has the ability to lead a team to a championship, there’s only a handful of teams in the league that can say they have one.
“When you have one, it puts you in a different place because now you can focus on building around that player as opposed to focus on trying to get one of those, which is much harder.”
This past season, Delle Donne averaged 21.5 points before she injured her right thumb in a 118-81 loss to the Mystics on Sept. 7. Shortly thereafter, she had season-ending surgery.
Delle Donne also has missed significant time both as a professional and at the University of Delaware with Lyme disease. In 2014, she missed 18 games while dealing with the disease, whose symptoms include fever, muscle aches, fatigue and joint pain.
Doctors initially diagnosed Lyme disease in 2010, early in Delle Donne’s sophomore season at Delaware, where she enrolled after originally accepting a scholarship to Connecticut.
A recurrence of the disease compelled Delle Donne to fly back to the United States last week to receive treatment. She had been in China participating in her first offseason of overseas competition.
“There’s a handful of players who have the ability just offensively to take over games and score 40 points in a night when their team needs them,” said Rebecca Lobo, a women’s basketball analyst for ESPN. “She’s just so difficult to defend because of her skills, because of her size. She’s just a special talent. As long as she can stay healthy, this is going to be an exciting year for her and for the team.”
Delle Donne joins a franchise that has not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2002. The Mystics finished 13-21 this past season with an injury-depleted roster after losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals in each of the previous three years.
Washington is in position to strengthen its roster even more following a three-team deal, announced Monday, that allowed Thibault to add the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft. To clear salary cap space, the Mystics sent guard Bria Hartley and center Kia Vaughn to the New York Liberty, which traded center Carolyn Swords to the Seattle Storm.
Delle Donne, meanwhile, is set to be paired with all-star Emma Meesseman in what could become one of the WNBA’s most formidable frontcourt tandems. The Sky, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, had expressed strong interest in acquiring Meesseman as part of the deal for Delle Donne, but Thibault was unwilling to part with her.
The Mystics will open the 2017 season May 14 at home against the San Antonio Stars.
“Just by her standing somewhere on the court in a uniform, the rest of the players are better because you have to be aware of her defensively,” Lobo said of Delle Donne. “She’s going to get attention, but she’s an unselfish player. When you’re going against the team she’s on, she’s the first player you’re going to talk about in your scout. It’s going to open up so many things.”