Mystics' Elena Delle Donne practicing for first time since 2019 championship, back surgeries

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For the first time since before the Washington Mystics won the 2019 WNBA Finals, two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne is back at team practices. 

Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said Monday Delle Donne is practicing five-on-five, a major development after two back surgeries kept the six-time All-Star off the court for two years. There is no date for her return and she'll be an end-of-week decision, Thibault said. 

The Mystics will start the second half of the season on the road with an initial stop in Las Vegas to play the Aces on Sunday. 

Delle Donne trying to see if she can handle the load

Elena Delle Donne
Elena Delle Donne is practicing with the Mystics again, her first reps since 2019. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Delle Donne called it a "tough process" to come back, but "mentally incredible" to be back with teammates again. 

"Truly, it is still day-by-day,” Delle Donne told reporters. “Am I doing more and more each day? Yes. Some days, am I doing the same thing I did the day before to see how I can handle this type of load? Yes.”

When she does return, she said she'll be on a minutes/load restriction as was reported at the beginning of the 2021 season. She wants to be in 5-on-5 consistently for a few days in a row and feel good the following days before she's ready, she said. 

Her last time with the team was winning the 2019 WNBA title, which she did with herniated discs in her back. She underwent surgery in January 2020 and was reportedly on track to play in 2020 until COVID-19 created a bubble scenario. 

Delle Donne was denied a medical exemption, which she applied for because of Lyme disease, and opted out due to the pandemic. She underwent a second back surgery in December of that year and the comeback has been slower than initially anticipated. 

Delle Donne credits Russell Westbrook as part of return

Delle Donne, who turns 32 next month, credited her family — including her wife, her mom who has undergone back surgery, and her dogs — for their support over the past two years. Part of that support team was Russell Westbrook, who spent the 2020-21 NBA season with the Washington Wizards. 

"There were days where Russ would come in — way too early on a gameday even — and he would come in and rebound for me as I'm barefoot and shooting 2-footers close to the rim," Delle Donne said. "Days I just didn't want to have it or [was] upset and just wanted to be in my feelings, there were moments like that where he would show up and just bring me out of the funk and be like, 'I got this. I can keep doing it.'"

She said there were days her goal was just to be able to go to dinner with her wife, Amanda, and not feel pain after sitting for 10 minutes. Basketball was secondary and she said there were times she was very concerned she would never make it back to the court. 

"[Westbrook] believes in me. These people believe in me. My teammates believe in me. I can do this," she said. "So there were some days, yeah, I wasn't believing in myself but others helped me through it. It was quite a trip but I've met some amazing people around this place who have helped me a lot."  

It will be the first time Delle Donne plays with many of her teammates as there's been turnover since that 2019 title-winning team. The Mystics traded for Tina Charles, who is dominating the paint this year, ahead of the 2020 WNBA draft. And the Mystics could add Emma Meesseman soon. The 2019 Finals MVP was away with her Belgian national team ahead of the Olympics. 

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