Elena Delle Donne needed to take only a few steps at Verizon Center on Friday morning to validate her decision to join the Washington Mystics.
“Just right from the start, what a first-class organization this is here,” she said during an introductory news conference later that night. “I got here, got off the elevator, and there was a tunnel of millions of people it felt like saying, ‘Good morning. Wake up.’
“Just right from the start so welcoming. It just truly feels like a family here.”
The rest of Delle Donne’s day included spending time with Mike Thibault, the team’s coach and general manager who orchestrated the deal that brought the 2015 WNBA MVP to the District, as well as teammate Tayler Hill, re-signed earlier this week as part of an extremely active free-agency period for the Mystics.
Delle Donne and Hill were both lottery picks in the 2013 draft, going No. 2 and No. 4 respectively. Delle Donne spent the first four years of her career with the Chicago Sky before leaving as a restricted free agent in a trade for the No. 2 overall pick this year, all-star center Stefanie Dolson, and second-year guard Kahleah Copper.
The Mystics also added all-star point guard Krisit Toliver on Tuesday, arming the team with three of the top four three-point shooters in the WNBA last season.
“Who’s going to guard us? That’s one of my questions,” Hill said before striking a more serious tone. “We’re going to play well. Elena and Kristi are bringing so much experience to this team, a championship-level experience to this team.”
Delle Donne played for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in Brazil. Bringing a championship to the nation’s capital, she said, is her top priority for a franchise that has not advanced out of the first round of the playoffs since 2002.
Washington had made the playoffs in each of the first three years under Thibault, who took over in 2013, but that streak ended last season amid a rash of injuries on the way to a 13-21 record. The Mystics also endured a seven-game skid, the longest of Thibault’s distinguished career as the winningest coach in WNBA history.
“I feel like they just have so many great pieces, and it’s really coming together,” Delle Donne said. “Coach has the vision. It’s just all about putting it together now. Teams all have to go through growing pains. Coach and Tayler only got here four years ago. You don’t just show up and win right away. You have to go through those growing pains.
“I hope we don’t have to go through too many growing pains. We’d like to get championship as soon as possible.”
That proclamation drew applause from Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the Washington Mystics, who’s had a pretty good month with his Verizon Center tenants. Both the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals went unbeaten at home in January.
Part of Delle Donne’s first day with the Mystics included meeting John Wall as well as dining with Leonsis in the owner’s box and watching the Wizards play the Indiana Pacers. Introduced over the public address system in the second quarter, Delle Donne received a rousing ovation and acknowledged the welcome with a wave.
“What I want to make sure is we do the right job in the way we onboard her,” Leonsis said. “What I’ve learned is sometimes you bring in a superstar player, and you don’t get the chemistry right. You don’t get the onboard right. What I’ve been most impressed with her is how much she respects Mike, and Mike has just a great feel on how to integrate the team, accentuate her skills.”
Thibault has discussed playing Delle Donne at multiple positions, even admitting he’s awaked in the middle of the night with new offensive ideas. At 6 feet 5, Delle Donne is as comfortable handling the ball as she is backing down a defender on the low block or shooting a three-pointer.
Pairing her with 6-4 all-star forward Emma Meesseman creates a potential matchup nightmare for opponents. Meesseman led the WNBA in three-point field goal shooting percentage last season. Delle Donne was third, drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant for her length and efficiency from beyond the arc.
“Yeah, I’ve seen her play. There’s definitely some similarities there,” said Wizards Coach Scott Brooks, who coached Durant when both were with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “Great shooters, great feel for the game, great footwork. That’s the thing KD has is great footwork, and she does also, and she’s a lot like also Dirk” Nowitzki.
“It’s great to have her. I talked to her for a few minutes today. She’s excited to be here. It’s going to be fun to watch games. It’s going to be exciting times. It’s good for basketball. I love watching her play.”