Elena Delle Donne Is Having The Best Season In Basketball History. Now What?

Elena Delle Donne is playing at a level few basketball players of any gender, in any league, have ever achieved. The challenge, now, is getting anyone to notice.

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Jul 17 2015, 12:16pm

Photo by Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When she was 18, the best basketball player of her generation decided that she didn't want to play basketball anymore. Not at the University of Connecticut on a full scholarship, and not even at the nearby University of Delaware. Before she redefined the game and emerged as the player who could make the WNBA something it has never quite been, Elena Delle Donne was over it.

She came back to it, and has spent this entire WNBA season playing every game like LeBron James in the 2015 NBA Finals. But when she was 18, she was over it enough, and confident enough in her judgment, that she chose to spend a year on the volleyball team at Delaware. Delle Donne wanted to spend more time with her family, particularly her sister Lizzie, who is blind and deaf, and has cerebral palsy and autism; the sisters communicate through hand-over-hand sign language. Lizzie doesn't travel, and Delle Donne didn't want to, either.

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Delle Donne says that she would be teaching Special Education if she wasn't playing basketball for the Chicago Sky, but this is a moot point at the moment. She is playing basketball professionally, and playing it as well as anyone—of any gender—has ever played the game. Delle Donne posted a 40.9 Player Efficiency Rating over the first ten games of the WNBA season. No one else in the history of either the NBA or WNBA has ever topped 35. LeBron's never topped 32. Neither did Wilt Chamberlain, the year he scored 100 points in a game and averaged 50.4 points per contest.

She is having, so far, something like the greatest individual basketball season anyone has ever seen. It may even be enough to show America just what it is missing out on by ignoring the WNBA. Elena Delle Donne is willing to meet America more than halfway. She just isn't content to simply be an elite performer in a niche league.

"Just like the NBA," Delle Donne said of her vision for the WNBA, while sitting courtside in Mohegan Sun Arena following the Chicago Sky's shootaround before a recent game against the Connecticut Sun. "I don't think there should be any difference. Unfortunately, at this point in time, there's a huge difference."

People of the Sky. — Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA just completed a season in which 11.3 million people watched Game 6 of the NBA Finals. LeBron James and Steph Curry, the two protagonists in that Finals drama, are ubiquitous—James has a major role in a Hollywood blockbuster this summer, Amy Schumer's Trainwreck. Riley Curry, Steph's adorable, press conference-stealing two-year-old, may be more recognizable than any single player in the WNBA.

In contrast, the 2014 WNBA Finals between Delle Donne's Sky and Brittany Griner's Phoenix Mercury averaged 659,000 viewers. That represented a huge jump—up 91 percent over the 2013 WNBA Finals, part of the undeniable growth of the league—but is still well below the 938,000 viewers that Game 6 of the NBA Finals drew on WatchESPN mobile platforms alone. So yes: Elena Delle Donne's project is ambitious.

But changing minds is one of the many things she does. Delle Donne's game functions as a direct refutation of every lazy trope about women's basketball. Watch her pogo stick for rebounds, or fly over from the weak side to protect the rim with one of her league-leading 25 blocks, and the myth of lesser athleticism disappears. See her effotlessly glide from role to role, changing with each possession, and the comparisons make themselves—she is Dirk Nowitzki when she drops her signature stepback over an overmatched defender or two, or three. When she beats the double-team to the hoop with second and third efforts, she's Carmelo Anthony; when she presents defenders with an impossible decision around the three-point arc, she's Kevin Durant. And when she grabs a rebound and starts a fast break, gliding through defenders too slow to maneuver in front of her, she's a LeBron James-ian freight train. (She also makes her free throws, at an impossible 94.3 percent career rate; Steve Nash's NBA-record mark is 90.4.)

Her coach, Pokey Chatman, gives her the freedom to pick a role, possession by possession. Delle Donne explained that she'll often see something in the defense one time down the floor, and adjust the next time down, either taking the ball herself, slotting out on the wing, or parking herself in the post.

"Yes, the skill set is magnificent," Chatman says, "the balance and control. But it's this intellect that I think separates her. And to me, it's the freedom that she's earned." That protean identity—or that plus the fact that Delle Donne is 6'5" and has no apparent weaknesses—has made her an unsolvable problem for every other NBA coach.

"First, Della Donne seems stronger and healthier," longtime Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn said in an email. "[She's] more comfortable with the physical WNBA... And she's playing the 3 and the 4, harder to guard."

As Bill Laimbeer of the New York Liberty put it: "She is 6-foot-5, and she can shoot, she is a flat-out unbelievable shooter. She is also a very smart player, with a high basketball IQ." And how to defend her? "Always stay in her space," Laimbeer said, "and never, ever leave her." This is a good idea, and nearly impossible in practice. Anyway, no one is doing it. No one is stopping her.

