Elena Delle Donne Says She's Ready to Move—and to Sit Out 2017 if Necessary

The Chicago Sky's Delle Donne, who is a restricted free agent this off-season, said in an interview Friday that she would come to a decision soon about where she wants to play next.

Dec 16 2016, 5:33pm

Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Sky's Elena Delle Donne is a restricted free agent this off-season, and the 2015 WNBA MVP said in an interview Friday that she would come to a decision soon about where she wants to play next, and is prepared to sit out the 2017 season if necessary to facilitate a move to her preferred destination.

It represents, potentially, the biggest transaction in the history of the WNBA, a trade-averse league where players at or near Delle Donne's level typically stay with a single team for the duration of their careers. None of the top 14 WNBA players in Win Shares per 48 have changed teams before turning 36 years old, and just two of the 14 moved at all. Delle Donne, who is 27, is third in league history in Win Shares per 48, behind only Cynthia Cooper and Lauren Jackson.

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"Some things will be moving forward for me," Delle Donne said about the off-season ahead. "I've loved playing with my teammates. There's a great group of young women there. And hopefully with Amber [Stocks, whom the Sky named head coach on Tuesday] and a new system, it'll be great for them. But for me, wherever I end up, I'll be ready to play basketball."

The extent to which the acquisition of Delle Donne would make any team an immediate title contender cannot be overstated. Delle Donne is a 6'5'' shotblocker with guard skills who shot 42.6 percent from beyond the arc last year. An elite finisher around the basket, she's virtually impossible to stop once she gets going, and fouling her doesn't solve anything—she's the league's best free-throw shooter ever, at 93.8 percent.

Accordingly, it raised eyebrows when Stocks spoke at length about the team at her introductory press conference as the Sky's new coach and GM on December 13 but only mentioned Delle Donne in passing, and in the most basic of terms: "We have quality minutes logged by Elena Delle Donne." When owner Michael Alter was asked at the same event about a contract extension for Delle Donne, he replied, "Free agency starts in January and I think part of that process is—this is with every player, not just Elena who's a restricted free agent—is a conversation about what our plans are and finding out who is committed to what we're doing and who will embrace what we're doing and who wants to be here."

What comes next is potentially complicated. It's also a real chance at a publicity boon for a league that seldom experiences much player movement during the off-season, much to the frustration of both players and front-office members who would like the freedom and attention that drives so much interest in not only the NBA but many other leagues as well.

Delle Donne officially becomes a restricted free agent in January, a not-uncommon status for the league's best players who don't sign extensions before their rookie contracts end. It's not really freedom, though: any offer from another team can be matched. WNBA teams seldom even go through this process, since the retention of signature players is generally a given.

But with Delle Donne making it clear that she's looking for a long-term fit, not only on the court but a place to build her life, the calculations change. Chicago can match an offer, but Delle Donne has the option of sitting out until a deal is worked out.

"I obviously always want to play," Delle Donne said. "I don't want to have to sit out. I want to play the game I love, the game I work so hard on. So hopefully that doesn't have to occur in my future." She added that she's willing to do it, however, if that is necessary to get to her team of choice.

The Sky did not respond to a request for comment on Delle Donne's interview.

There's precedent for this: Sylvia Fowles sat out much of the 2015 season, after expressing a desire to leave Chicago. And ultimately, the trade that the Sky worked out with the Minnesota Lynx brought back far less than full value for Fowles, an Olympian. The Sky received veteran center Erika De Souza in the three-team deal, and had to give up a second-round pick as well.

So for both the Sky and Delle Donne, there's ample motivation to get this done quickly. The sooner it happens, the faster the Sky can build around a talented roster and whatever they receive in return for her, while preparing for the 2017 draft and crafting a promotional scheme that won't center around Delle Donne for the first time since they drafted her in 2013.

And Delle Donne can get settled in her new home with her fiancée, Amanda, as the two of them ramp up their wedding planning and consider a future in which the WNBA is just part of the equation. Delle Donne expressed a desire to have children with Amanda down the road, and to find a home for her "family and future family."

Still, after a year in which she won a gold medal playing for USA Basketball, Delle Donne's first priority is winning a WNBA title.

"Number one is teammates," Delle Donne said. "Being around people who want to win championships. So that is crucial, and from there you can build upon it with anything."

But even in terms of contending, that doesn't really limit Delle Donne's options. Every WNBA roster becomes a playoff roster with her on it. Any contending teams, particularly those that don't have to jettison core members to make a deal, would all become championship favorites by adding her.

And there is this: Delle Donne spends her off-seasons in her home state of Delaware, where her family lives as well. The closest team, geographically, would be the Washington Mystics, and two WNBA talent evaluators expressed a belief that Delle Donne would end up there. The Acela trip from Joseph R. Biden Station in Wilmington, Delaware, to Union Station in Washington D.C. is an hour and eighteen minutes, while a roster centered around Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman—untouchable, according to a league source—presents matchup problems no other WNBA team is equipped to solve.

In the meantime, as Delle Donne travels with Amanda to Disney World, then back up to Delaware for a massive family Christmas, teams and media alike will reach an unprecedented level of chatter over a move that will go a long way toward defining the power structure in the WNBA for the rest of the decade.

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