Elena Delle Donne fits right in with Washington Mystics family

WASHINGTON, DC -  MAY 14: Elena Delle Donne
WASHINGTON, DC -  MAY 14: Elena Delle Donne /

WASHINGTON—Elena Delle Donne scored 24 points in her debut with the Washington Mystics on Sunday afternoon, but no shot carried the weight of her first one, a long two-pointer from inside the left arch less than 30 seconds into the game.

“Coach drew up a play, Tayler (Hill) hit me on a pop,” Delle Donne told The Summitt in the Mystics’ locker room after an 89-74 victory over the San Antonio Stars. “Thank God that ball went in. I was able to breath and go from there.”

The 6’5″ former WNBA MVP, three-time All-Star, and bonafide basketball superstar agreed to a blockbuster sign-and-trade deal at the end of January that took her from the Chicago Sky, where she had played since she was drafted in 2013, to the Mystics.

Most professional athletes like to play it cool, but Delle Donne did not downplay the anxiety she felt in the lead-up to her first game in the nation’s capitol.

“For sure there were nerves, I didn’t sleep great,” she said. “I was just jittery, and just ready to get here and get this one under my belt. But it was an awesome welcoming. Crowd was amazing.”

One of the main reasons why Delle Donne pushed for this trade was so she could be closer to her friends and family in Delaware. While the crowd in D.C. was sparse—6,126 was the official count, with many empty seats—the 27-year-old had a large and rowdy cheering section.

“I knew the Delaware faithful would travel,” she said. “Mother’s day, doesn’t matter, that’s my crew, that’s my family. I mean, literally a home game. Delaware doesn’t care that it’s two hours, it’s a home game.”

But it’s not just the crowd that makes Delle Donne feel at home; her teammates are quickly becoming a second family as well. Between taco dinners at guard Tayler Hill’s house and team-wide wagers over Delle Donne’s famous free-throw prowess, the chemistry and camaraderie between the Mystics, both old and new, is palpable in the locker room and on the floor.

“I knew this team had great chemistry, but when you get here and you feel it and you experience it, it’s even better than what I had imagined,” Delle Donne said. “It’s so fun to play with so much talent and so many options and never feel like you truly have to force because that next pass is better than forcing something.”

WASHINGTON, DC –  MAY 14: Natasha Cloud
WASHINGTON, DC –  MAY 14: Natasha Cloud /

Guard Natasha Cloud, who has played for the Mystics since she was drafted by head coach Mike Thibault in the second round of the 2015 draft, says the team’s chemistry is the best thing about playing in Washington.

“We have the family atmosphere which I love to brag about, because I don’t know if a lot of teams are like that,” she said. “You can see in the interactions how much love we have for one another, and that doesn’t just stay in the team setting. It doesn’t matter what time of day, it could be 5:00 a.m. and if anyone here called me I’d be on my way to help in any way. I think that’s huge for a team and I think that corresponds with how we play.”

Hill, who scored 15 points and had three assists on Sunday, said the familial tone is set by Thibault.

“I think it starts from the top. I think the coaches bring that into this program and this organization, it starts from them,” Hill said from her perch atop starting center Emma Meesseman’s lap in the locker room after the victory. “That’s the atmosphere and and we adapt to it.”

For her part, Meesseman, just arriving this week after winning the Russian Premier League championship, followed by joking: “You see what my role on this team is? A chair. They don’t forget how to abuse me.

WASHINGTON, DC –  MAY 14: Kristi Toliver
WASHINGTON, DC –  MAY 14: Kristi Toliver /

Combo guard Kristi Toliver, the Mystics’ other big-name offseason acquisition, has also been impressed by the tight-knit Mystics.

“As soon as I got here everyone was super nice and welcoming. It’s been a while since I’ve been the new kid, but they’ve been great,” Toliver, who was on Meesseman’s team in Russia and therefore also just arrived in D.C., said after the game.

Toliver also didn’t hesitate to take a light jab at her other new teammate, Delle Donne.

“It was good, I think we were building chemistry. Her butt needs to stay out of foul trouble so we can play together a little bit longer in the games, but it was good,” she said. “I’m excited to play with her, she knows how to play basketball, read plays, read the game. It was fun.”

Indeed, while this was a good game from Delle Donne, there is still room for improvement. She had five fouls and played much of the second half with four, and therefore only  played 23:20, a good four minutes less than any other starter. She was uncharacteristically 0-3 from three-point range, and often looked out of place on defense—in part because of scrappy and energetic play from the Stars, who were missing three of the best players on their team, Kelsey Plum, Moriah Jefferson, and Kayla McBride, due to injury, illness, and overseas play, respectively.

But defense has never been Delle Donne’s biggest strength, and Thibault knows it’s going to take her a bit of time to adjust to the Mystics’ way.

WASHINGTON, DC –  MAY 14: Elena Delle Donne
WASHINGTON, DC –  MAY 14: Elena Delle Donne /

“She’ll get better once she gets used to our defensive system, staying out of foul trouble, knowing she can anticipate things to get there a little quicker. I think some of her fouls were just being a count late,” Thibault told reporters after the game.

“But I thought it was a great start, you come in and get 24 points in your debut, that sets a pretty good tone for things. I was impressed with how the ball moved for us in that regard. She facilitates everything else too.”

The Mystics are looking to bounce back from last year’s disappointing 13-21 campaign that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in Thibault’s tenure. Delle Donne, who dragged San Antonio double teams to the basket all day on Sunday, is the type of talent that allows the franchise to look beyond just getting back to the playoffs, and all the way to to the top of the league.

That’s certainly what Thibault had in mind when he made the trade this offseason. While he saw positives on Sunday, he has higher hopes for Delle Donne and the Mystics.

“I envisioned way better. So this was a start, that’s all this was. A start,” he said.

As for Delle Donne, now that she has her first 12 baskets and first victory under her belt, the nerves about her fresh start have turned into pure excitement.

“It’s exactly what I was hoping for and even more,” she said.