The unicorns, together again? — Mike Thibault talks Elena Delle Donne’s recovery — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, August 11, 2021
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Tonight’s Basketball Wednesday is coming to you a bit later than usual. My longtime laptop, with me since 2013, has left this earthly plane. To be fair, it was a great computer, one that dates back to covering Kara Lawson during her playing days, Madison Square Garden as a WNBA home and a young collegian named Breanna Stewart. So it lasted a long time. Godspeed, laptop.
But what’s been on my mind this week is another tall, guard/forward capable of doing everything on the basketball court. Elena Delle Donne sounded as optimistic as I’ve heard her in the past two years when she spoke with us in the media on Monday.
““I’m thrilled with where I’m at,” she said. “There’s more to go. But I am excited and confident in where I am.”
Delle Donne faces staggering odds to return to the court. A pair of back surgeries, a spinal stenosis diagnosis — it is about living life comfortably for Elena at this point. She’s proven everything there is to prove on a basketball court.
But for a fan of the game, there’s been a missing opportunity to see what I think all of us expected would be the defining rivalry of this age: Stewart and Delle Donne, building on the inside-outside games of people like Candace Parker and Lauren Jackson, taking it to another level.
We’ve sort of gotten that over the past few years. Here, take a look: since 2016, Stewart and Delle Donne are third and fourth, respectively, in win shares. But they’ve done it in the fewest games of anyone in the top 12, with the exception of Maya Moore (miss you, Maya).
Still, there’s been precious little overlap. Stewart missed the 2019 season with her Achilles tear. Delle Donne missed 2020 due to back injuries and health concerns over playing in the Wubble. And she’s been out for all of 2021, too, making nearly three years without that iconic rivalry. Throw in Delle Donne’s injuries limiting her in the 2018 Finals, which felt like a dress rehearsal at the time and now looms as the closest we might ever get to seeing the two battle with the stakes highest.
Now, as is the case anytime someone in the W is unexpectedly absent, the league will be more than fine. Jonquel Jones has inserted herself fully into the conversation of game’s greatest player, something she’d hinted at for small periods but has been fully realized greatness here in 2021. A’ja Wilson, last season’s MVP, is asserting her dominance at every turn, the Olympics merely the latest example.
But the thing that has always struck me about Delle Donne and Stewart is how uniquely built they are to be central to a WNBA team in this modern, positionless era. What comes after them may exceed them — that is the nature of sports — but it is hard to imagine it, and certainly they will loom as vital building blocks in discovering what new ways a player can build herself into an unstoppable force.
So yes, if there weren’t a Breanna Stewart, I’d still be eager to see Elena Delle Donne back in uniform. The game is better with her. But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I have my eye on August 22, Storm-Mystics. It’s the game we all deserve.
This week in women’s basketball
Katie Lou Samuelson deserves better injury luck. Period.
Japan’s women’s basketball story is a deeply compelling one.
My latest at FiveThirtyEight, on where the WNBA awards stand as the season is set to resume.
Gabe Ibrahim takes a guess at the 2024 USA Basketball roster.
Loved this from Jackie Powell, of course, on A’ja Wilson.
Love this kind of thing, the background quotes in Rachel Galligan’s latest.
Hailey Van Lith is going to cash in on being Hailey Van Lith, and rightly so.
Five at The IX: Mike Thibault
Here’s what Mike had to say on the occasion of Elena Delle Donne’s return to practice.