- Melissa Isaacson, ESPN Staff Writer
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- At 6 feet, 7 inches and roughly 300 pounds, Miles Bankston was his usual formidable obstacle in Elena Delle Donne's path, but common sense and team protocol dictated he not flip the franchise player on her head as she drove toward him 10 days before the season opener.
Last year it would not have mattered because Delle Donne would have avoided contact, team scrimmage or otherwise, and settled for her patented fadeaway jumper.
"This time," Chicago Sky assistant coach Christie Sides said with a satisfied smile, "she turned the corner, hit the big boy and finished over him."
With 12 pounds of additional muscle and immeasurably more confidence, the 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year returns for her second season after having passed on playing overseas and stayed in Chicago, where she did promotional work for the Sky and bodywork on herself.
"It was a great season but I was able to tell the entire [time] that my strength just wasn't where it needed to be in order to be really effective in this league and help my team," said Delle Donne, the second overall draft pick out of Delaware in 2013.
That realization hit especially hard immediately after the Sky were swept by the 2012 defending champion Indiana Fever in the first round of the playoffs last fall.
"We had just gotten our butts beat by Indiana," Sky coach Pokey Chatman said, "and I remember we were walking to the press conference and Elena said, 'I've got to get stronger.' We lost the game, she's rookie of the year after leading us in scoring, and all she was thinking about in that moment was what she had to do.
"I didn't think that would translate into her staying here over the offseason, but that was her commitment."
Accompanied most days by only Sides, her workout partner, Delle Donne spent about four and a half hours each morning doing strength work, conditioning and then on-court drills. She would then head off for appearances at middle schools, basketball clinics and various other team appearances and charity work for such organizations as the Special Olympics, for whom she was named a global ambassador in February.
"But first and foremost each day was my training," she said.
Early on, there were moments of frustration.
"During training, I was so tired sometimes that it was affecting the way I was playing," Delle Donne said. "And I was like, 'Christie, I'm awful right now and this isn't helping me.' And she was like, 'Believe in it, get through it. Right now you're exhausted, but when your body gets used to it, it will be better.'"
Sides said in their on-court workouts, she wouldn't let Delle Donne shoot fadeaways.
"She's great at it," Sides said. "When you're 6-5 and shooting fadeaways, nobody's going to block that. But we had pads and if we worked on a jab-step drill, I made her create contact. She was taking hits all the time [last season] and getting out of position. Now she's giving them."
Hence, hitting the big boy, who is a former intern now in player development and one of a group of regulars who scrimmage against the Sky.
"I just remember last season bumping her down a few times by accident, some fouls I didn't think were that hard," said Bankston, who played Division III ball at Wilmington College in Ohio. "She'd fall down and I'd try to be gentle toward her. But this year, not intentionally of course, but you can foul her harder. And she's driving without fear."
Opponents are also likely to see Delle Donne bringing the ball upcourt more often, but that might be just the beginning.
"I'm way stronger, not getting knocked off my cuts, screening better, rebounding a lot better, getting off my feet quicker," she said. "I'm still trying to get used to my body, too. There will be shots I'll miss that I knocked down last year and I'm like, I just have to get used to jumping higher and being stronger.
"I'm trying to figure it out still."
Last year at this time, that last sentence might have been met with concern as questions about Delle Donne's future had little to do with her game and much more with her frame of mind.
Five years ago, Delle Donne was the nation's No. 1 recruit but left Connecticut after two days on campus. She returned home to Delaware, said she was burned out from the game and wanted to be with her family and older sister Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy and is blind and deaf. Many wondered if going to Chicago might stir up some of those old feelings.
A protective Chatman knows where any questions about Delle Donne's family are heading.
"People always marry that to the fact that she went to Connecticut and left a powerhouse program," Chatman said. "And I looked at it like as how could a 17-, 18-year-old kid say no to Connecticut and Geno [Auriemma], knowing she's going to be scrutinized the rest of her life, but saying yes to herself and her abilities to make it work?
"It kind of intrigued me a little bit. But once I talked to her, I understood why she did it and I was not worried at all. I even got to a point in the season where I said, 'I do not want to hear one more person ask me about Connecticut.' I did it for her because it gets old to her."
Still, Delle Donne is open about the subject and said her parents and brother were able to come to many Sky games last season.
"Going through college, you do grow up and learn how to be away from home and be away from your family and still continue to love and all that," she said.
As for Lizzie, it is too difficult for her to travel to Chicago, "but she was OK," Delle Donne said. "I think I struggled more than her. She's doing great. I get to see her when I get home, not as much as I thought I would, but you have to be here for your job and put in your hours. It's OK, though, I'm still able to get home a decent amount, especially during the holidays."
Chatman's admiration for Delle Donne extends to her continuing battle with Lyme Disease, which was diagnosed in 2008 and caused such symptoms as extreme fatigue, and pain and weakness in her joints. She still receives treatment in the form of bimonthly infusions of Vitamin C and spent part of the offseason fundraising for the disease's research, receiving an award for her advocacy from the Lyme Research Alliance last month.
"It was always pretty well-known in basketball circles because she literally got so weak, at one time she couldn't raise her arms above her head," Chatman said. "She's down for that day she gets her treatment, but it's working for her."
Also working for her -- spurning the popular choice of playing overseas during the WNBA offseason. Was it hard turning down an opportunity in which top players earn up to $1 million for a seven-month contract?
"Certainly," she said with a smile. "It's way more money over there. But sometimes it's not all about money and that's not to say I'll never go overseas, but at least this offseason I found a lot of importance in staying here, growing the Sky brand, growing my own brand and getting stronger physically."
In the process, they all agree, Delle Donne has gained a level of confidence both on and off the court.
"I can see a difference because we've been together for a lot of events," Chatman said. "We were at a town hall meeting [over the winter] for about 1,600 people and I knew it was overwhelming for her. I pulled her aside for about a three-minute coaching session and she rocked it, but I can see now there's not the same angst. She welcomes it.
"I always tell her, 'You're talking about your craft, your expertise, your life. Go back to what you know.' And for her, she doesn't understand that her story is special. That's part of what I like, but that's part of her struggle."
As Delle Donne's confidence grew in the weight room, Sides said she gave her several books to read about leadership.
"We've had great players who have come here and go hard, but we've struggled finding somebody who has a voice," Sides said. "[Delle Donne] is not an outspoken person so we talk about it a lot. She gives me her thoughts and today, for the first time, there was a lull in practice and she called a timeout and called everyone together."
Sometimes the small accomplishments are just as big.
"I was never able to even come close to doing one pull-up before, and I was able to do one by the end of our training, so that was exciting," Delle Donne said of one of her prouder achievements. "I'm so long, it's a really hard movement."