- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2021

It’s been more than 660 days since Elena Delle Donne has set foot on a basketball court to play in a game. That’s more than two years and two back surgeries later, but the Washington Mystics star is nearing a return. 

She returned to practice last week and has participated in five-on-five drills this week, but the past two years haven’t been easy for the two-time WNBA MVP.

There were some days that Delle Donne was happy to be motivated to go out to dinner with her wife, not even thinking about basketball. 

“I had to keep that in perspective, like, ‘oh, my goodness, I’ve got to have a better life than this and this pain,’” Delle Donne said in a press conference on Monday afternoon. 

But then she had other days where she’d be at the team’s training facility all day, working out and rehabbing her back. 

The biggest help during her recovery? Former Wizards guard Russell Westbrook. 

Delle Donne said Westbrook would show up early to the gym — even sometimes on his game days — to help rebound for her barefoot, close-range shots. She said that helped when she was upset or “in my feelings.”

“He would show up and it would just bring me out of the funk and be like, ‘I got this, I can keep doing it,’ he believes in me,” Delle Donne said.

She said the support from him and her Mystics teammates helped keep her spirits up and believe in herself. 

Over the course of the past two years, Delle Donne said at times she was concerned that she wasn’t going to return to the court and said it’s unlike any other injury she’s experienced.

“I’ve had some injuries before, but this has been something where like, my goodness, there’s a lot of gray [area],” Delle Donne said. “And as many times as I want that, like black and white answer, it hasn’t been that way. It’s been a lot of gray, a lot of confusion.” 

Since her back surgery, Delle Donne has had to learn to sit, walk and run differently to avoid pain and re-injuring her back.

“It’s obviously a learning process, but I am definitely getting much better at it, stronger at, it’s becoming second nature,” Delle Donne said. “It’s literally always a beginner’s mindset for me where I come in every day, and like have to attack each day. And you never get to perfect everything.”

She added that she has a routine she does before practice to help get in the mindset of her new body movements. 

In practice, Delle Donne isn’t holding back. Even though she may be restricted with how much or how long she can practice, she’s going 100% on the court. 

“Now, I’m at the point where I go full till it’s not like I have to just hold back and see,” Delle Donne said. “They pull me before I can get to that point. …  I am going full tilt and it feels great.”

General Manager and coach Mike Thibault said some of the Mystics players turn their heads when they see flashes of the Delle Donne that led the team to its first title in 2019.

“They go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s why she’s one of the MVPs,’” Thibault said. “You get reminded quickly by the things that she can do, and that’s a good sign that she can do a lot of those things.”

Both Delle Donne and Thibault said that it’s a day-by-day process for her to return to a game. She said she wants to consistently play in five-on-five drills at practice before playing in a game. 

When she does return, Delle Donne said she anticipates to have a minutes restriction and it could last the rest of the season. 

Delle Donne isn’t the only key piece missing for the Mystics, who’ve battled injuries all season, including playing a game with only six players in June.

They’ve been without forwards Erica McCall and Myisha Hines-Allen since the beginning of July with knee injuries. 

Washington has also been missing Emma Meesseman, a starter from its title run in 2019 and averaged 13 points last season, due to her playing with the Belgium national team.

Thibault said that the team’s role players have been playing key minutes and said when more players return to the team, it could “launch” the Mystics. 

“We can be one of the best teams because we have that kind of talent,” Thibault said. “It just has to be on the court.”

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