Commentary

Elena shines in and out of spotlight

We rarely see Delle Donne play, but her story and game are as good as it gets

Originally Published: March 4, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

Elena Delle DonneAP Photo/The Daily News-Record/Michael ReillyOn Wednesday -- or as she has just about any other night this season -- Elena Delle Donne put on a show.

Most of the country didn't experience Elena Delle Donne's final regular-season home game.

There wasn't a national television audience for the Colonial Athletic Association game between Delaware and Georgia State as there was when Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame played Connecticut on Monday night.

What transpired wasn't likely to become part of any national conversation, as it did when Baylor's Brittney Griner went for 50 points in her regular-season home finale the same night as the triple-overtime thriller in South Bend.

Basketball operates on a smaller scale in the second-smallest state.

To watch the third member of this season's triumvirate of senior superstars score 24 points in an 86-58 win, you either had to be among the fans in the sold-out Bob Carpenter Center or watch the stream on the University of Delaware site, well done by the standards of these things (and free) but with a solitary and somewhat distant camera and score graphics that looked right out of a 1970s NBA broadcast.

Elizabeth "Lizzie" Delle Donne experienced the evening, though, with her arms outstretched to maintain contact with her mother's shoulders as the two of them and Elena's father and brother accompanied the family's youngest child onto the court during the ceremonies honoring Delaware's seven seniors before the game. That was the trade Elena was willing to make nearly five years ago for a sister who cannot see or hear and knows only touch and smell, perhaps the one trade she had to make to end up on the court at all Wednesday night.

There is also a side of Delle Donne that makes her every bit as charming a character as [Brittney] Griner, with her confetti angels, or [Skylar] Diggins, with her star persona. Delle Donne doesn't let it slip often in interviews, perhaps because she always waits for the inevitable questions about Connecticut or to explain what is difficult to explain to strangers when it comes to Lizzie. But there is a genuine college-kid goofiness to her, too.

Her peace of mind for a piece of the spotlight.

To step around the fourth wall for a minute, there are times when I feel like I write too much about Delle Donne (and plenty of times when others suggest as much, playfully and otherwise). But then there are also times I run into people around the country, some casual fans of women's basketball and others who are passionate about the sport who haven't seen her play or caught just a few minutes of Delaware during last season's NCAA tournament.

In this age of total sports saturation, for all its flaws and benefits, it's strange to think there is a player doing the things she's doing whom most people know mostly through words -- whether written on a page or spoken in an OTL feature. We're not so many years removed from a time when the same would have been true of Diggins and Griner. Thankfully, we no longer have to wait until March and April, if even then, to see them and their major conference ilk. Still, it's frustrating that more people don't get to see Delle Donne -- not just for her sake, as nobody is shortchanging her on awards or accolades. But for us.

She really is that fun to watch when she has the ball in her hands.

Take everything you've read about Delle Donne's personal story off the table. Forget about that scene described above, the sight of her giving Lizzie a quick squeeze, a touch that conveyed something completely different than every other hug exchanged by the dozens of people on the court before Wednesday's game. Put all of that aside and Delle Donne is still one of the best stories in college basketball. Her offensive game alone is something to marvel at.

She missed her first two shots Wednesday, then scored seven points in the span of two minutes as only she can.

The first basket came after she posted up, back to the basket, on one of the blocks. Entry pass received, she leaned back to feel the defender's position, spun and hit a short fadeaway jumper from the baseline, a shot that at her size, even Griner would have difficulty stopping. On the next trip down the court, Delle Donne stopped outside the 3-point line, waited for a kick out pass from Lauren Carra and hit a 3-pointer in rhythm. One more time down the court and Delle Donne found herself handling the ball at the top of the key. She drove to her right, passed to Kayla Miller on the wing and got the ball back in time to stop and hit a pull-up midrange jumper.

[+] EnlargeElena Delle Donne
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonElena Delle Donne and Delaware are 27-3 and riding a school-record 22-game winning streak.

Posting up, spotting up or off the dribble, she is as complete an offensive player as the college game has seen. She led Georgia State 17-16 late in the first half. Yes, it's Georgia State. But she scored 24 points in just 17 minutes.

"For our game, she's changing it," St. Bonaventure coach Jim Crowley said last season. "I just think the way she can do so many things, and it appears so effortless -- obviously, she's put an incredible amount of time into her game and getting better, but she elevates over people, she moves without the ball, she does all that stuff within a 6-foot-5 really athletic skill set.

"I think that's the progression. It's not a kid doing all those things who is 5-foot-8. It's a kid doing all those things at 6-foot-5."

There is also a side of Delle Donne that makes her every bit as charming a character as Griner, with her confetti angels, or Diggins, with her star persona. Delle Donne doesn't let it slip often in interviews, perhaps because she always waits for the inevitable questions about Connecticut or to explain what is difficult to explain to strangers when it comes to Lizzie. But there is a genuine college-kid goofiness to her, too, whether dressing up as a 6-foot-5 Gumby for Halloween (and sneaking into a friend's room in costume in the middle of the night to scare the daylights out of her) or doing whatever the heck it is she and Meghan McLean do at about the 3:50 mark of this video.

"She's not a quiet kid; she is silly," former teammate Vanessa Kabongo said. "She's definitely a silly person off the floor; I can say that."

We don't see that side of her very much because we don't see her very much. And as good a story as she has to tell, the way she plays the game is a story of its own. A good story.

People in Delaware know. It's why a place that used to draw hundreds has been sold out for much of the past month. They know there are only so many more chances to see something they aren't likely to see again for a long time.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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