The only WNBA player to win MVP with more than one franchise, the only WNBA player to have a 50-40-90 season, and a member of The W25, actually quit basketball her freshman year of college.
However, by the time 2013 came around, Elena Delle Donne had joined the Chicago Sky after being picked second in the 2013 WNBA Draft. She later went on to win a WNBA Championship with the Washington Mystics in 2019.
After a series of injuries, she underwent two back surgeries, with the goal of returning to the court, and again overcame numerous setbacks to find her way back to the court again. Recently, she made her long-awaited season debut — albeit on a minutes restriction, scoring a whooping 16 points in 22 minutes, on August 22, 2021.
“I had that like first day of school butterfly feeling,” Elena told ESPN‘s Holly Rowe after the game. “I was super nervous. I was even telling my family, look I’m super nervous. This might not be good.”
So how does this WNBA legend keep finding her way back to the court again and again? Today we’ll take a look at Elena’s basketball evolution – beginning from how her love for sneakers grew her love for the game, all the way through how she found herself playing volleyball at the University of Delaware, and her victorious Finals run in 2019. We’ll even cover what 2021 has held so far, what makes her game so unstoppable, and what could be in store for the superstar in the future.
Born in 1989 in Wilmington, Delaware, Elena started playing basketball at the young age of four years old, inspired by her older brother and Sheryl Swoopes.
“I actually started playing because I have an older brother. He’s about two and a half years older than me, and kind of like anything he was getting into, I wanted to play along and play with he and his friends.” Elena told Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast.
“I was probably about four years old when I started playing and right away it was something about basketball that made it my favorite sport…. I remember going outside and trying to copy Sheryl Swoopes’ moves. I became a sneakerhead pretty quickly and was obsessed with shoes. I loved basketball because there was a Sheryl Swoopes shoe and I just had to have it, once I had it, I thought I was Sheryl.”
A few short years later, Elena gained national recognition as a high school player at Ursuline Academy, where as an eighth grader she played on the varsity team and earned a spot as an All-State player. By the time her senior season rolled around, Elena averaged 30 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists. And on Jan. 27, 2008, Elena became Delaware’s all-time high school leading scorer for both boys and girls with 2,475 points.
Throughout her high school career, Elena won four Delaware State Championships, was a three-time Gatorade Player of the Year award winner, was the 2008 Naismith Player of the Year, a McDonald’s All-American, and set the national high school consecutive free throw record. By the end, she was the number one ranked player in the nation.
Elena committed to play at women’s basketball powerhouse University of Connecticut the summer before her senior year. But as she made her way to Storrs, Connecticut she had a gut feeling that it wasn’t right.
“The whole ride I’m like, ‘What am I doing? My heart’s not in this. I’m headed to Connecticut, the greatest program there is– my heart’s not in this… there’s no way I’m gonna be able to do this.’” Elena said on the Just Women’s Sports podcast.
After 48 hours on campus, Elena packed up some belongings, called a friend, and left the University of Connecticut in the middle of the night without telling anyone, and returned home to Delaware.
By the age of 18, Elena was burned out by the pressure and rigors of being a basketball prodigy.
“I was overdriving myself because I was so into becoming the best,” Elena elaborated in a New York Times interview. “I always thought someone else was working harder than me, which really made me go nuts with it. It wasn’t fun. It was like a job, and it was a job I wasn’t getting paid for.”
She also didn’t want to be away from her older sister. Elena has called her sister Elizabeth (Lizzie) her inspiration. Lizzie has autism and cerebral palsy, is blind and deaf, and has had more than two dozen surgeries. So, much of their relationship is predicated on physical touch: Lizzie communicates via hand-over-hand sign language, and they express their love for each other with hugs and kisses.
“That’s what makes being apart from Lizzie so tough. I can’t just Skype with her when I’m missing her. I can’t text her. I can’t call her. That’s hard. I have to be with her to communicate — she has to literally touch me. Or smell me. I keep her picture as the background on my phone so I can always see her.” Elena shared in The Player’s Tribune.
