WASHINGTON — August may not be the time you usually think about basketball. But if you haven’t been paying attention this summer, you have been missing perhaps the greatest single season ever put together by a professional basketball player – better than LeBron James, and better than Michael Jordan.
That player’s name is Elena Delle Donne, and if you’ve never heard of her, now would be a good time to start paying attention.
It’s hard to compare players between the NBA and WNBA. That’s why statistics like player efficiency rating (PER) exist. The metric is a normalized stat, such that the league average – no matter what league, no matter what year – is always 15.00. A player’s performance across his or her game, from field goals, to assists, as well as negative results like missed shots and turnovers, are all taken into account. It is also judged by minutes played to account for a player’s contributions per minute.
Delle Donne leads the WNBA in minutes played. She also leads the league in PER. In fact, she leads every league — ever.
Her 33.5 PER is higher than any season James has ever posted. He topped out at 31.67 in 2008-09. And it’s higher than Jordan’s best season (31.71). In fact, it’s higher than any NBA player’s best season ever, as Wilt Chamberlain’s mark of 31.82 in his historic 1962-63 campaign is the best of all time.
In her third professional season following a standout college career at the University of Delaware, the 25-year-old Chicago Sky star leads the WNBA in scoring, while pulling down the second-most rebounds despite often playing guard. She also ranks second in blocks, can shoot the three, and is absolutely deadly at the free throw line.
How deadly? No player in WNBA history has ever shot above 90 percent. Current San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon topped out at 89.7 percent. Steve Nash shot 90.4 percent, the highest in NBA history, while Steph Curry tops all active players at an even 90 percent. Delle Donne has shot 94.2 percent from the stripe in her career, and a jaw dropping 95.8 percent (181-for-189) this season.
Delle Donne isn’t concerned with the particulars of how all those numbers have come to be, only insofar as they help the Sky, who are fighting for a playoff spot in the loaded Eastern Conference.
“Obviously, every time I step on the court I try to be the best me,” she says. “But for me, I just focus on the team aspect. I’m not really about getting into the individual numbers, just looking ahead to our next opponent, how we can get wins.”
The Sky snuck into the playoffs last year, then went on a run all the way to the Finals thanks to Delle Donne, who led the team in scoring in five of their nine games. Chicago currently holds the fourth and final playoff spot in the East, a game behind the Washington Mystics.
Mystics fans will get a double dose of Delle Donne this weekend, as the teams play a home-and-home set Friday night in Chicago and Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center.
While every WNBA fan knows her name, Delle Donne faces the same struggle as many top female athletes, fighting for relevance in the ever more crowded sports landscape.
For instance, SportsCenter recently tweeted about Delle Donne’s stellar 45-point game, the second-highest point total for a regulation game in WNBA history. And while the tweet generated an expected level of trolling comments, perhaps the worst part was that the account itself misspelled her name.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 24, 2015
“It’s definitely a two-sided type of thing,” she laughed about the error. “It’s great to get on SportsCenter, getting attention for the Sky and the WNBA, but then they can’t even spell my name right?”
As aggravating as that may be, Delle Donne is circumspect about the progress being made, even if it comes slowly.
“It can be frustrating, but in the end, visibility is so important,” she says. “All I can do is just keep putting together great performances.”
Much like the expectations the USWNT managed during the Women’s World Cup, there is pressure on Delle Donne to be excellent, not just good, every time out. And with the success of not only the USWNT but also, as Delle Donne points out, Serena Williams at Wimbledon, she senses the opportunity to be a part of a wave of momentum for women’s sports this year.
“I always get into the World Cup,” she says. “It was just awesome to see that excitement around the sport … The visibility that was on their performances, and respect for women’s athletics, in general, is really on the climb.”
As the most visible superstar, the league is trying to take full advantage of her tremendous play, putting her on SportsNation earlier this week and trying to book an appearance on FOX Sports 1, which ultimately fell through due to a scheduling conflict.
If all that on top of playing weren’t enough, Delle Donne serves as a national spokesperson raising awareness for Lyme Disease, which she has had since 2008 and which forced her to miss 18 games last season. She is also a global ambassador for the Special Olympics, a cause dear to her heart after growing up with sister Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and has both cerebral palsy and autism.
While that seems like a lot to juggle along with the schedule of a professional athlete, she’s very matter-of-fact about the chaos, which certainly doesn’t seem to be detracting from her play.
“I feel like everybody in their job probably has overwhelming moments where it seems like they’re just non-stop working,” she says. “The season is my go-time. There are times where it’s a lot, and you get exhausted. But I think we all deal with it in the work force.”
We may not do it all as easily and as gracefully as Delle Donne, but hey — that’s why she’s the superstar.