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Delle Donne and Stewart

USA Women's National Team Rookies Expected To Make An Impact

  • Author:
    Rich Elliott
  • Date:
    Jul 28, 2016

Elena Delle Donne (Chicago Sky) glides along the perimeter with grace. She makes 3-pointers from numerous spots on the floor with ease. She slides off of screens and drops pull-up jump shots. She drives to the basket. She scores off a move in the lane. 

These all are parts of a repertoire that makes Delle Donne, a versatile 6-foot-5 wing, one of the top players in the world. What is most important about witnessing Delle Donne currently perform at such a high level, however, is that she is healthy.

There was a time when Delle Donne was unsure how far her career would progress. Stricken with Lyme Disease, simply getting out of bed was a chore. Now, though, she is a member of the USA Basketball Women's National Team preparing to compete in her first Olympic Games in Rio next week. 

“I didn’t even know at one point if I was going to be able to graduate college,” Delle Donne said. “I was that sick and unable to even get to class. So, to think that I’m able to make this Olympic Team and experience this journey has been a dream come true.”

Delle Donne has been coping with Lyme Disease since 2008. Her battle has included fatigue, flu-like symptoms and aching muscles. It robbed her of half of the WNBA season with the Chicago Sky in 2014, but it has not robbed her of reaching what she described as the pinnacle of her career by becoming an Olympian. 

Along with Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury) and Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm), Delle Donne is one of three rookies on the USA National Team. Through the first two exhibition games this week, Delle Donne is third on the team in scoring (10.5 ppg.; 9-of-15 FGs).

Off the court, Delle Donne said she meets with doctors weekly and that Lyme Disease remains something she must cope with daily. 

“It just shows me not to take anything for granted,” Delle Donne said. “That’s why I try to embrace every moment I have, because I never know with the disease if I’ll have a relapse tomorrow. So, I’m just really honored to be here and excited that I’m in good health, too.”

Despite being part of a team that features nine players that won a gold medal in London in 2012, Delle Donne, the reigning WNBA Most Valuable Player, Griner and Stewart are expected to make an impact for the U.S. as it pursues a sixth straight Olympic gold medal. 

Griner and Stewart gained experience as members of the World Championship team that won the gold medal in 2014.

“This is Elena’s first real international competition, so this is a completely different experience for her,” U.S. National Team coach Geno Auriemma said. “Brittney and Stewie played in the FIBA World Championship in Istanbul, and Stewie is significantly better than she was back then. Significantly better, and she doesn’t feel like a rookie.

“And Brittney … Brittney’s Brittney. She has certain qualities that no one else on the team has, and it’s up to us to get her using all those things that she has. All three of them add a lot, obviously. They add a lot, and they’re all different. They all give us something different, which is really good. So we’ve got a lot of flexibility with those three.”

While their talent is undeniable, Delle Donne, Griner and Stewart naturally are experiencing some growing pains. Playing at this level is unlike anything they have encountered in their careers to date.

Getting acclimated to playing for the U.S. is a day-to-day process. For example, Griner (4-of-4 FGs) and Stewart (3-of-4 FGs) each had eight points against the USA Select Team on Monday. Stewart (1-of-4 FGs) had three points, and Griner had two against France Wednesday. 

“We’ve got a group of players that have done this a lot of times in their lives,” Auriemma said. “We’ve got Elena, and Stewie and Brittney who have not. So, this is a whole other level for them. Whatever they’ve experienced in college or on their WNBA team, there’s WNBA basketball and then there’s Olympic basketball, and that’s two separate things. And they’re starting to find that out, and they’re starting to pick it up a little bit at a time.”

Delle Donne, Griner and Stewart have had the support of their veteran teammates during this growing process. Griner said that Phoenix Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi has had an impact on easing her transition. So, too, has Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever). Stewart said she has been helped by Seattle Storm teammate Sue Bird

Like Delle Donne, Griner and Stewart are fighters. All three of them are going to do what is necessary to be ready when Auriemma calls on them in Rio.

“They wouldn’t have picked me if I wasn’t ready,” Griner said. “I feel like whatever I do, I just need to try to make a difference each time I’m on the court, and mainly my focus is on the defensive end – blocking shots, altering shots, being a presence there, keeping someone from driving when they would probably drive. If they see me they probably won’t, or they’ll miss it if I’m going at them. So, that’s kind of my focus, and then I’m not really worried about offense. Offense comes. It’ll come to you. You see our team … Everybody on this team can score. Defense wins games.”

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