Photo by Ben Standig for The Sports Capitol

Delle Donne's scoring, toliver's smarts carry mystics

BY BEN STANDIG | JULY 13, 2018

CAPITAL ONE ARENA — It’s rare Elena Delle Donne comes up short on the basketball court. It happened Friday night. The Mystics won regardless. Delle Donne’s record-breaking moment will come soon enough.

The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week scored 25 points in Washington’s 88-72 win over the Chicago Sky. The thing is Delle Donne needed 29 to reach 3,000 points for her career faster than any player in WNBA history. Shucks.

Don’t fret. Four points in her next game, career number 147, will erase Seimone Augustus’s name from this specific record. For now, Delle Donne was simply happy the Mystics changed their mojo after back-to-back losses including Wednesday’s 106-89 home setback against Atlanta. Washington also begins a five-game road stretch Sunday at Atlanta.

“It kind of reset us. Got us back to playing the way we can,” Delle Donne said after Washington improved to 3-0 against her former team. “We were really upset about that game against Atlanta. We needed to clean it up tonight to get us ready to go on the road.”

Delle Donne, also named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for June, missed four games earlier in the season due to illness. She’s made opponents miserable ever since. Friday marked the eighth time in 12 games she scored at least 20 points. The 6-foot-5 All-Star scored half of Washington’s points during a 12-2 fourth quarter run that put Washington up 81-64 after Chicago cut into a 22-point lead.

“She’s been playing like this for about a month now ever since she got herself healthy. Got some rest,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “Every night she’s rolling out there with 20-something (points). That’s a nice thing for a coach to have in their back pocket.”

Scoring bursts and standout seasons are nothing for the perennial All-Star and 2015 WNBA Most Valuable Player. However, Delle Donne’s comfort level on both ends of the court is up in her second season with Washington following a move back to her natural power forward position. She played the 3-spot last season with Emma Meesseman, who remained overseas this campaign, at the four.

“It’s a position I’ve been playing my whole life so there is just so much more comfort being in that role,” Delle Donne, who is second in the league with 20.5 points per game. “Even on defense I’m way more comfortable being the four. I’m 6’5” so to always be out on the wing and defending guards trying to get through ball screens and all that, yeah, my head was spinning a little bit last season. I feel a lot more comfortable this season.”

Thibault concurs, though he’s not abandoning some aspects of that look.

“I think it helps her with matchups. Sometimes there was an advantage when she was a three last year because she could post-up smaller people,” he said. “We’re trying to get people to switch on to her to get those same (mismatches), which they did a couple of times.”

***

Teams have some sense of what specific rookies offer based on pre-draft scouting, but it can take a few games  to build a detailed scouting report. The Sky entered Friday’s game against the Mystics having already faced Ariel Atkins twice. Whatever the scouting report they arrived with, they need to start over after the first-year forward burned them over and over.

Atkins matched Delle Donne with a game-high 25 points, topping her previous best of 21 at Phoenix on May 30. She buried 4-of-7 three-point attempts. She used her athleticism for attacking drives. Atkins had 10 points and made all three of her shot attempts in the fourth quarter.

“You can’t defend someone who is that athletic and has that pure of a shot unless you try to trap her,” Delle Donne said of the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft. “She’s great for the 3-ball and gets to the rim and finishes really well. That’s unguardable.”

Atkins is third in scoring (11.6) behind Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver while leading Washington’s starters with a 38 percent clip on 3-pointers. The primary lessons learned after 14 starts and 19 games – she missed two upon entering the league’s concussion protocol program – involve her cerebral side.

“Probably mentally, not overwhelming myself with everything that’s going on with the scouting of teams. Knowing the most important points and putting that into play has really helped,” Atkins said.

As for how Atkins confounded Chicago’s game plan in the third head-to-head meeting, Thibault seemed as stumped as opposing defenders. “This is the third time they’ve seen [her] so, I don’t know,” he said before offering a brief chuckle. “You’ll have to ask them.”

***

Toliver scored 13 points in her second game back after a one-game coaching stint with the Washington Wizards in Las Vegas for the NBA Summer League. She cranked in consecutive 3-pointers midway through the second half to help slow Chicago’s first rally attempts.

In Las Vegas, Toliver revealed she worked with the Wizards for several weeks leading into Summer League and that she hoped to pursue a coaching career. The feeling is the NCAA and WNBA champion would have a role with the Wizards’ G-League franchise this fall. The sense from Delle Donne is this plan makes complete sense.

“She comes in here early every single morning working with the Wizards and then gets ready for our practice. She brings energy, works super hard, even stays after to get shots up. She’s working super hard and I’m very impressed with her,” Delle Donne said. “There’s no shock at all. She’s going to be an amazing coach. Her IQ is beyond what I’ve seen.”

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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