Maybe you had some doubts. Most of us probably did. We knew that Elena Delle Donne was a great basketball player in high school and college, but we didn’t know how that would translate to the big leagues. We knew she lit the sky when she was at the University of Delaware, but we didn’t know if she could light the Sky, her new team in the WNBA.
And those doubts weren’t just because Delle Donne was jumping from a little pond in Newark to Lake Michigan in Chicago. People were naturally skeptical about how she would adjust to a game where the players are bigger and faster and more skilled and just better in every way. Would she be able to keep up the frantic pace of a WNBA game? Was she quick enough? Was she strong enough? Was she good enough?
Well, anybody who saw Delle Donne’s professional debut on Monday night now knows the answers to those questions. Delle Donne was able to do in the WNBA the same things she was able to do in the CAA. In fact, it was easier at times because, for the first time in her life, she didn’t face two or three defenders every time she touched the ball. She wasn’t banged around by her opponents all the time. She was able to run free and just play basketball like a normal player even though, of course, she is not.
Delle Donne scored 22 points as the Chicago Sky beat the Phoenix Mercury in a game that was featured on ESPN because it featured the two new stars of the WNBA – Mercury center Brittany Griner, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA’s recent draft, and Delle Donne, the No. 2 overall pick.
In this game, No. 2 outplayed No.1, mainly because Griner got into early foul trouble and had to sit out much of the first half, when Delle Donne’s star rose dramatically. ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, a former first-team All-American at Connecticut and one of the WNBA’s first stars, gushed about Delle Donne the entire time, and especially in the first half, when Delle Donne scored 16 points to push the Sky to a 24-point halftime lead.
It was interesting to listen to Lobo as she told the rest of the nation what we in Delaware already knew, that Delle Donne isn’t just a great shooter, but also a terrific passer who has great instincts for the game.
It was also interesting to watch Delle Donne deal with something else that was new to her – she didn’t touch the ball on every possession. In fact, there were times when she wasn’t involved in the offense at all, and it wasn’t a coincidence – as Lobo pointed out – that the Mercury made a strong second-half run during that lull. Lobo mentioned more than once that the Sky needed to run their offense through Delle Donne because of her passing touch as well as her shooting touch. At Delaware, of course, Delle Donne was always the first option on offense, and quite often the second and third option, as well.
Now it will be interesting to see how Delle Donne does the rest of the season. She’s had health issues in the past and it remains to be seen if they show up again. Fortunately, the WNBA only plays a 34-game regular season (the NBA plays an 82-game season) and Delle Donne played that many games a season in college. But her debut is sure to catch the eye of future opponents and things might not always be as free and easy as they were in Monday night’s opener.
That’s why Delle Donne’s second WNBA game might be more telling than her first. On Friday night, the Sky play the Connecticut Sun, the defending Eastern Conference champions who finished 25-9 last season. If Delle Donne does to them what she did to the Mercury, then it will be safe to say that she has arrived as a legitimate WNBA player and possibly even a great one.
And, as always, it will be fun watching her progress. Many of us have tracked her career since she was an All-Stater as an eighth-grader at Ursuline and that interest picked up when she transferred to Delaware from Connecticut and transformed the Blue Hens into a nationally-ranked team that made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Now she’s playing with and against the best players in the world and in her first game she showed that she belonged with them. She played well and she played with confidence. We might have had some doubts, but it was pretty obvious that Elena Delle Donne did not.
Contact Kevin Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org.