Elena took time to reassess her decision to leave UConn, but ultimately decided to renounce her scholarship. Elena says that she and UConn head coach, Geno Auriemma, will always have a special bond because of how he handled her decision to leave.
“[He] didn’t force things upon me, didn’t make me feel uncomfortable in that moment, and gave me the space I needed…. [he] also accepted when I told him that I’m not coming back, this isn’t it for me, he was okay with it and let me go do something else,” Elena said on the Just Women’s Sports podcast.
After that, she wanted no part of basketball. She thought she had given it up completely. “I did not touch a basketball [during that summer]. In my mind, I had quit that for good.” Elena said.
She then enrolled at the University of Delaware, and walked on to play volleyball, a sport that she played for the first time as a senior at Ursuline Academy.
But after a year away from basketball, a sport she had previously dedicated her life to — her true love and passion — Elena missed it. But she knew if she was going to play, it was going to be at the University of Delaware.
Elena joined the Blue Hens basketball team and went on to have a prolific collegiate career. She set 45 school records, was a three-time All-American, a three-time Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, and finished as the number five all-time leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,039 points. Elena averaged an incredible 26.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game for her career. She led Delaware to two NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in her senior season.
Having set the standard in her college career, Elena was selected number two overall in the 2013 WNBA draft by the Chicago Sky.
Elena had an electric rookie season leading the Sky in scoring with 18.1 points per game. She also averaged 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game and shot nearly 44 percent from behind the arc.
She completed the season as the top rookie in points per game, good for fourth overall in the league. Elena was also the top rookie in three-point percentage, sitting second in the league, and lead all players in free-throw percentage at 92.9 percent.
Elena was unanimously voted the Rookie of the Year and also earned All-WNBA Second Team honors. She helped lead the one-seeded, 24-10 Chicago Sky to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but the Chicago Sky would ultimately get swept by the Indiana Fever in the semifinals.
She finished third in the league’s MVP balloting behind Candace Parker and Maya Moore.
The 2014 regular season had Elena playing only 16 games due to a flare-up of Lyme disease, averaging less than 19 minutes in the final seven games. However, she still had a strong showing in the games she did play, averaging 18 points, 4 rebounds, an assist, and a block per game, and was named an All-Star and to All-WNBA Second Team.
Eventually, she rose up during the playoffs, helping the Sky defeat the Atlanta Dream in the first round, scoring 34 points and a game-winning shot with 8.2 seconds left.
However, Elena was elbowed while going for a rebound in the Atlanta series, suffering a back injury that reduced her playing time in the following round against the Indiana Fever. The Sky still got to the WNBA finals, where they lost to the Phoenix Mercury.
In 2015, Elena didn’t just have a good or even a great season, she had one of the best seasons in WNBA history.
She passed 1,500 career points, sank her 100th three-pointer, and made more than 200 free throws at a 95 percent clip. She grabbed the league scoring title with 725 points, an average of 23.4, per game, making her the scoring champion, along with 8.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a game. To top it all off she was named the league MVP.
“It has been an incredible season,” Elena said on ESPN moments after the announcement. “My teammates are definitely the ones I have to credit and my coaches as well. We’ve had so much fun this year, it has been surreal, and we just want to keep it going.”
She started the season scoring seven straight 20 point games. Later in the regular season in an overtime win against the Atlanta Dream, Elena scored a career-high 45 points while making a WNBA record, 19 consecutive free throws.
Elena was once again named an All-Star and was voted to First Team All-WNBA. The Sky finished with the third-best record in the league and held the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference for the WNBA playoffs. They were eliminated by the experienced Indiana fever in the first round.
In the 2016 season, Elena played and started in all 28 of her regular-season appearances. Elena averaged 21.5 points per game helping the Sky to another playoff berth as they finished 18–16. With the WNBA’s new playoff format in effect, the Sky were the four seed in the league with a bye to the second round.
