Elena Delle Donne Takes Game To Even Higher Level

In her exit interview after the Chicago Sky's breakthrough season last year, Elena Delle Donne wasn't looking for praise. And coach Pokey Chatman knew that it wasn't needed. Instead, Chatman pointed out a glaring deficiency.

OK, we're kind of kidding. Delle Donne, the leading vote-getter for Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), does not have any glaring deficiencies. But like all players who aspire to greatness, Delle Donne has things to improve.

So last fall, after the Sky's first appearance in the WNBA Finals, Chatman pointed to Delle Donne's 4.0 rebounds per game in 2014 and said the average should be significantly higher this season. She also wanted Delle Donne to be more versatile defensively -- to become confident enough even to take on guarding the WNBA's top 3s.

In short, Delle Donne was told, don't stop at being one of the best pure scorers the league has seen. Keep doing that, sure, but do even more elsewhere.

"She's really bought into all of it," said Chatman, who will coach Delle Donne and the rest of the East squad on Saturday. "Here's the thing about Elena: Whatever you ask her to focus on, she will do it."

And thus far in this 2015 WNBA season, Delle Donne is performing so well, even Donald Trump couldn't find any way to insult her. She's averaging 24.5 points and 9.8 rebounds for the Sky, who are 11-6. Even without center Sylvia Fowles, who is sitting out after requesting a trade, Chicago is on track to make a third consecutive playoff appearance.

Speaking of three in a row, Delle Donne has been voted an All-Star starter all three seasons she's been in the WNBA. But this will be the first time she appears in the game. In 2013, when she was also the league's leading vote-getter, she suffered a concussion shortly before the game. Last season, when she led the East in voting, she couldn't play because of a flare-up of the Lyme disease issue she's dealt with since college at Delaware.

"Two years ago, I couldn't even watch the game. I was just sitting in a dark room," Delle Donne said of the effects of the concussion. "Last year, I was getting treatments and was able to watch it. They put on a great show, and it was fun to watch.

"I think every year, the game starts out more fun, but then our competitive nature comes out as players, and we all want to win it."

That definitely was evident in the East's 125-124 overtime victory in Phoenix last July. Now, as happy as Delle Donne is to be playing in the All-Star Game, Chatman is just as thrilled for her.

"I feel almost like a proud mama," Chatman said. "It's nice to know that her play is appreciated by fans around the country. I'm excited that she's healthy enough that people get to experience seeing her the way I have been able to see her every day.

"It's part of Elena's makeup that she doesn't crave attention, but she understands that it's part of the deal. It's about where she is as a player and that we've had some success. And she should truly enjoy it."

The Sky's brightest star

In fact, she is enjoying it. Delle Donne has the personality and the skill level to be the star that both Chicago and the league were hoping for when she was drafted No. 2 overall -- behind Phoenix's Brittney Griner -- in 2013. This after being the home-state hero at Delaware.

Extra time spent with media and fans is typically required of a player who becomes the face of any team. Delle Donne has an approachable, easygoing way with people. She encounters her share of star-struck kids and adults, and has a natural ability to make them feel less nervous talking to her. Or at least, her patience and kindness allow them to verbalize their admiration.

"Meeting or interacting with a player -- that can be a life-changing experience for a fan, and I try to keep that perspective whenever I'm meeting someone," Delle Donne said. "My fans have been so great to me -- they are very funny and passionate about the game and interesting. I look forward to spending time with them."

"Here's the thing about Elena: Whatever you ask her to focus on, she will do it." Pokey Chatman on Elena Delle Donne

Especially with Fowles not there, the Sky also needed Delle Donne to become even more of a "presence" -- the kind of player whom her peers truly respect. Delle Donne didn't just offer a perfunctory welcome to veteran guard Cappie Pondexter, a two-time WNBA champion, after she was obtained in a trade from New York. Delle Donne has really bonded with Pondexter.

"We have an incredible dynamic, and it feels like we've been playing together forever already," Delle Donne said. "We're great friends and teammates. We work out together, and we've really built this awesome chemistry. She's changed the whole culture of this team."

That added to the already strong chemistry that Delle Donne had with guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, who like Pondexter are averaging in double figures in scoring. Pondexter was chosen as an All-Star reserve; Vandersloot -- who leads the East in assists and is second in the league at 5.0 -- also was worthy of consideration for a spot.

Delle Donne, who as a 6-foot-5 guard/forward can play all over the floor, also has helped mentor Chicago's younger post players. Even though she's still just 25 herself.

"I feel like we really started to figure things out, and everybody has been playing good basketball," Delle Donne said of the Sky. "Every night, somebody is stepping up and contributing, which is what you like to see out of a team."

Moving to a higher level

And, as Chatman pointed out, Delle Donne has taken all the constructive criticism from the Sky staff and turned it into grist for her self-improvement mill.

But not in an "I'll show you" way. Delle Donne is not motivated by anger or ego; it's just not how she's wired. She is highly competitive, but it's all about how best she can impact her team.

"I've become more of a facilitator lately," Delle Donne said. "I feel like I've grown in that way, where before I used to try to continue to force things to score. But now I'm very confident in the rest of the team, that they are there to knock it down. I don't necessarily have to go off for 20-30 points.

"Defensively, I feel like I've grown immensely. And that's something I'm proud of. Coach and I have been working on that since I got to the Sky."

Chatman agrees that Delle Donne doesn't have to go into every game thinking she must reach a certain point total. That said, Chatman laughed and said, "Don't misunderstand me, I welcome her scoring 30 points a game.

"But often when people say, 'Who do you go to at the end of the game?' they only mean who is going to take the shot. For me, it's about who makes the decisions. Elena understands that, and I trust her IQ and ability to make the right decisions in those moments."

Delle Donne's defensive improvement has come with understanding the Sky's schemes and her role in them, and has required more physical strength and mental flexibility than was the case when she protected the paint so much at Delaware. And something else she did as a Blue Hen athlete -- her freshman year playing volleyball -- is part of what Chatman tapped into in encouraging Delle Donne to rebound more.

"She's a volleyball player, too, so she has amazing timing and she knows how to adjust to the flight of the ball," Chatman said. "I think that really comes into play in rebounding. So it was up to me and my staff to make it something at the forefront of her mind.

"Everyone will always talk about what she does offensively, which is understandable. But there has been a defensive transformation as well. She knows she has a ways to go, but she understands how to use her length, she understands angles, she understands effort."

Delle Donne dealt with back issues during the WNBA Finals loss to Phoenix last year, and that kept her from being her best in that series. She gets the "seize the moment" concept, though, and knows that this All-Star Game is another chance to potentially win over new fans, to grab as much of a spotlight as she can for her team and the WNBA.

"I love it; it's something I've dreamt of my whole life, and I've worked really hard to get that," she said. "Yeah, I have to be smart with my time and not wear myself out doing appearances. But I do have to get my face out there and grow the league and the Chicago Sky as much as possible."