Something unprecedented happened right before this photo was taken. — Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike many bigs with perimeter skills, Delle Donne was always the tallest in her class. "Luckily I had a dad with a vision," Delle Donne says. "He's such a smart man. He knew I was going to be tall, but he said 'Elena, if you can develop guard skills, and be tall as well, you'll be an incredible player.' He always preached to me—work on your ball-handling skills, work on your shooting. Because if you can do everything on the court, what's better than that?"

The free throws came by eighth grade, when a coach altered her form. She creates a 90-degree angle with her elbow before following through with a flick of her shooting wrist—"it took about a year", Delle Donne said of mastering a skill in a way no basketball player ever has. She set a national high school record for most consecutive free throws made, with 80 in a row.

Then came Connecticut, and a chance to take the baton from Maya Moore as the fulcrum of Geno Auriemma's powerhouse program. She was on her way home after 48 hours, and spent a year away from the game entirely. Delle Donne enrolled at the University of Delaware, played as a walk-on for the volleyball team, and dedicated herself to studies as a Human Services major; she spent her summer teaching at Lizzie's school.

"It completely changed my thinking," Delle Donne said of her basketball sabbatical. "Really rejuvenated me to come back and play again. And you have to have that, because otherwise it becomes grueling, no fun, and you become burnt out. I have basketball, but it's not everything to me."

A happier Delle Donne returned from that time away, and one comfortable enough to be a public figure beyond her basketball duties. There's Elena Delle Donne, global ambassador for the Special Olympics. Elena Delle Donne, overcoming Lyme Disease in college and becoming a spokesperson for the fight against the disease. There's Elena Delle Donne, who is an editor at Bikini.com, where she uses her platform to advocate for health and fitness.

"I think we have a bunch of players who are, increasingly, becoming household names, and I would include Elena in this category," WNBA commissioner Laurel Richie told me. "First and foremost, she is recognized as a spectacular athlete. And then, as people get to know her, through her life experiences, she is very comfortable sharing the things that she's passionate about." Elena Delle Donne is comfortable being seen. The challenge for the WNBA, as ever, is getting people to watch. It has not traditionally been easy, but 2015 already feels different.

Why would you... could you please stop mushing the best player this league has ever seen? It's rude. — Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Here is what the current moment in women's sports sounds like in corporate-speak, courtesy of FOX Sports Executive VP Robert Gottlieb: "Being able to connect the U.S. Women's National Team with an iconic brand like THE SIMPSONS to help raise awareness for the Women's World Cup is really quite an honor. The Women's World Cup is going to be a truly cultural event in the U.S. beginning next month, and this partnership with THE SIMPSONS and Gracie Films is one of several examples of how elements of 21st Century Fox have worked together in creative ways to promote this huge tournament."

Look past the stilted business language, and there is fact. Fox Sports promoted the heck out of the Women's World Cup, which is surely part of how 8.4 million people came to watch a women's soccer game between USA and Germany on a Tuesday night, and 26.7 million tuned in for the World Cup Final. Fox Sports drew on its various platforms to raise awareness of a big-ticket event, which is a strategy that's familiar to anybody who has ever watched anything on television. In so doing, they proved that it works for women's sports as well as anything else. This seems obvious, but until recently, had been untried.

ESPN and the WNBA may be the only ones positioned to take another crack at this approach, and take advantage of this moment. While the NWSL, the American women's professional soccer league, just announced a TV deal that involves only six televised matches, none of them until August, the WNBA, for its part, will be on throughout July and August, including a pair of rematches between last year's finals participants, Chicago and Phoenix. Not only can ESPN and the league spotlight Delle Donne, they can do so alongside Griner, and perhaps capture some of the Bird/Magic dynamic that helped elevate the NBA from a niche sport to the juggernaut it is today.

Or at least get prospective fans to give the league a shot. "What I hear time and time again is people who are walking out of the arena after their first game, the game is faster and more athletic than they perhaps thought it was going to be," says Richie, who as WNBA commissioner is admittedly not an unbiased authority. "There's an element of surprise."

The league appears to understand that getting people in the door means putting as much Elena Delle Donne on television as possible. "It's gonna be more of a full time job for me," she says. "Whether it's photo shoots for magazines or interviews, I have to be in the media, and be top of mind for everybody."

And so she's doing it. After Delle Donne fought through double-teams to score 26 points on a Tuesday night against the Liberty, she spent the next day making the rounds at Bristol, appearing on first His and Hers and then SportsCenter to discuss her season. She recently read some mean tweets about her in one video that's gone viral and has dunked in a superhero costume in another. Delle Donne visited her family over the July 4 weekend, but only after doing an interview with CNN.