Unfortunately, two weeks before the playoffs, Elena suffered an injury to her right thumb, and had season-ending surgery that kept her out for the playoffs. Without Elena, the Sky still had a decent playoff run, advancing to the semifinals where they lost 3–1 to the eventual champion Los Angeles Sparks.
Luckily, Elena recovered in time to participate in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics as a first-time member of the USBWNT. There, she scored 10 points on 100 percent shooting from the field and free-throw line, in the Gold Medal game against Spain to help the U.S. win their sixth straight gold.
Before the 2017 season rumors emerged that Elena was unhappy in Chicago, and wanted to be moved to a team that brought her closer to her family in Delaware — and to Lizzie in particular.
”Elena has always been a player who plays for enjoyment of the game. There are other considerations for her, and they have to do with her family — her sister in particular, who cannot travel — and they have to do with Elena’s health.” Elena’s agent Erin Kane told ESPN.
Her wish was granted, as she was traded to the Washington Mystics in exchange for center Stefanie Dolson, guard Kahleah Copper, and Washington’s first-round pick (second overall) in the 2017 WNBA draft. A move that Mystics’ head coach Mike Thibault called “one of the biggest moves in franchise history”.
In her debut with the Mystics, Elena scored a team-high 26 points in a victory over the San Antonio Stars. For the season she averaged 19.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.4 blocks per game. She was once again voted a WNBA All-Star. On September 1, 2017, Elena scored a new season-high of 37 points along with a career-high 6 three-pointers in a 110–106 overtime win against the Seattle Storm, as the Mystics secured a playoff berth as the sixth seed with an 18–16 record.
Elena lead Washington past the second round for the first time in franchise history by defeating the three-seeded New York Liberty. They were then swept by the Maya Moore-lead Minnesota Lynx in the semifinals.
In the 2018 season, with teammate Emma Meesseman sitting out for the year due to playing in the FIBA Wold Tournament with Team Belgium, Elena was asked to step up even more than usual — especially at the power forward position.
And, of course, she delivered, averaging 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. During the season, Elena became the fastest player to 3,000 career points in WNBA history, doing so in 148 games, a record previously held by Diana Taurasi and Seimone Augustus as 151 games.
She was voted into her fifth All-Star appearance and named to All-WNBA first team for the third time in her career.
The Mystics went into the playoffs as the three seed with a 22-12, receiving a first-round bye into the second-round elimination game. The Mystics defeated the Los Angeles Sparks, 96–64, advancing to the semi-finals for the second year in a row. Elena scored 19 points in the victory.
Up next, the Mystics faced the number two seed Atlanta Dream in the semifinals. Washington would go on to win in a hard-fought five-game series, advancing to the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Elena averaged 24.7 points in the series, and contributed a 14 point, 11 rebound double-double in the series-deciding game five.
But, despite all their positive momentum, the Mystics were swept by the Seattle Storm lead by 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart in the Finals.
“I’m super proud of the way we bounced back from a lot of adversity that we faced all season long. Obviously, this Finals didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but I think the great thing is that we can still improve. We don’t feel like we’ve peaked and this was it for us. We feel like we’ve got a lot of young, great talent, and obviously, this isn’t how we wanted it to end, but it’s an experience that we can grow from,” Elena said after the Finals loss.
With the bitter taste of defeat after the 2018 Finals loss, Elena and the Washington Mystics returned in 2019 with a vengeance — setting records both individually and as a team.
For starters, the 2019 Mystics made the most three-pointers in WNBA history and had the best offensive rating in WNBA history.
Meanwhile, personally, Elena made history as the first woman to join the prestigious 50-40-90 club. Elena averaged 19.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.3 blocks on the season, spearheading the Mystics to the number one overall seed with a 26-8 record and earning the season MVP title.
“This honor is phenomenal and I’m super humbled by it and proud,” Elena said at a press conference after winning the MVP award. “It’s always incredible when you know something you’ve done will go down in history, and it’s even more inspiring to know that there’s little girls looking up to me that maybe are dreaming of doing the same or doing more.”
