- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2018

Elena Delle Donne expressed gratitude for teammate LaToya Sanders after the Washington Mystics shellacked the Los Angeles Sparks in the second round of the WNBA Playoffs.

“LaToya makes my life so easy,” Delle Donne said after Sanders posted a line of 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks.

Jump forward one week, and Delle Donne might not play in the Mystics’ Game 3 Friday night against the Atlanta Dream due to a bone bruise. But Washington still has Sanders in the paint — and though her role is different than her injured star teammate, she’s been a vital, underrated piece of the team’s postseason run.

The center’s defense has “meant everything to us,” coach Mike Thibault said. “We see her with the blocked shots, we see her clogging the lane, getting people to kind of take wild passes against her. “

No one in the 2018 playoffs has grabbed more steals than Sanders’ six, and she is averaging 3.3 blocks per game. She said her defense has always been a point of pride in her game.

“It’s something that in my early career, I was probably good at first,” Sanders said. “My offense kind of came second to my defense as I was growing up playing basketball.”

At 6-foot-3, Sanders is on the shorter end of the spectrum for WNBA centers. On the court she is easy to pick out by her long, lanky arms. She’s a physically even matchup for her defensive assignment on the Dream, center Jessica Breland.

“It’s kind of like two mirrors when you play (Atlanta),” Thibault said. “Jessica Breland and LaToya both have those extender arms that just surprise people by getting deflections and steals and blocks.”

On offense, Sanders’ primary role has been to free up Delle Donne — or as Delle Donne put it, to make her life “so easy.”

“With her being such a great player, it’s a great compliment,” Sanders said, adding with a laugh, “That’s my job, to make her life easier, to take on the harder matchups.”

Knowing the twists and turns Sanders’ career took before reaching this point makes her performance in 2018 all the more impressive. It is only Sanders’ second time playing in the WNBA Playoffs, and, in fact, only her sixth full or partial season since being a first-round draft pick by Phoenix in 2008. Near-constant injuries used to keep her off the floor, and like her peers, she always had to consider how much time to spend playing professionally overseas, where women are paid better, versus time in the WNBA.

She’s taken some WNBA summers off to take care of her family after some family members passed away. To top it off, after finding herself fatigued too quickly during practices leading up to the 2018 season, she was diagnosed with anemia.

Whenever she has faced an injury or illness, Sanders said she is initially upset to miss time, but soon looks at them as blessings in disguise.

“Sometimes I just needed the rest so my body could heal and be ready to play a full WNBA season and an overseas season,” Sanders said. “Playing year-round is tough. I feel like all my injuries have happened when my body’s just telling me I need to take a break and heal up.”

Everything came together for her overdue breakout season. She posted career highs in games, minutes and almost every other category, offensive and defensive. Teammate Monique Currie thinks the league is catching on.

“She’s so tall and she’s so long, she changes shots, she blocks shots and then she finishes plays and rebounds,” Currie said. “She’s a very underrated defender, but I think lately people are starting to take notice of how well she can defend.”

For all the talent Sanders and her fellow starters have, the Mystics will have to change some plans if their leading scorer can’t play Friday. Delle Donne suffered a bone bruise in her left knee in Game 2 and didn’t practice Thursday. Thibault said whether she plays will be a matter of how much pain she will have to tolerate.

The coach added that Sanders does not need to try to do more than what she’s already doing to make up for Delle Donne’s possible absence.

“We’re not going to run the same plays for her that we would for Elena,” Thibault said. “That would fall more into Tianna Hawkins’ category. LaToya just has to do what she’s been doing.”

And Sanders doesn’t feel extra pressure to excel if Delle Donne is out.

“We played without her a couple games early in the season and we still won those games,” she said. “Obviously it’s a big adjustment, but I think we have the team that can step up, we have the players who can step up. We just have to make some little adjustments, but I think it’s something we can handle if she doesn’t play.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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