Commentary

Delle Donne, Delaware a perfect blend

Junior star is main ingredient to success, but players around her fit into roles perfectly

Originally Published: February 2, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Delaware (Time Out)Courtesy of Mark CampbellTina Martin and Delaware are ranked 13th and off to a 19-1 start.

Her Delaware teammates tease Elena Delle Donne for how little she knows about what else is going on in the world of hoops -- women's or men's, pro or college. The latest top-10 showdown? Blake Griffin's most recent dunk-as-performance-art? Eh. When Delle Donne is parked on the couch, she's probably not watching basketball.

"I really like the dessert shows, like 'Cupcake Wars,' 'Cake Boss,' 'Next Great Baker,'" Delle Donne said. "And I also like 'Chopped' a lot. They give them challenges where they have to make an appetizer, a dinner and a dessert. But do it with weird foods that they have to try to make taste good.

"Last night, they were cooking like … blue chicken foot or something. It looked disgusting, but somehow they were able to make an awesome dish out of it."

Hmmm … that might have been rather disturbing for a Blue Hen to watch. But just about any cooking/food show will capture Delle Donne's imagination. She grew up learning culinary skills from her mom -- "She's a phenomenal cook" -- but for a while was very stringent about following recipes to the letter.

"I'm confident enough now that I can freelance a little," Delle Donne said. "You kind of just go with taste, and you figure it out."

Cooks at any level realize that whatever they're fixing is always about the right combination of ingredients. Even if the main one is fantastic, everything else in the dish needs to be complementary to make it as good as possible.

You see where we're going here, right? Delle Donne, the junior forward/guard who leads Division I women's hoops in scoring at 28.4 ppg, is the main ingredient at Delaware. But without the players around her fitting into their roles as well as they have, the Blue Hens wouldn't be 19-1 and ranked No. 13.

"That's a huge key to our success," Delle Donne said. "The way that my teammates are able to adapt is amazing. There are players who play all different positions; they do whatever they need to."

And for the first time in Delle Donne's three seasons playing basketball for Delaware, both she and the rest of the team have stayed mostly healthy throughout this year.

After piecing together patchwork lineups last year, especially, with players in and out due to illness or injuries, coach Tina Martin has had the same starting five thus far in 2011-12 with Delle Donne, Lauren Carra (8.9 ppg), Danielle Parker (7.8), Trumae Lucas (6.9) and Akeema Richards (6.6).

[+] EnlargeDelaware Huddle
Courtesy of Mark CampbellElena Delle Donne leads the nation in scoring, but Delaware's success this season also can be attributed to the roster staying mostly healthy -- something lacking in recent seasons.

"They've all embraced our system and are comfortable in it," Martin said. "We have one high school All-American; we do not have several. But with six of our players being juniors now, their maturity and basketball IQ have gotten so much better.

"They have to screen, they have to react, they have to read defenses. It's not like our opponents are just falling down and letting Elena be the leading scorer in the nation. They're directing all their firepower at stopping her. But our team has done the things they need to do so well and been unselfish. We as a team have a target on our backs now, and certainly she individually has always had that. But our team has kept on thriving. You don't see the whole picture if you look just at stats. You have to watch the way they're playing together."

The Delle Donne story individually is one of the most intriguing and moving ever in the women's game: The mega-elite recruit from Wilmington, Del., who could have gone anywhere, very briefly did go to UConn but realized her heart was at home, where she could remain close to her severely disabled sister and tight-knit family.

Personally, it meant for Delle Donne a sometimes painful but ultimately triumphant period of self-discovery. For a women's hoops standpoint, it has turned into a refreshing and exciting storyline: How good can a potentially world-class player help make a team from a so-called mid-major conference?

And the important word actually is "help." Yes, Delle Donne is having an incredible season across the spectrum of stats: She averages 9.8 rebounds, has 49 assists to 30 turnovers, has 50 blocks and 24 steals and is shooting 54 percent from the field (45.2 from 3-point range) and 92.1 percent from the line.

