Delle Donne in national spotlight

Posted: May 24, 2013

EVERYONE KNOWS the name Elena Delle Donne. She first gained prominence during her All-America prep career at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, where she got the catchy moniker, "The LeBron James of women's basketball."

Most people know Delle Donne's story - of how she backed out of her commitment to the University of Connecticut after a weekend on campus and returned home to the University of Delaware, first playing volleyball and eventually basketball for the Blue Hens, becoming a four-time All-America.

But unless they live in the Mid-Atlantic region or are just hardcore women's basketball junkies, most people never actually have seen Delle Donne play live or on television.

Had she stayed at perennial power UConn, Delle Donne would have had 4 years of national-television exposure. But playing at Delaware in the Colonial Athletic Association, the only time she got any national showing was when the Blue Hens made the 2012 and 2013 NCAA Tournaments and played a total of five games.

Again, those in the women's basketball loop fully understand the multidimensional skill set that led to Delle Donne becoming the second overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft. But it's literally going to be her national introduction on Monday when she makes her pro debut as her Chicago Sky play the Phoenix Mercury on ESPN2 (5 p.m.).

It will be the much-anticipated first encounter between Delle Donne and Phoenix center Brittany Griner, the 2013 No. 1 overall pick out of Baylor University.

"I guess really only Delaware people and those who watched the NCAAs have seen me," said Delle Donne, who had 17 points in the Sky's only preseason game. "But my job is to do whatever it takes to help the team win. I really don't feel I have anything to prove to anyone. I just don't think that way."

Delle Donne opening against Griner is not a coincidence. They, along with former Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins, selected third overall by the Tulsa Shock, are part of the WNBA's "3 to See" campaign highlighting arguably the best rookie class in the league's 17 seasons.

Tulsa also plays on ESPN2 on Monday (3 p.m.) against the Washington Mystics and fourth overall pick Tayler Hill out of Ohio State. Knowing the top four teams in the draft order, ESPN had the WNBA schedule openers to basically ensure that Delle Donne, Griner and Diggins would all be in their season-opening televised doubleheader.

"I think it's going to be good for the league that the first game between us is going to be televised," said Delle Donne, who finished as the fifth-leading scorer in Division I history with 3,039 points. "But in the end, it is the Chicago Sky vs. the Phoenix Mercury. It's not going to be Elena Delle Donne vs. Brittney Griner. We probably won't even guard each other."

Surprisingly, that might be as much about the limits of the 6-8 Griner as those of Delle Donne, who at 6-5 has the height to play center but is more of a perimeter-oriented forward. The Mercury is not going to take Griner, who shines as a defensive intimidator in the paint, away from the basket chasing Delle Donne.

"Elena can play multiple positions," said Chicago coach Pokey Chatman, who guided Louisiana State to three straight NCAA Final Fours. "If she struggles with a big, she can pull away from the basket. If she has a smaller player on her, she'll post her up. She always has a way to gain confidence with her offensive prowess.

"What I've seen most from Elena is that her basketball IQ is high. I've thrown so much information at her in a short time, and she's handled it. She has a unique skill set and once she learns how to deal with the physical nature and speed of the pro game, she's going to be special."

With all high draft picks, the transition to the professional game is both physical and mental.

Delle Donne said her Sky teammates have been valuable in helping her adjust to expectations on and off the court.

"You understand coming in that being a high draft pick brings pressure," said Sky forward and three-time WNBA champion Swin Cash, who was picked No. 2 overall out of Connecticut in 2002. "In Elena's case, coming in with a really talented class, eyes will be on you.

"You have to understand and manage what the expectations are. It helps to have a strong support group in family, friends and teammates, which Elena does.''

"One of the things for Elena is that not a lot of people have seen her . . . People are just starting to catch on to her. Elena has the ability to be something very special in the women's game."

For Delle Donne, 23, Monday will be the realization of a dream she thought she might have lost when she left Connecticut. After nonstop years of playing, she had lost her joy for the game.

"I really could not imagine things going any better than now," she said. "I'm so thankful it worked out because I could have missed out on one of the biggest opportunities of my life, and my skills and talent.

"I'm so glad I was able to take a break and then fall back in love with the game. Now I can play at the professional level to the best of my ability and enjoy every moment of it."


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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