"The thing that's frustrating is, we have to let the media know what's happening," Delle Donne says. "It's men, and it would be all over the place. But we have to be like, 'She had 45 points the other night. Can we get her in at ESPN and talk about it?'" That mean tweets video begins with Delle Donne noting that SportsCenter had tweeted out an incorrect spelling of her name

It's definitely normal for a basketball player to be defended by this many people. — Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Read through Delle Donne's Twitter mentions, and you will notice that, in addition to the binary conversation around male athletes—fans in support, haters in opposition—she is subject to the usual dreary-stupid physical appraisal that attends female athletes. A link to a slideshow of "Hot photos of WNBA Leading Scorer Elena Delle Donne." Marriage proposals, and proposals less honorable than that. LeBron's mentions do not look like this.

"Never, and it's something females face daily," Delle Donne agreed. "On Twitter, I'll focus more on people who talk about my game, rather than talking about looks, or wanting to marry me. That's always kind of—read it and keep going. But if that's going to bring more fans, well, that's what we need."

Gene, Delle Donne's brother and agent, takes a similarly instrumental approach to all that uninvited attention. "Her game is a work of art. And Elena's 6-5 and beautiful," Gene said. "So not only does she appeal to 12-, 13-year-old girls, she also appeals to men, 30-60. If you're Nike, who endorses Elena, that's what they're looking at. Does Gene Delle Donne, father, want to purchase these sneakers for his daughter?"

"For me, the biggest things is production on the basketball court," Delle Donne said. "Being the best player I possibly can be. And I hope that people will notice that first, before my looks. Unfortunately, in female sports, it seems like people's favorite athletes are the pretty ones. In men's sports, it's the best players. At some point maybe that'll change. Right now, it's the other way around. People love Alex Morgan on the soccer field, [but noticed her first] because she's gorgeous. People love Sydney LeRoux. But in another respect, if that's what's going to get people to watch at first, then great. I have to embrace all of it, because I know: at this point, we have to get eyes on the W. We have to get people watching. And if they're going to tune in because someone might be a little pretty, then fine. They can see what a great product we put out there."

***

Delle Donne had a hero growing up: Sheryl Swoopes, the first player the WNBA ever signed.

"As a kid you'd think I'd look up to her because she was special, and her game was so versatile," Delle Donne said. "But I loved that she had a shoe out. That was so cool to me, that a woman had a shoe, and I had to wear her shoe. That's really why Sheryl became so awesome to me."

Swoopes was a singular figure at the beginning of the WNBA, and Delle Donne, again through circumstances beyond her control, may be in a similar spot. With many WNBA veterans preparing to leave the scene—Tamika Catchings is in her final season, Diana Taurasi is sitting out the year to rest and recuperate from her European basketball obligations, as is Candace Parker— this is now Elena Della Donne's WNBA . She, in turn, sees her role in the league expansively, and as part of a broader project.

"I feel like America is changing and shifting," Delle Donne said. "Even with the ruling of the Supreme Court on gay marriage. We're at a time period where people are starting to understand equality, and really start to get it. There's been incredible players in the past who should have been noticed. But I guess times weren't right. Hopefully, this is the right time."

In the meantime, she is playing basketball. The Sky have had a difficult season—center Sylvia Fowles has requested a trade and Tamera Young, the team's Stacey Augmon, is hurt. As a result, Delle Donne has had to carry a LeBron-in-the-Finals load, and has done so without complaint or a single skipped beat. On the defensive end, she can be seen rotating out to contest three-point shots, guarding a post player, and protecting the rim from penetrating guards within the same possession; she's doubled her defensive rebounding percentage, from 11.4 percent of available rebounds last year to 22.5 this season. And while Delle Donne is scoring more than any previous WNBA player, she's also shooting just 20 percent from three, well off of her career 37 percent mark. If that rate normalizes—Delle Donne said the shots are going down in practice, just not in the games—her production could shoot further into the stratosphere.

On the day we spoke, Delle Donne had just completed her fifth game in ten days, playing 194 of a possible 205 minutes and serving as the focal point on both ends of the floor. The Sky went to Delle Donne on the final possession, and she sealed the game with a pair of inevitable free throws.

As she came off the court, a family approached her. They'd been in contact with the Sky—they'd driven all the way from Montreal to see her. Elena embraced their little girl and took several photos with the group. Her teammates and the Sun had all gone to the locker room. People were filing out of the arena.

"Of course I'm going to take a little bit of time," Delle Donne said later, when she'd finally reached the locker room. "I'm not exhausted, I'm not crawling off the court. I can smile for a picture, and impact her life, hopefully. It's nothing for me to take a picture." Then another girl approached her, someone who hadn't contacted the Sky in advance, maybe hadn't come all that far. Delle Donne embraced her, and smiled again for the camera.