On Sunday afternoon, Elena Delle Donne put on her Washington Mystics jersey and walked out onto the court to play in a WNBA game for the first time in 682 days. While the Mystics fell to the Seattle Storm, 85-78, Delle Donne's long-awaited return was a welcome sight.
The two-time MVP played just over 22 minutes and finished with 16 points and three rebounds, going 5 of 11 from the field in her first game since the WNBA Finals in October 2019. It wasn't perfect, but it was a strong showing after such a long layoff, and went better than a "nervous" Delle Donne expected.
"I had that like first day of school butterfly feeling," Delle Donne said. "I was super nervous. I was even telling my family like 'I'm nervous, this might not be good.' But it was so exciting just to be out here. It's been quite a journey, and it's still a day-to-day thing. I'm so honored I was able to get out here and compete with my team. We'll see after the adrenaline wears off how I'm doing and get ready for the next one."
Delle Donne will have to see how things feel after the adrenaline wears off because during her time away she underwent multiple back surgeries to deal with herniated discs. The first one came after the 2019 season, and the second was in January of this year. And while she is now healthy enough to return to action, her situation is still fluid and she still feels "unsure if the nerve pain is going to take over again."
"That's the concern," Delle Donne said. "But just trying to trust the process and know that each day could bring me different feels and vibes. I'm just gonna have to go with the flow and trust in my people to get me ready."
In terms of her actual play, Delle Donne got off to a perfect start with one of her patented turnaround jumpers along the baseline. She backed down Katie Lou Samuelson, gave a little shimmy and turned smoothly over her shoulder just like she has thousands of times before.
"It definitely felt great, especially for the first shot go in," Delle Donne said. "It was something I needed to see. That is one of the moves I like to do, it's something I've been working on in the weight room, and it carried over."
The rest of the first half was a little rough, as Delle Donne struggled when she tired to put the ball on the floor and maneuver in traffic. There were also some times when the Storm tried to pick on her on the defensive end. As the game went on and she was able to get into more of a rhythm, however, she looked more fluid. A baseline drive and finish past Breanna Stewart, in particular, was quite impressive.
As the Mystics head into the final 10 games of the season, they'll hope that this was just the start -- not only for Delle Donne, but the team as a whole. The loss to the Storm was their fourth in a row, and dropped them to 8-14 on the season. But while they're in 10th place and currently outside of the playoff picture, they're only 1 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Sparks for the final playoff spot, and 2 1/2 games back of the Chicago Sky in sixth.
They have to make a move quickly, but there is still enough time to jump into playoff position. And with Delle Donne -- and others such as Natasha Cloud and Myisha Hines-Allen -- now healthy, the Mystics have to feel like if they can just get into the postseason, they have a chance to make some noise.