Elena was also voted to the WNBA All-Star Game for the sixth time, was named to All-WNBA First Team, and swept all three Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors. She was also named the WNBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week seven times, matching Tina Charles’ record for the most Player of the Week honors in a conference in a season.
But it wasn’t all awards and roses for the vet. By that point, Elena was wearing a face mask for a broken nose, a knee brace for a lingering knee injury, and a hot pack for back spasms. Nonetheless, Elena was still able to guide the Mystics through the playoffs and into the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun.
Gritting her way through continued injuries, most notably three herniated discs in her back, which the injury report originally called “a small herniated disc”, Elena played through the final three games of the WNBA Finals. In those three games, she averaged 15 points, including 21 points in game five, clinching her first title in her third try.
On October 10, 2019, Elena and her Washington Mystics teammates were proudly holding the WNBA Championship trophy after defeating the Connecticut Sun in five games.
“It feels phenomenal, my goodness, feels so good. Hard to put it into words,” said Elena. “To win it with such a great group of people. We wanted to win it for the person next to us. We’ll remember this season. I’m kind of sad the season’s about to be over. My goodness, we sure ended this on a high note.”
But in a postgame interview, Mystics guard Natasha Cloud revealed that Elena had been playing through three herniated discs in her back.
“I’m about to drop this bomb on y’all,” Natasha told reporters while Elena laughed and covered her face with her hands. “Elena not only has one herniated disc. She has three.”
After the Mystics championship run, Elena had surgery on her back in January of 2020. She was told that it would be a relatively quick recovery, and could even expect to play in the upcoming 2020 season.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Elena elected not to play in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida due to concerns about how Lyme Disease impacts her immune system, and applied for medical exemption for the season.
Elena was shocked and confused when her request to be medically excused was denied by the WNBA via an independent medical panel board. She expressed her disappointment with the panel’s ruling and the decision to “risk my life … or forfeit my paycheck.”
“It hurts a lot. And maybe being hurt just makes me naive. And I know that, as athletes, we’re not really supposed to talk about our feelings. But feelings are pretty much all I have left right now. I don’t have NBA player money. I don’t have the desire to go to war with the league on this. And I can’t appeal.” she wrote in a poignant and vulnerable piece titled “An Open Letter About My Health” through The Player’s Tribune.
Fortunately, the Washington Mystics stepped up and said they would pay her entire 2020 salary regardless if whether or not she played.
“As with all of our players, we have and will support Elena throughout this process. The health and well-being of our players is of the utmost importance,” head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said.
Fast forward a few months to September 2020, and Elena felt a sharp shooting pain down her leg, similar to what she felt eight months earlier. Though she tried to push through and continue her rehabilitation, her herniation was back. That meant she’d undergo a second back surgery in December of 2020, and as a result, she has been working her way back to full strength ever since.
682 days. That’s how long two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne went between playing WNBA games. Elena made her long-awaited season debut — albeit on a minutes restriction, scoring a whooping 16 points in 22 minutes, on August 22, 2021.
“I had that like first day of school butterfly feeling,” Elena told ESPN‘s Holly Rowe after the game. “I was super nervous. I was even telling my family, look I’m super nervous. This might not be good.”
Elena is one of the most efficient WNBA players of all time. Which was capitalized in her 2019 season when she became just the 10th person in NBA/WNBA history and the first in WNBA history to join the 50-40-90 club (when a player shoots 50% from the field, 40% on 3-pointers, and 90% from the free-throw line). In that same season, Elena set the record for best free-throw percentage at 97.4% for a player with at least 100 attempts.
What makes Elena such a unique talent is how well-rounded a basketball player she is. She contributes positively on both ends of the floor, which is impressive as a high-volume, high-minute player.
Elena has some of the most elite footwork in all of basketball. Her footwork enables her to square her shoulders up and get the necessary balance to take and make tough shots in all areas of the floor.
The numbers speak for themselves. Over the course of her WNBA career, Elena has shot 50% from on twos, just under 40% from three, 94% from the free-throw line, and nearly a 60% true-shooting percentage. She has a tremendous basketball IQ and understands when and where to take her shots.
