About five weeks after first stating she was ready to move forward with her career, Elena Delle Donne is officially a Washington Mystic.
The Chicago Sky dealt their former MVP following a well-publicized trade request, bringing Delle Donne within a two-hour drive of her hometown Wilmington, Del., and to a talented team led by the winningest coach in WNBA history, Mike Thibault. She joins Tina Charles (Connecticut to New York, 2014) as the only MVPs in WNBA history to be traded. As a restricted free agent, Delle Donne could not be traded until the official start of free agency on Feb. 1.
“I’m super excited for this next chapter,” Delle Donne said Thursday morning, when she was officially traded for Stefanie Dolson, Kahleah Copper and the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft. “I have to thank Chicago for welcoming me with open arms. It was a great fan base and I truly enjoyed my time there and made it a home. But I definitely feel like it’s now time for this next chapter and I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am about it — to be working with this first-class organization along with some incredible teammates. And then coach Thibault’s resume speaks for itself. I can’t wait to get started.”
That was the common thread in Delle Donne’s first comments on the blockbuster move — that Washington was as good a fit on the court as it is off it. The multi-talented, 6-foot-5 forward joins a franchise that has traditionally featured a well-balanced roster lacking the star power to truly contend for a championship; the Mystics have made the playoffs nine times in their 19 seasons, advancing past the first round only in 2002. They fell to 10th place last season and landed the No. 2 pick that they eventually sent to Chicago.
But Delle Donne, a restricted free agent, feels no added pressure to arrive in the nation’s capital as a franchise savior; in fact, she feels quite the opposite: “I think a big draw to this team was how selfless the team plays and the fact that there’s so much talent and any night somebody can step up. I don’t feel like by any means the weight of the world will be on my shoulders with this team. I feel like we’re all going to handle our work and play our roles to the best of our abilities. To win a championship, it can never be just be one player. This league is just far too strong for that. That’s a big reason I wanted to come play for just a great, talented team.”
In Washington, Delle Donne will join 23-year-old Emma Meesseman to form a potentially dominant frontcourt and a matchup nightmare for opponents. Despite both being the size of a center, they finished last season third and first, respectively, in three-point field goal percentage. Mystics veteran Ivory Latta enters her 11th season as one of the league’s most dependable point guards, while shooting guard Tayler Hill broke out to the tune of 15.4 points per game in 2016.
Combined, they will be able to space the floor from all five positions offensively and possess versatility on the defensive end, as well. “Versatility is huge. That’s the way that the NBA has been going,” Delle Donne said. “I think you’ll see that in the way that we play — a lot of players that can play various positions that can cause tons of mismatches.”
Delle Donne cited Thibault’s reputation for building a team-first, winning culture as a major reason why Washington was her ideal landing spot. Thibault, a three-time Coach of the Year, has led his teams to the playoffs in nine of his 12 WNBA seasons as a head coach, leading the Connecticut Sun to back-to-back Finals appearances in 2004 and 2005. He also won two NBA championship rings as a Lakers assistant coach in 1980 and 1982.
But Delle Donne also leaves behind a team in Chicago that emerged as a contender when healthy. The Sky reached the playoffs in each of her four seasons, reaching the Finals in 2014 before being swept by the Mercury.
“I built some really great relationships with my teammates and even some staff members over there. They’re going to last a lifetime,” Delle Donne said. “I’ve spoken to a lot of those people and everybody has given their well wishes and I’ve also given them mine. I don’t think those relationships will ever fade. I’m truly grateful for my four years there. … But there comes a time in your career when you have to weigh different options and that time came for me this year.”
It’s no secret that being close to home factored into the decision for Delle Donne, who spent summers in Annapolis, Md., and had friends in the Alexandria, Va. area. Joining a team that could be a superstar away from contending for a championship certainly added to the appeal.
Are the Mystics ready to compete with the Lynx, Sparks and the rest of the WNBA’s elite?
“That’s always the goal. That’s what I play for is to win championships and win games,” Delle Donne said. “But it takes a lot more than just saying that, and I truly believe in coach Thibault and the culture he’s already created. I feel like I’m really going to be able to fit in to this style, this culture. That’s going to be our goal. I absolutely would love to bring a championship home to D.C.