The 2022 WNBA Playoffs started off with a bang on Thursday night, as the seventh seeded New York Liberty upset the reigning champion Chicago Sky in the first game of their series. With a new format implemented this season — best-of-3 in the first round and best-of-5 after that — there’s a tighter blend of game-to-game strategy and shot variance. Elimination games allowed for absurd outside shooting heaters to ratchet up the chance of an upset, and while small sample size still plays a part, there’s more of a balance in a straightforward, 8-team playoff.
On the surface, the fifth seeded Washington Mystics seem like a solid but overall average playoff team after finishing the year at 22-14. I feel that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
It’s part of my job to soak everything in, decipher what’s going on, and make accurate predictions of where the WNBA is headed. I have no idea how to view the playoffs, who to choose as an eventual champion, or a real faith in how it will play out. I do, however, feel pretty strongly about this: The Mystics have a real opportunity to make a run, largely due to the play of Elena Delle Donne.
It sounds crazy to say this about a former MVP and one of the most accomplished athletes in the sport, but generally, I feel Delle Donne’s season has gone under-appreciated. Yes, that’s a very subjective statement, but let’s put this into perspective: Delle Donne had played a grand total of three games since the 2019 Finals heading into this year. She missed the entire 2020 season, while her 2021 campaign was hampered by injuries.
To say I was unsure how to view Delle Donne as a player at the start of 2022 was an understatement. How would her movement look? How much would she be able to play? What would her process be like in handling back-to-backs?
Delle Donne responded by putting together what I’d consider an All-WNBA worthy season — I officially put her on my second-team All-W ballot. She averaged 17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.6 combined steals and blocks across 25 games. She didn’t play back-to-backs prior to the All-Star break and missed a few games due to injury, but in all, Delle Donne appeared in 25 of the team’s 36 regular season contests.
While their first-round opponent, the Seattle Storm, have played inspired of late and found a groove, I just have a feeling about Washington and their potential to make a deep run, largely due to Delle Donne’s prowess. The Mystics are an elite defensive unit, and while they have offensive talent, they tend to lack rim pressure, the staple of creating easier offense. In a playoff setting with multiple shot creators and specifically Delle Donne, I’d argue their team is better built for success.
Delle Donne’s shot chart may as well be colored in green, because there isn’t really a spot where a defense can feel comfortable leaving her open. Pick-and-pop jumpers, even from well beyond the arc, are cash.
Sell out too hard to close on her jumper and she’ll take her defender off the dribble swiftly or make an immediate read to hit the open player. Her ability to react quickly in spite of not being overly fleet of foot makes her one of the hardest guards in the league. She sees things play out and is making a play before the opposition has even responded more often than not.
Show a hard close and present a driving lane, and Delle Donne will take it. She may not beat you to the rim, but she’s incredibly adept at mixing and matching post-ups into her drives before turning a quick post into a shimmy and then another drive off a face-up. She constantly makes minor shifts and adjustments that can send the defense into a frenzy.
Her technical ability, footwork, fluidity, and scoring craft at 6’5 is breathtaking. Even if a defender makes all the right reads in time to keep up with how quickly Delle Donne processes the court and moves the ball, it still may not be enough. She’s incredibly good at using her size to get to the line and attack off-kilter defenders, seeking contact when a direct opening isn’t available. Or, she’ll just hit a crazy one-legged runner fading through contact, because she’s Elena Delle Donne.
While 2.3 assists per game seems small in stature — and relatively, it is — dive into the actual passing touch and vision from Delle Donne and you find that doesn’t tell the whole story. She’s not going to generate paint touches at a high level outside of post-ups or hit a wealth of live-dribble passes, although she has some wonderful short-roll playmaking in her bag. Delle Donne eviscerates defensive help and presents the great quandary: Do you try and defend her one-on-one in the post where she averages 1.22 points per possession, or do you send help to force the ball out of her hands?
I don’t think there’s a player in the league better at feeling out and mapping oncoming help. With high level cutters across the Mystics’ roster, Delle Donne taps into her playmaking as doubles come. There isn’t an “answer” for Delle Donne, as the Storm will likely employ numerous coverages and individual defenders to try and get the ball out of her hands. But that’s what makes Delle Donne so lethal — even without the ball, she can impact defenses greatly.
She’s maybe the best outlet player in the league. Her screening is dynamic and she’s a high-quality hand-off partner. Her rim dives drag interior defenders, and she can’t be sagged off of when spaced. She’s a sublime running mate alongside Washington’s starting backcourt of Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud.
She more than holds her own defensively, having impressed me routinely with her ability to play in space and serving as a fantastic secondary rim protector from the weak-side. Teams have tried time and again to pinpoint Delle Donne as a weak spot in the league’s best defense, and it doesn’t work.
The impending match-up with the Storm in round one seems a tall task. It almost feels unfair that two teams so capable of winning a title are paired up before a later date. That’s what makes this series the most intriguing in the opening week for me. The stakes are high. A multitude of great players are involved. There are phenomenal basketball minds and coaching staffs on either sideline. This is going to be appointment television.
Regardless of how far the Mystics go in this postseason, Delle Donne’s incredible season pushed them to be here, she’s made waves with her postseason play before, and it’s difficult to bet against her doing it again.