Two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne is back practicing with the Washington Mystics. And while she is not sure exactly when she will return to game action, she does see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Delle Donne has not played in the league since leading the Mystics to the WNBA championship in October 2019, having had two back surgeries.
"It's been mentally incredible just to be back with my teammates and competing again," Delle Donne said in a videoconference Monday. "It has been quite a long road. And I don't think you realize how much you miss it until you're actually back in it. And then it's like, 'My goodness!' It's just been so refreshing.'
"It's been a long time since I've been on court, and I'm not able to get as many reps as I'd love to. But I know I can't beat myself up. But I know when I can be back, I can impact this team in a positive way."
The WNBA is soon to return after a monthlong break for the All-Star Game and the Olympics. The inaugural Commissioner's Cup is Thursday between Connecticut and Seattle, and all 12 teams are back in action Sunday.
Delle Donne, a 6-foot-5 forward/guard, played in the 2019 WNBA Finals with three bulging disks in her back. After surgery following that season, she didn't play in the WNBA's bubble in Bradenton, Florida, last summer. She then had another surgical procedure.
Delle Donne, who turns 32 in September, acknowledged she has had "many moments of being very concerned" that she might not be able to play again.
"I've had injuries before, but this has been something where there's a lot of gray," she said. "As many times as I want that black-and-white answer, it hasn't been that way. There's been a lot of confusion. But I've had incredible people around me to help me on those tough days. And I realize we are so lucky when we get to play this game that we love, and to enjoy every second of it."
Although Delle Donne doesn't have a precise timetable to return to action, she feels more confident now that she will be back long term.
"I want to play for as long as I can," she said. "I have, hopefully, a long career ahead of me. Yes, this has been super-tough. But I'm not, like, trying to just say, 'This is my last season.' That's not it at all. I'm preparing for my many, many years to come."
Because of that, Delle Donne still doesn't want to rush anything. She said she will gauge her readiness to return to games based on how she feels in recovery after practicing. At times, she has wanted to push things further, but her support staff -- which has included personnel from the Mystics and the NBA's Wizards -- has monitored that.
"We need to take it practice by practice, day by day still," Delle Donne said. "I don't have a date I can tell you, 'Yes, I will be playing on this day.' I am doing more and more each day.
"I need to see that I am in 5-on-5 situations consistently for a few days in a row. To see that I'm not having too many symptoms after consistently building up. [After] taking that pounding, see how I respond and feel."
The Mystics are 8-10 entering the second part of the season, and Delle Donne's absence isn't the only one they have been dealing with. They are hoping injured forwards Myisha Hines-Allen and Erica McCall will return soon, too. The Mystics are also awaiting the possible availability of forward Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP who has been with the Belgian national team preparing for and playing in the Olympics. Washington is hoping she might join the team soon but isn't certain.
The Mystics have relied heavily on center Tina Charles, who just won a gold medal with Team USA and leads the WNBA in scoring (26.3 PPG), but could use more help.
As for Delle Donne, coach Mike Thibault is optimistic but also is staying patient. He said there are moments in practice, though, when everyone sees what they have been missing with Delle Donne out.
"You get reminded quickly of the things that she can do," Thibault said. "And that's a good sign, that she can do a lot of those things. But I have learned over the last two years to not get ahead of myself. [We] can be one of the best teams, if we have everybody healthy."