Nothing has been normal for the Mystics since winning the 2019 WNBA championship. Although the bubble was a drastic shift for the entire league, the Mystics faced an uphill battle that seemed insurmountable. The team they took to Orlando was a mere shadow of the one that raised the trophy a year prior. Elena Delle Donne sat out due to health concerns. Natasha Cloud decided to opt-out to focus on her social justice endeavors and Myiesha Hines-Allen went from an understudy to leading lady. Then when they got there, injuries hampered the team further.
Fast forward to the 2021 season. EDD is still recovering. Newly acquired forward, Alysha Clark is sidelined for the entire season, and a litany of injuries thinned out an already shorthanded roster. But perseverance has been a recurring theme within the franchise and there is light at the end of the tunnel. As the second half of the season is set to begin, the Mystics have reason to be optimistic.
They will be welcoming back two gold medalists as Tina Charles and Ariel Atkins, who helped Team USA secure the top spot in Tokyo. And perhaps the biggest news is that Elena has begun practicing and is planning for an imminent return to the court. While there is no concrete date for her to get back in the lineup, Coach Mike Thibault and EDD had a recent media availability session to talk about the process and future plans for the rest of the season.
Elena and Coach T both had a hint of cheerfulness in their voices when discussing Delle Donne’s potential return. Thibault says a decision will be made by week’s end to determine whether she will make the road trip to Vegas but by all accounts, she is progressing nicely. At times she even surprises her teammates. Every now and then in practice, Elena will do something that reminds them of her MVP form and they’ll say, “There she is.” I’m sure the rest of the squad can’t wait for those moments to go from sporadic to commonplace but of course, everyone’s main objective is Elena’s full recovery.
Coach Thibault went on to talk about the team’s performance in the first half of the season. He praised Tina Charles for coming into training camp in better shape than everyone on the team. Tina’s leadership was highlighted as an intricate part of Washington’s ability to stay afloat. She came to play alongside great offensive weapons like EDD and Emma Meesseman but between sitting out of the bubble last year and Emma’s international commitments this season, they have yet to share the court together.
The result was Tina having to take on much more responsibility than she initially anticipated. She has responded by having one of the best seasons of her career. She is on pace to have the best scoring season the W has ever seen and is in the MVP conversation. While Tina is obviously capable of carrying the load, having the Mystics at full strength would easily put them in the upper echelon of teams in W.
When Elena spoke about her journey thus far, she was very candid and open about the ups and downs of this process. She said being able to get back on the court and compete again has done wonders for her mentally. She’s had to come back from injuries before but this has been different than anything she’s encountered before. Coming back from two back surgeries is a tremendous undertaking for anyone.
Elena even said there have been times where she feared that she would never be able to play basketball again. And while getting back on the court is vital, her recovery was mainly driven by having a better quality of life. Simple things like walking her dogs became overwhelmingly complicated. Even going to dinner with her wife, Amanda, had become a casualty of her recovery because she was unable to sit for long periods of time due to the extreme discomfort.
Delle Donne has had an incredible support system. Her mom, who has firsthand experience recovering from back surgery, has been coaching Elena through this journey. But in her interview, she let the cat out of the bag about an unexpected aid in her recovery. EDD told us that former Wizard, Russell Westbrook, would come in early sometimes even on game days, and rebounded for her while she shot barefoot jumpers two feet from the basket. He offered her words of encouragement and devoted his time to seeing Elena regain her form.
And while she is excited to get back into the thick of things, EDD is still pacing herself. She was asked about what she needed to see before she was ready to officially suit up again. Elena said that she wanted to string together a few days of full-scale 5-on-5 activity and once that happens, it’s go-time. She knows that time is of the essence as the Mystics are coming down the backstretch of the season but she won’t rush this.
Elena’s return has been heavily anticipated for two years and now that it’s within striking distance, the energy around the franchise is palpable. Myiesha Hines-Allen and Erica McCall are seemingly ready to go and there is still a possibility that Emma will return this season. Coach Thibault says that would be the frosting on the cake. With a fully healthy roster, the Mystics can finally reclaim the “Run It Back” mantra they used during their title run in 2019. With COVID rocking the sports world and the injuries piling up this season, the W has yet to face Mystics in full championship defense mode. But with people getting healthy, the league might want to get ready for a determined group to reclaim what I’m sure they feel is rightfully theirs. It’s going to be exciting to see how this shakes out but whatever happens, the home team will definitely make it fun.