Two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and two-time WNBA champion Alysha Clark are still making their way back from injuries that kept them out for most or all of the 2021 WNBA season, but are being incorporated into practice as the Washington Mystics kick off training camp this week ahead of the 2022 campaign.
Washington coach Mike Thibault said that neither player will likely play in the Mystics' first preseason game Sunday, and estimated they'd go through about 60-70 percent of practice Monday.
Delle Donne has appeared in only three games since winning her first WNBA championship in 2019 because of recurring back issues that have required multiple surgeries. Clark, a starter who played a critical part on the Seattle Storm's title-winning squads in 2018 and 2020, has yet to play for the Mystics since signing there in 2021 free agency because of a Lisfranc injury in her foot that she suffered playing overseas.
"We still have a lot to manage as we get into the season with those who have been hurt, but I think we have a good plan in place," Thibault told reporters Monday. "The main thing with that is to be at our best when we need to be at our best. And so we're not going to have everybody 100 percent all the time, and we know that. We know that we're going to have to manage minutes in practices right now and we're going to have to take our time."
Thibault said the team will be managing how much contact Delle Donne and Clark encounter in practice leading up to the team's opener May 6 against the Indiana Fever, and that medical personnel and coaches will convene every two or three days to assess where each player stands.
"I can't give you etched in stone that we'll know what it looks like two weeks from now. I don't know," Thibault said. "I just know that we have a plan for this first week. And we'll see how that goes."
With Delle Donne and Clark back, the Mystics are looking to return to the playoffs in 2022 after missing the postseason for just the second time since Thibault arrived in D.C. in 2013. They were ravaged by injuries last year, including but not limited to Delle Donne's and Clark's, and parted ways with 2012 MVP Tina Charles and 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman this past free agency.
Even with so much personal adversity and teamwide change, the goal to win a championship remains for Delle Donne, who said she has felt "a newfound me" and experienced "a newfound joy of the game, knowing that this game was nearly taken from me."
"I wouldn't have gone through what I went through in the past two years if I wasn't coming out here to compete for a championship," Delle Donne said. "I want to win. That's really the only thing I care about at this point, and obviously enjoying the time and journey with my team. But I really only care about the winning."
The rejuvenated Delle Donne -- who also opted out of the 2020 WNBA season due to medical concerns -- said she didn't feel like she was where she needed to be entering last season, but already this year feels "incredible ... so much better." She spent the past year figuring out a whole new way of moving, both on and off the court, where she puts less pressure on her back and uses her feet and base more. She said even her legs have gotten noticeably stronger as a result of this work.
Delle Donne credited the Mystics' head trainer, who also works with the NBA's Washington Wizards, in helping her unlock this new element to both her game and everyday, non-basketball movement.
"The fun part is I've learned so much about my body and the way I move now and I think I'll be able to play in different ways and exploit different parts of my game and other people's games," Delle Donne said. "I feel like I've got a whole different way about me and the way I move but also a whole different understanding of things."
"The next step for her in all of that will be that comfort level of doing all of that in a crowd of people around her," Thibault said. "And we've been introducing that little by little as we've gone along. And so that'll be the focus over the next three weeks, of integrating that into her routine."
Being smart about her recovery, both Thibault and Delle Donne said, entails having constant conversations about what her return to play may look like. She could sit out when the Mystics have too many games packed in a week or have a tough stretch of travel, both said. Even what Delle Donne does when she's not on the court is of major focus; continuing to move instead of sitting on the bench, she said, will be critical for her to remain loose.
Clark, meanwhile, isn't yet at full-go, but has started to do contact work and has participated in some group workouts. She said that it'll be a "week-to-week, day-by-day" assessment of how her foot responds to the increased workload, and that she will be continuing rehab all season long due to the nature of the injury.
"When I get back out here, I want to be out here and that's it," Clark said. "I don't want to have to go back through worrying about my foot and all those things. I just want to be here so I'm going to make sure that I do it right."
A former defensive player of the year candidate during her time with the Storm, Clark is expected to shore up the Mystics' defensive effort -- which Delle Donne said is already looking "scary" in training camp.
"It was overwhelming, to be honest," Clark said of joining the Mystics ahead of the 2021 season before her debut was put on hold due to injury. "I'm not big on change. There was a lot of change at one time for me last year. That was really hard for me, to be in a new situation and have to learn not only new teammates, but learn how to lead not being on the floor was different for me as well."
Now that she's increasingly back into the fold on the practice court, Clark is eager to finally suit up for Washington sooner rather than later.
"It feels more real right now," Clark said. "More of my teammates are here, the shift in the atmosphere. But yeah, I feel like I've been here a long time and not a long time."