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Sky need big year from Delle Donne

Chicago made it to the WNBA Finals after the inspiring return of Elena Delle Donne for the postseason. In 2015, the Sky's title hopes could depend on how healthy Delle Donne can stay for the duration. AP Photo/John Bazemore

No one could really blame you if you turned off what became Elena Delle Donne's signature WNBA game in August before it was over.

Because, hey, it seemed over early in the fourth quarter. Delle Donne's Chicago team, which got into the 2014 playoffs as the No. 4 seed with a 15-19 record, was on its way to being dismissed by top-seeded Atlanta in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Dream had been in control the whole game and had a 17-point lead with eight minutes left on their home court. And then, just like that, everything reversed course.

Delle Donne and the Sky went into "Terminator" mode and chased down the Dream, winning 81-80. Delle Donne had 34 points, including the game-winner with eight seconds left.

Chicago subsequently beat Indiana 2-1 to make it to the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. There, the run ended against favored Phoenix. Delle Donne was bothered considerably by severe back pain that started after the Atlanta series, but she played through it as best she could. After a regular season in which she'd been limited to 16 games because of the lingering effects of Lyme disease, Delle Donne really put her stamp on the 2014 WNBA season with her playoff performance.

Even though the back issues limited her against the Mercury, the 6-foot-5 guard-forward showed how much she'd progressed as one of the league's elite players. Now getting ready to start her third season -- the Sky open at home Friday against Indiana -- Delle Donne, who averaged 17.9 points and 4.0 rebounds last year, is even more prominent as Chicago's centerpiece player.

"She's feeling good, looking good, good energy, no back problems," Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said.

Delle Donne took part in the USA Basketball team training camp in early May, where she both marveled at being in the same gym with such a collection of talent and realized that she definitely belonged there. Her goal in USA Basketball and the WNBA is to prove she is more than just a mega-gifted scorer: that she can defend fellow superstar players, rebound at a high rate and run the court with anybody.

Just as she did after her WNBA Rookie of the Year season in 2013, Delle Donne spent this past fall and winter continuing to get stronger. "I've done a ton with strength and conditioning, way more than I did in college," the former Delaware All-American said. "That's been my biggest focus: trying to change my body as much as I can and evolve my game."

The Sky are going to look to Delle Donne for even more leadership this year, too. Even though she's only 25, she will be doing a lot of mentoring with her teammates. Veteran center Sylvia Fowles, a two-time Olympian who's averaged 15.7 points and 9.8 rebounds in her seven seasons with the Sky, has asked for a trade and apparently doesn't intend to play for Chicago this season.

Chicago is trying to replace Fowles with less experienced players. Among them is rookie Cheyenne Parker, who was taken No. 5 in April's draft. The 6-4 Parker was dismissed from her Middle Tennessee team in February for violations of athletic department policy. In her one season at Middle Tennessee, she averaged 18.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in 22 games.

Chatman stressed that she did her homework on Parker's college issues and felt that the potential risk was well worth taking. She said Parker took responsibility for her dismissal and was willing to work hard to prove she deserved a spot in the WNBA. Parker is one of the players Delle Donne will try to help.

"The young posts, we're going to have to bring them along extremely fast," Delle Donne said. "Because immediately, they're going to have to do things for us. That's something I'm going to be focused on: getting them up to speed as much as I can."

There are other players to help in that process, including veteran guard Cappie Pondexter. The Sky got her in a trade with New York in the offseason, sending Epiphanny Prince to the Liberty. Pondexter has averaged 18.5 points, 4.2 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in her nine-year WNBA career, though those numbers dropped to 13.2, 3.9, and 3.4 in 2014. Pondexter won two WNBA titles while with Phoenix in 2007 and 2009.

"I love that we have Cappie," Delle Donne said. "Because now we've got some maturity and championship experience that we've been missing."

Chatman thinks Pondexter, a 2008 Olympian, will help Delle Donne to play even more in her comfort zone. "The dynamic that it adds to the team is that Cappie can be Cappie, and Elena can be Elena," Chatman said. "They both will bring out the best in each other. In Cappie, we get that fierce, natural competitor who adds some grit to an already pretty good team. The fact that she played the point the last couple of years in New York gives her a different view of the game, which will help us."

As for Delle Donne's health situation, she understands that will be a question everyone always asks. She's had to deal with Lyme disease and its effects since her college days.

"It's a day-to-day thing with maintenance -- taking my medication, eating right and doing things to stay healthy," Delle Donne said. "I feel like since this last relapse [in 2014], I've gotten on a really good schedule and feel like I've got a grip on it. It's a disease in which you can't predict certain things. Right now, I'm feeling really healthy and good, and I try not to think about it when I'm on the court."

Another thing that Delle Donne has attempted not to dwell on is Fowles' situation. Fowles and Pondexter were both at the USA Basketball camp along with Delle Donne, and one couldn't help but wonder how they would do together with the Sky this season.

Delle Donne, though, is focusing on what the Sky actually have on the court and how she can maximize that. "Syl and I are teammates, still, with USA Basketball," Delle Donne said. "And she is always going to be a great friend of mine, whether she's with the Sky or not. We kind of just separate that from our friendship."