Traditionally, being the second overall pick in any sporting draft tends to be a one-way ticket towards a career spent in infamy and unfulfilled expectation. Having graduated from the University of Delaware (the alma mater of Super Bowl champion Joe Flacco), the 6’5” Elena Delle Donne shattered those negative perceptions to become the unanimous selection as the 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year.
Selected second overall by the Chicago Sky, Delle Donne had some big shoes to fill. Considering Baylor’s Brittney Griner was nearly selected in the NBA Draft, she was the consensus choice to go first overall to the Phoenix Mercury. Delle Donne found herself sandwiched in between Griner and the highly touted Skylar Diggins, who went third to the Tulsa Shock.
While it was a remarkable draft class, Delle Donne would undergo a baptism of fire in her WNBA debut. Competing against Griner and the Phoenix Mercury in the May 27 season opener, Delle Donne would thrive under such pressure. Accumulating a respectable 22 points complemented by eight rebounds and four blocks, the Sky would prevail in a 102-80 victory.
Such a solid debut would pale in comparison to the fact that Delle Donne became the first rookie to lead all players in votes for the All-Star Game. Sadly, she missed the event due to concussion woes. Upon her return, she would continue to help the Sky reach new levels of success. Truly proving that the sky is not the limit, Delle Donne not only helped the club earn a berth in the postseason, but its first division title as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Statistically, she would lead all WNBA rookies in points, free throw percentage, three-point percentage and minutes. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that she was recognized as the WNBA Rookie of the Month during every month of the season, an unprecedented accomplishment. This was complemented by averages of double digit scoring in every month. Of note, her .929 free throw percentage would also rank first among all competitors in the WNBA.
Her greatest accomplishment may have come in an August 11 contest against the eventual WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. A career-best 32 point output would contribute to a 94-86 overtime triumph, one of the most relevant in franchise history. Of note, she would force overtime in that contest by hitting a three pointer with 4.5 seconds left in regulation. A September 11 match against the Mercury resulted in a buzzer beater from Delle Donne that provided the Sky with a pulse pounding 70-68 triumph.
Despite the postseason disappointment, Delle Donne is the feel good story of the basketball season. Devoted to her family and dedicated in the classroom, she is the true embodiment of a student-athlete.
With an older sister that suffers from blindness and cerebral palsy, she abandoned her scholarship with the University of Connecticut in the summer of 2008 in order to stay close to her and family. Her personal break resulted in a sabbatical from the hardcourt that saw her enroll at Delaware and became a walk-on with the volleyball team, leading them to the NCAA tournament.
Returning to basketball in 2009 as a red shirt freshman at Delaware, she would endure struggles with Lyme Disease as a sophomore. Despite such setbacks, a gold medal at the World University Games in 2011 solidified her status as an elite competitor. Her senior season in 2012-13 resulted in many great milestones. From the highest attendance in Delaware history to a 27-3 regular season record, Delle Donne was recognized as the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, the Capital One Academic All-America of the Year winner and the 2013 Senior CLASS Award winner.
After an outstanding senior season filled with many awards and honors as a member of the Delaware Blue Hens, being the unanimous choice as WNBA Rookie of the Year bookends the two periods in her career. Having displayed a remarkable tenacity, maturity and character in her young life, Delle Donne is more than just a winner in basketball, but a winner in life.