Because Elena is a player who can stretch the floor and score from the outside, her inside game can get overlooked. Her size, at 6’ 5”, combined with her skill makes her lethal in the post. With her aforementioned elite footwork, Elena knows how to manipulate her defenders down on the block to get an easy layup or finish a tough short jumper. Notice how she’s great at keeping the ball above her head to shoot, keeping it out of reach of most defenders.
Elena has one of the purest and prettiest-looking jumpshots basketball has ever seen. She is meticulous about the mechanics of her shot, something she learned from her dad. As shown in the above statistics, her shooting translates on all three levels of the floor, and especially at the free-throw line.
Despite her height, Elena is listed as a dual guard/forward. Her comfort being out on the perimeter isn’t limited to just on the offensive end. Elena is capable of defending both inside and out as well. She has great lateral quickness, a long wingspan, and good instincts that enable her to do well both individually and as a help defender.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone saying a bad word about Elena, let alone a teammate. In her time with the Sky, Mystics, Team USA basketball, or as an advocate for the league in general, Elena has always understood the magnitude of her voice and actions.
“Listen, Elena is not just MVP, you know, she off the court is an amazing person. So to have someone like that win an award like this everybody is just behind her and so happy,” then Mystics teammate Aerial Powers said to Kelyn Soong of Washington City Paper after Elena won the 2019 MVP award. “She’s a good person off the court and that’s honest to god, and then she just brings our team to a whole new level, so we’re really ecstatic for her.”
Elena’s game is so well-rounded, it’s hard to find any significant opportunities. The most important thing for Elena will be for her to stay healthy. Obviously, she has no control over that aside from being diligent with her rehab and taking care of her body (which we know she does as documented by her series Beyond on the Game on her YouTube channel).
Between coming off her two back surgeries and her chronic Lyme disease, Elena’s body is constantly throwing her curveballs.
“With the recovery of my back, there are days where I can tell that the Lyme stuff is what’s making it difficult to recover because it adds so much inflammation to my body,” Elena told Hannah Withiam of Just Women’s Sports. “It makes it confusing when you’re trying to figure out like, ‘OK, why is my back so inflamed now? Was it the workout yesterday? Is it something with Lyme?’ It’s just kind of a constant thing.”
The Mystics are currently in a fight to earn a spot in the 2021 playoffs, and hopefully Elena can be a part of that run. Most recently though her status is considered day-to-day, after Elena was pulled after just 12 minutes of play in her second game back because of “precautionary” reasons, according to coach Mike Thibault. He said something “didn’t feel right” after she came away from fighting for a rebound in the second quarter of that game.
Elena is now feeling better than she was after the game when she was pulled, Mike Thibault told ESPN, but she has yet to return to the court. If her body cooperates, at 32 years old, Elena still has plenty of basketball life left in the WNBA and potentially with Team USA at the 2024 Olympics.
When she does choose to step away from the game, Elena has dipped her toes into plenty of other interests and hobbies that will surely keep her busy. She recently became an investor in the company Just Women’s Sports, a sports media company dedicated to exclusively covering female sports; she is a global ambassador for the Special Olympics, which is especially close to Elena’s heart because of her sister’s participation through the MATP (Motor Activity Training) program; and she and her wife Amanda Clifton also run Deldon Designs where they specialize in custom wood basketball hoops and wall art.
Beyond that, she has her own foundation, the Elena Delle Donne Charitable Foundation, which raises funds and awareness for Lyme Disease research and special needs programs. Plus, she has hinted at an interest in the wine industry on the Road Trippin’ Podcast.
In the meantime, Elena is a great follow on social media, where she documents the shenanigans she, her wife, and often times their good friend Kathy get into, as well as her very good boys, Wrigley and Rasta. Follow Elena on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube.
Up next, learn more about her Mystics teammate, Ariel Atkins.
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Written by Karlee Worthen, a graduate student in New York City studying Sports Media and Communication. Follow her on Twitter for mediocre sports and movies takes, or News Wubble for all things WNBA.