After carrying her team to the finals last year, the WNBA star leads the league in scoring and free throw shooting.
She had missed 17 games due to complications from Lyme disease, was suffering from a stiff lower back, and was on the verge of an early postseason exit last season when her team was down by double-digit points in a decisive playoff game. Elena Delle Donne, however, was not giving up. Instead, the Chicago Sky star strapped her team to her ailing back and went to work.
The Sky, down by 20 in the final game of their best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal against the top-seeded Atlanta Dream last August, rallied behind the 6'5" Delle Donne's heroics. She drained threes, attacked the basket, and was perfect at the free throw line. It was the type of locked-in, do-it-all basketball that you didn't want to miss. And if you were watching, you saw her drive to the hole for the game-winner over Atlanta forward Angel McCoughtry, one of the WNBA's best defenders. Delle Donne finished with a game-high 34 points (17 of which came in the fourth quarter) to lead the Sky to one of the league's biggest comebacks, 81-80, and a trip to their first conference finals.
"After the game, I just kept thinking, Did we just come back and win?" she recalls. "How did that happen?"
The answer: Delle Donne.
"Each time Elena is on the floor you see glimpses of how great she is," Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot says of her teammate, who had 21- and 22-point games earlier in the series. "But that game? It was more than a glimpse. She took over. Without her, we would not have moved on." Delle Donne's monster game not only advanced the Sky, it also helped set her up for an even bigger year ahead. Through nine games this season, the 25-year-old led the WNBA in scoring (29.0 points per game).
In June, Delle Donne, an early candidate for league MVP, continued to be a nightmare for the Dream. She scored a career-high 45 points against Atlanta in an overtime win, proof that Delle Donne is not done showing us how dominant she is. So keep watching.
It seems like energizing a team's offense has always been a skill of Delle Donne's. Before landing in Chicago, she did it at the University of Delaware, 30 minutes from where she grew up.
In four seasons with the Blue Hens, beginning in the fall of 2009, Delle Donne catapulted the .500 mid-major squad to its first national ranking and three NCAA tournament wins. Her scoring during the 2011--12 season (28.1 points per game) was tops in the nation.
Her accomplishments at Delaware were buzzworthy, but so was the story of how she got there. In 2008, Delle Donne, the former national high school player of the year who scored 50 points in a game and sank a national-record 80 consecutive free throws, was set to play for powerhouse Connecticut. But basketball burnout and homesickness set in, and she re-evaluated her future.
Delle Donne has a close relationship with her family and draws inspiration from her older sister, Lizzie, who is deaf and blind and has cerebral palsy. In need of some time away from basketball, Delle Donne returned to her home state after taking two days of summer classes at UConn, describing it as the "toughest and scariest" decision of her life. She enrolled at Delaware, where she played volleyball instead of hoops in 2008, leading the Blue Hens to a conference title with a team-high 117 blocks.
Despite a prolific college basketball career, Delle Donne was plagued by Lyme disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by ticks. She had two bouts of it and missed 20 games at Delaware, battling a major symptom, fatigue.
After she was drafted by the Sky with the No. 2 pick in 2013 and picked up the Rookie of the Year award, Delle Donne suffered a flare-up in 2014. This time it was more than just fatigue — she had muscle aches and tremors too.
"It was upsetting. I was missing games, going to the doctor almost every day, and slept a ton. It's also scary," Delle Donne says. "There's a constant fear of the unknown. I didn't have a real timetable of when I was going to be O.K. to return."
Through the tough stretch — she missed half the season before starting all nine postseason games — Delle Donne was empowered by her sister, Lizzie. "I get a lot of strength from her. Without ever speaking a word, she has taught me about perseverance. To keep going when I'm going through something," says Delle Donne, who served as a global ambassador for the Special Olympics last year. "She's such a fighter."
Delle Donne is too, as evidenced by her playoff performance against the Dream. She powered her team all the way to the finals with a bad back, but once there the Sky were swept by the Phoenix Mercury.
During the offseason, the All-Star made a vow to get better. She and the Sky will have to do it without center Sylvia Fowles, who did not rejoin the team this season. That leaves Delle Donne with more scoring and rebounding responsibilities. She doesn't mind, though.
"Losing Sylvia meant losing a double-double every game," she says of Fowles, who averaged 13.4 points and 10.2 rebounds a game. "I was averaging about four rebounds a game last year. That's not enough. I need to do more and maximize every opportunity to crash the glass when there's a missed shot."
Delle Donne worked on her vertical leap and speed to grab more boards this season (she's averaging nine a game so far) and practiced more difficult, off-balance shots. Delle Donne — who unlike many WNBA stars skips playing overseas during her off-seasons to spend time with family — also focused on circuit training and added yoga to strengthen her core. "It helps with my back too," she says.
Now, she's poised to take her game — and team — to a higher level. It's still early in Delle Donne's pro career, but if you ask her high school coach at Ursuline Academy, she's destined to be a hoops legend. "I think when it's all said and done she'll go down as the most skilled offensive player to play the women's game," Fran Burbidge told USA Today.
A bold statement that very well may hold true. So stay tuned.
Photos: Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images (action), John Bazemore/AP (team), Shane Bevel/NBA/Getty Images (one-on-one)