Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Guru's WNBA Report: Delle Donne Enjoys First of the Homecomings Leading Chicago Blitz of New York

By Mel Greenberg

NEWARK, N.J. –
Less than an hour remained before the start of Sunday’s WNBA Eastern tilt between the Chicago Sky and host New York Liberty at the Prudential Center when Ernie Delle Donne, the father of rookie sensation Elena Delle Donne greeted the Guru with a big smile on his face.

“Well, here we are – we’re in the WNBA.”

The past five years of her collegiate career had been eventful enough for the former national high school player of the year out of Wilmington’s Ursuline Academy beginning with her decision in 2008 to forego playing with UConn’s national powerhouse, taking a year off to play volleyball at nearby Delaware, and then returning to the sport of her passion and leading the Blue Hens to national respectability and unprecedented program achievements.

“When you think about it, it is remarkable all the attention she is getting now considering how little (national TV) exposure she was able to draw at Delaware,” Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler said Saturday night in Washington over dinner following his team’s narrow loss to the Mystics that made Mike Thibault, his WNBA colleague, the all-time winningest coach in the league at 212.

Ironically, Agler holds the pro record when his years coaching the Columbus Quest in the defunct and short-lived American Basketball League are factored into the statistics.

“When we were there on Wednesday, that place was the liveliest we have ever seen it in terms of a crowd and energy in the arena,” he said.

For all the past speculation that Chicago’s days in the league might be numbers, Delle Donne has become a franchise-savior, though there are other important individuals on the roster to keep the pressure off in former UConn star Swin Cash, former LSU great Sylvia Fowles at center, and former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince, who helps provide multiple scoring options for Sky coach Pokey Chatman.

Ironically, coaches at the mid-major level have a new recruiting pitch considering, though a year later, everything that people forecasted for Delle Donne in the pros soon after her original decision to go to UConn has happened anyway following her run with the Blue Hens in which she set all kinds of scoring records while fighting nagging injuries and illness.

“I guess Delaware is really the …,” a prominent member of the Delle Donne entourage jested Sunday in an aside after she scored 20 points in a 93-64 romp that was one of the best all-time overall wins for the Chicago franchise, which is now 8-4 in its eighth season in the league, and one of the worst home losses for the Liberty (5-7).

“Delaware didn’t do much at all to help prepare her for this,” the person said with a big smile.

In the game Delle Donne even had a rare four-point play and following the March Madness run taking Delaware to the NCAA Sweet 16, draft day that saw her taken, as expected, second overall by Chicago, of the ESPN ongoing “three-to-see” rookie promotional troika of former Baylor star Brittney Griner, taken first by the Phoenix Mercury, and former Notre Dame sensation Skylar Diggins, taken third by the Tulsa Shock, it is Delle Donne who is generating the media gravitational pull.

In some ways, it makes one think of the three “founding players” in 1997 with the focus on the great Lisa Leslie, who would be considered akin to Griner, if they had gone the draft route, UConn’s Rebecca Lobo in New York, and Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes with the Houston Comets, Lobo became the media draw because of her easy-going personality.

But whereas Lobo had to make major adjustments to step up to the pro game and battled injuries at that level, Delle Donne has turned the WNBA into her own personal glass slipper.

Last week she became the first rookie to lead the overall All-Star voting after the initial tally and would be the first to do so in the final balloting after the polls close on July 14.

There was no All-Star game in 2008, Candace Parker’s rookie season with the Los Angeles Sparks, because of the Olympics, though she became the first rookie named most valuable player.

Sunday was a special day because it was the first of several visits to the Atlantic seaboard teams for Delle Donne, who drew a noticeable group of fans from Delaware and some former teammates.

The Delaware coaching staff was off at the start of the recruiting calendar but will be on the scene at stops back here and Washington later this month, while some will also make the trips to the Connecticut Sun, near New London at the Mohegan Sun Arena, which hosts the All-Star game July 27.

Most rookies usually have something to say about the change in levels to the pros but little, if anything, has awed Delle Donne as she explained Sunday.

“It was comforting to look up and see so many familiar faces, so many Blue Hens fans,” Delle Donne said. “It really was an awesome homecoming.

“D.C. (July 24) is going to be interesting because I was shocked at the showing here, so I can’t even imagine what D.C. is going to look like,” she continued.

“It’s pretty humbling,” Delle Donne said of the All-Star numbers, close to 17,000, it’s incredible that already have that many fans watching in the WNBA. Like anything else, you take those accolades and move forward and continue to focus.”

As for the pro game, asked if there were surprises, she responded, “Nothing has really shocked me because of the teammates that surround me here. Swin is always in my ear, giving me tips, helping me out, giving me an extra scout.

