Elena Delle Donne makes herself right at home with Mystics
WASHINGTON -- Elena Delle Donne hasn't attempted her first subway ride in the nation's capital, the Beltway gives her a headache and her dogs Wrigley and Rasta are only lukewarm to their new digs in northern Virginia.
But just about every other part of the 2015 WNBA MVP's transition to a new team and new city looks as free and easy as, well, an EDD jump shot.
And plenty of shots hit the mark during a Sunday matinee for the Washington Mystics, who never trailed in breezing past San Antonio 89-74 at the Verizon Center.
Delle Donne, who requested to be traded from the Chicago Sky during the offseason, scored a team-best 24 on 8-of-12 shooting in her debut for a Mystics team that has generated buzz as a possible contender for a first-ever league championship.
"Obviously, you come in and get 24 points in your debut, that probably sets a pretty good tone for things," said Washington coach Mike Thibault, though conceding he expects a far different look from the Stars when the teams meet later this summer.
"This is exactly what I was hoping for and even more," said Delle Donne, who, teamed with the league's top 3-point shooter Emma Meesseman, gives the Mystics one of the more potent frontcourts. "I knew coming here this team had chemistry. But when you get here and you feel it and experience it, it's even better than I imagined. It's so fun to play with so much talent and so many options."
San Antonio played without three starters in Kelsey Plum, the No. 1 pick in last month's draft who's out with a right ankle sprain, Moriah Jefferson (right knee soreness), and Kayla McBride (overseas playing in the Turkish League finals). McBride and Jefferson led the Stars in scoring in 2016 and Plum, from the University of Washington, comes in as the NCAA's all-time leading scorer.
The Stars also are coming off rare back-to-back road games, having lost 73-64 to New York on Saturday night in Madison Square Garden. That didn't stop Monique Currie from amassing 31 points, less than 24 hours after scoring 23.
The Mystics are intact, though they haven't been for long as Kristi Toliver and Meesseman joined the group midway through last week. While the defense had some lapses, including Delle Donne weathering five fouls, Thibault largely attributed that to the newcomers still figuring out what is familiar to veterans Tayler Hill, Natasha Cloud, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Ivory Latta.
"They're used to talking to each other and those kinds of things, and it's going to take a little longer to integrate the newer players.
"[Elena] will get better once she gets used to our defensive system," he said. "She'll be able to anticipate some things and get there a little bit quicker. I think a couple of her fouls were just from being a count late."
That said, Thibault couldn't have been more pleased with his franchise player, quipping this about her free-throw prowess: "We have a rule that if you violate while she's shooting the free throw, we're going to fine you 25 bucks apiece. So we had one almost do it early in the game. They're all going to fine her for missing a free throw because it's such a rare thing."
Delle Donne, who set a Sky record for 97 made free throws her rookie season, sank her first seven from the line and finished 8 of 9.
She's already a fan favorite, too, though the announced crowd of 6,126 was nearly half of the opening day attendance a year ago in D.C., most likely a result of a midafternoon game on Mother's Day and the first-place Nationals playing an afternoon home game nearby.
While it'll take a while for her jersey to rival anything worn by Alex Ovechkin and Bryce Harper, plenty of girls, boys and even grown men walked around the Verizon Center showing off her No. 11.
Dave Noren pulled up his new Delle Donne T-shirt to reveal Delle Donne Chicago Sky garb. "I'm from Chicago," he said, admitting that he prefers she play in Washington given his suburban Virginia address. Sons Greg, 12, and Zach, 9, also had their own Delle Donne paraphernalia.
"She's the best," Zach said.
Greg added, "She's really good."
Delle Donne cited wanting to be closer to home as the primary reason she wanted to leave Chicago. Now home is a straight shot up I-95 north to Wilmington, Delaware, a far easier trek for parents Ernie and Joan Delle Donne than navigating a plane ride in and out of O'Hare International.
Short of relocating a WNBA franchise to the tri-state area, "This is perfect," said Ernie Delle Donne, sitting alongside his son Gene, daughter-in-law Jennifer, granddaughter Gia and Amanda Clifton, Elena's fiancé.
Ernie Delle Donne, who traveled to 28 of Elena's 32 home games last season, used to leave his office no later than 11 a.m. for a night game in Chicago. If he was lucky, he'd be back to work by 1 p.m., the next afternoon.
"Now for a 7 o'clock game, I can leave at 4 and be here in time for tipoff and be back before midnight," he said.
Elena lunched with her mother on Thursday -- Joan Delle Donne stayed at home with Elena's sister, Lizzie, on Sunday -- and handed off a Mother's Day gift to Gene. Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy and autism, is expected to come for two games.
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The family is expected to make good use of their recently purchased vacation home on the water in Annapolis, Maryland. Friday night, Elena met her family for a Mexican meal and had a flatbread from Dunkin' Donuts with everyone before arriving at the Verizon Center by noon Sunday.
"The drive from our house to practice here is actually a lot better than in Chicago," Clifton said. "Just being out here, being close to family automatically puts her in a better place. She's much happier, not just about basketball, but about life."
Joe Biden wasn't in the house on Sunday, but the former vice president from Delaware told Thibault he expects to attend four or five games. The first state was well represented, however. The University of Delaware, Delle Donne's alma mater, sent down a charter bus of 44 fans.
"This is wonderful," said Carol Dillon, a regular at Delaware's Bob Carpenter Center during Delle Donne's college. "We can take the train."
Seated next to her in the second row at midcourt, her friend Helen Hannan added while mimicking a jump shot, "I could watch her shoot all day."
"I knew the Delaware faithful would show up," Delle Donne said. "That's my crew; that's my family. Delaware always makes me proud. It's truly a home game. Delaware doesn't care if it's two hours. It's home for them as well."
While Delle Donne will be the focal point for the Mystics offense, she's surrounded by shooters, including Toliver. The former Maryland star, who won a league championship last year as a member of the L.A. Sparks, scored eight and added four assists.
"I played four years two miles down the road," said Toliver, whose father, former AAU teammates and high school bestie were in the stands. "It feels like home."
Tayler Hill, one of two mothers on this team along with Tianna Hawkins, finished with 15, and Meesseman had 13 with nine boards.
"Offensively we didn't have to force much and I think it's going to continue to be that way," Delle Donne said. "Any player can step up anytime and any night. It's exciting to be on a team with this many options."