Elena Delle Donne: The next level

 (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Since leading the University of Delaware Blue Hens to the Sweet 16 this March, Elena Delle Donne has taken her game to the next level, both literally and figuratively.

Just a few days after the Blue Hens were knocked out of the tournament, Delle Donne was the second overall pick in the WNBA draft by the Chicago Sky. And while the first overall pick, dunking wonder Britney Griner, may get a bit more national attention for the Phoenix Mercury, Delle Donne is quickly grabbing her share of the spotlight.

“I’m excited, now it’s time,” Delle Donne said in one of a series of videos posted on WNBA.com. “I’m so excited to be in the pros. It’s where the game has taken me. And this is what I’ve dreamt of since I was a little girl.”

Blue Hens road trip

Delaware basketball fans who’ve watched Delle Donne from high school to college also took the next step this summer, filling a pair of 56-passenger buses bound for Washington, D.C., to see their hometown favorite play as a professional. “Every opportunity we can get, we go and see her,” said Ellie Ford, who has also traveled to Chicago and New Jersey to see Delle Donne play.

Delle Donne’s quick transition into the professional game has not surprised longtime fans. “No, not at all,” said Debbie Bones of Camden. “We knew she was very, very talented and would make the adjustments as well. She’s a very hard worker.”

UD 2013 grad Lindsey Cook dubs herself Delle Donne’s biggest fan. She said Delle Donne’s experience prepared her well for the WNBA. “She played on so many different teams when she was younger, and it’s been her life, since pretty much forever, so I’m not surprised that she’s made the transition really well.”

Former Blue Hens teammate Kayla Miller was also in D.C. to see Delle Donne in action. “I’m happy that the rest of the nation is able to see what I’ve known since before eighth grade. She’s always kept surprising people from the high school level to the college level. She definitely made that transition very well.”

All-Star status

Thanks in big part to Delle Donne, the Sky finished the first half of the season in first place, eyeing a trip to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. “When you’re Elena, it’s all eyes on ‘E,'” said Sky coach Pokey Chapman.  “She’s a rookie by stature, but she plays the minutes of a 5-6 year vet. She does a lot for us.”

Delle Donne, meantime, is proving to be a fan favorite. her number 11 Sky jersey is the third-best-selling in the league, and she was the top All-Star vote-getter for the entire league. Unfortunately, a concussion suffered during the July game in Washington kept her from participating in the All-Star game in Connecticut. Delle Donne has since posted on Twitter that’s she’s been feeling stronger and trying to do everything necessary to get back on the court as soon as possible.

“It’s her poise, it’s her willingness to want to learn and get better, getting extra reps in with one of our coaches,” Chapman said.  “So from that standpoint, her game is only going to continue to escalate. So she’s been a gem in that regard.”

At the middle of the WNBA season, Delle Donne leads the league in free throw percentage and is ranked fourth in points per game, averaging more than 18 per game. On the defensive side, she’s also ranked fourth for blocked shots per game.

Representing UD

The Washington game was the first chance Delle Donne’s coach at Delaware, Tina Martin, had to see her play in the pros in person. “She’s holding up well: looks like she’s well-rested, she’s been eating well.  And we text occasionally, so she’s doing well that way,” Martin said.  

Martin happened to be in Washington that day to recruit future Blue Hens, a recruiting effort that gets a big assist from having had such a successful alum on the pro stage.  “Any exposure that Elena can bring to the university, even now that she’s finished and she’s alumni, would be teriffic. … I see little girls with Elena Delle Donne shirts on, and I think it’s great.”

Delle Donne ended her college career at Delaware after initially heading to the University of Connecticut to play. The distance from her family and a bout of some unhappiness with the game caused her to give up basketball for a time.  But those who know her say that’s not a concern anymore. “She likes Chicago,” Martin said. “So the transition’s been very smooth for her.”

Miller said Delle Donne was ready to move to the next stage. “She loves the area, she loves the fans out there. She’s extremely happy and I think it was just perfect timing for her to move on, and she’s matured.”  Miller said she’s planning a trip to Chicago this month to catch up with her former teammate.

Off the court 

Delle Donne’s been recognized for her work off the court, too. “She loves to give back to the community,” said fan Debbie Bones, who thought it was an interesting coincidence that the Sky were in Washington on the Mystics’ day camp day. “This is sort of her thing. She loves kids and she loves the hometown crowd, too.”  

Delle Donne’s been blogging for WNBA.com and has been featured in a series of videos highlighting her transition into the league. Recently, the series focused on her deep family roots and how important her older sister Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and suffers from cerebral palsy and autism, is in her life. “There’s more to me than the basketball player and I want to help give back and do something for the special needs community,” Delle Donne said in the video. “Raise awareness, raise money. Be that voice for my sister.”

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