“I really have to credit so much to Swin because there’s been no shocks for me and I don’t feel like a rookie because I have her knowledge.”

As for those that kept saying what will it be like being away from home considering her homesickness issues at the outset of her collegiate career, Delle Donne says of Chicago, “Love it. It’s really become home for me. It’s been great so far and I absolutely love being in Chicago. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I love it. And I love this team. Probably the biggest adjustment on this team is figuring out my role and staying aggressive also and finding the open man.

“Defensively, staying in a stance and being able to help defend the guards.”

One thing taking getting used to is actually dealing with less defensive pressure than at Delaware where teams in the Colonial Athletic Association consistently through double and triple teams at her.

“It’s pretty nice playing normal basketball. Sometimes that’s a little shocking where I’ll be open and not wanting to take the shot because someone’s in my face,” she said. “It’s different reads for me and sometimes I’ve been rushing because I’m waiting for the triple teams.

“Pokey says, `Slow down. No one’s coming. You have all the time in the world.’

There’s been ups and downs but I’m very happy as we’re doing as a team. The double and triple teams at Delaware really helped prepare me for here.”

Hard to believe but two seasons ago, there was a Chicago visit here where the Sky scored just one point in the fourth quarter.

“Yeah, you know, I was thinking about that when we got to the end of the third quarter,” Prince said of when her team led 70-46.

Chicago got Fowles back after she missed the loss to Seattle Wednesday from suffering an ankle injury in a previous game.

Chatman gushed of all the things Delle Donne his providing to the offense.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said of different ways to use her new addition. “It’s nice that a rookie player can do something like that. It’s not me. It’s not the players. It’s Elena being able to absorb that and understand that double team is coming.

“Poise and confidence that she has from putting up so many (shots). Always good to see. You have a sense of her (basketball) IQ as you watched her against different teams.

“She’s been relegated to the post the last three years. I bring her in at the highest level and I play her post, perimeter, three, four, two, five, offensively and defensively.

“People are going to recognize how good a passer she is. She’s good at figuring out where the double teams are coming from. You can run the same play. I’m just extremely pleased with the rate of her intelligence at this level,” Chatman said.

“She’s put in time. She didn’t freak out because she only scored 12 last time. That’s for somebody else to do. She watched the tape. She can stay connected to what’s important. `So I missed some shots. I missed some layups.’ She will continue to get better and be more dynamic because she wants to be.”

Prince had 18 points in the win, Cash scored 12, and Fowles had 10 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes of action, about where Chatman expected to use her in terms of minutes while managing the rehab.

Former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter had 18 points for New York while Toni Young scored 10.

Thibault’s Milestone

WASHINGTON --
The Mystics are winning games that got away from them last year such as Saturday’s 62-59 escape here in the Verizon Center from Seattle that brought Washington to .500 at 6-6 and topped last year’s overall WNBA low win total.

Crystal Langhorne had 12 points and Ivory Lotta scored 11 while Michelle Snow had eight points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

Seattle fell to 5-7.

The win made Mike Thibault the all-time WNBA coaching leader, including his previous 10 years with the Connecticut Sun, in victories at 212, snapping the tie created last week when he matched former Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor.

Following the final buzzer, the Mystics organization put a two-minute of video of congratulations on the scoreboard leading off with such current and former Connecticut Sun players as Kara Lawson, Katy Douglas, Lindsay Whalen, current Mystics players, league president Laurel Richie, Thibault’s wife Nanci, his daughter Carly, and his son Eric, who is also an assistant coach with the team.

“Survival game,” Thibault said afterwards in postgame comments that featured praise of the work Snow has been doing. “Given the past history here, we’ll take it.

“I’m glad this win is done. Everybody else has been talking about it. I guess it’s one of those things you’ll think about when your career ends or at the end of the season,” he said of the milestone.

“Right now we’re trying to make some history here. I hopefully would like to see 300 wins or 400 wins and I’d like to be around for that. The goal here is to try to make the playoffs and I know it’s been a long time since the Mystics won a playoff series.

“That’s first on the list for me. That’s my focus every day. Everyone else keeps bringing this up. The other part of it is I’m kind of in awe of Van Chancellor who won four championships in this league and was a cornerstone at the start of this league.

“I had a great relationship with him when he was in the league and enjoyed talking to him. I thought a lot about him at the end of the game tonight.”

Agler, who says he really is in love with his present group considering their playing without Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, who are bypassing the season to rehab from surgeries, said of Thibault: “I have a lot of respect for him. We’re good friends. I’ve coached a lot against him over the years. We’ve had some pretty good battles and it seems every game goes down to the wire whether it’s in Seattle, Connecticut or here.

“A great person. Obviously, he’s energized the situation here. Their goal is the same as ours. We want to get in the playoffs.”

-- Mel






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