However, one person really can't do it all in basketball. Even look at the NCAA championship teams over the years that seemed the most dependent on one superstar -- think 1992-93 Texas Tech and Sheryl Swoopes or 2002-03 and 2003-04 UConn and Diana Taurasi -- and you will always find the "other" story was the rest of the cast.

If teammates don't understand or embrace how to fill their roles around a great player, plus maximize what she helps give them a chance to do, then the team itself isn't actually going to get very far. It would be like having a car with a top-of-the-line engine but cheap, fraying tires.

Last year, the Blue Hens finished 20-14, falling 67-61 to James Madison in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament final. Delaware then lost to Toledo in the first round of the WNIT. Martin said because of the physical issues -- including with Delle Donne -- that caused a lot of inconsistency in the lineup, it was her most roller-coaster season as a coach.

This season, comparatively, has been more like a scenic boat ride through smooth waters. The Blue Hens lead the CAA at 10-0. Their only loss came at nonconference foe Maryland, 85-76 on Dec. 29.

[+] EnlargeLauren Carra
G Fiume/Getty ImagesJunior guard Lauren Carra ranks second at Delaware in scoring (8.9 ppg).

Injuries are always the boogeyman in sports, but right now Delaware has everyone feeling physically good, mentally on the same page, and emotionally close.

"We knew what we were getting when Elena decided to play here," Martin said. "We all know that it doesn't often happen that someone of her stature comes to a mid-major school. But her teammates have embraced her, and she's embraced them. We run things through Elena, obviously. Her versatility is her greatest strength. But that also takes adjustment on the part of her teammates as we're moving her all over the floor to counter all the defenses we face.

"It's very rare we see a basic man-to-man or basic 2-3 zone. It's more a Triangle and 2, a box-and-one with somebody always running at her, or 2-3 with someone in the middle constantly hitting her going through. So our kids have to respond to all of that."

And they have. Not to mention that several of the Blue Hens also have gone through their own odysseys involving transfers or injuries or both.

The junior Lucas spent two years at Florida, while sophomore Richards played at West Virginia as a freshman. Both sat out as transfers last season and now are in Delaware's starting backcourt.

The junior forward Parker suffered an ACL tear eight games into her freshman season but has come back well. Senior guard Joceyln Bailey always has found a way to be on the floor, even after meniscus surgery.

Junior guard Kayla Miller began her college career at George Washington in 2008, transferred to Delaware, where she was a captain in 2009-10, sat out last season after back surgery, and has played in every game this season. She rarely shoots; her job is to do all the other things on court.

And there's Carra, a junior guard and the Blue Hens' second-leading scorer, who had a stress fracture as a freshman and a knee sprain last year but played through both. She says now she's feeling 100 percent.

"Everyone on the team has been healthy, and we do so much outside of basketball together," Carra said. "That's helped, too. We hang out; we love being around each other. I think that's all helped us when we step on the court, in how we rely on and trust each other.

"One fun thing is cooking and eating meals together. Elena and Meghan McLean are very close as far as who is the best cook on the team. I'm not sure which one is, though, because they usually cook together."

Delle Donne calls cooking among her favorite hobbies and best ways to relax away from basketball.

"I absolutely love to cook," Delle Donne said. "My best dish is probably lasagna or this Mediterranean pasta my teammates love. It has noodles, feta cheese, roasted chicken, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes.

"I love the process, but the best part is watching people enjoy your food. I could see myself maybe taking cooking classes after college or when I'm finished with my basketball career."

And if you're wondering -- since she's the team's top scorer, rebounder and chef (or at least tied for that one) -- whether there's something Delle Donne is perhaps not so good at … there is: The Wii. Although that might be because she just doesn't really try.

"I like to watch that," she said. "My teammates are awesome at it. I'm more just the observer. I haven't really gotten into doing it. Video games are not really my thing."

She isn't the team DJ, either. As part of keeping everyone loose and having some fun as they hope to continue their run in the CAA, the Blue Hens have music during their pre-practice preparations two days a week. But Delle Donne doesn't pick the tunes.

"We give that job to Kelsey Buchanan," Delle Donne said of the sophomore center. "She's the music guru. She puts her iPod on a mix. She sets it up with, well, songs with no curse words. Just good pump-up music."

It's all part of the great chemistry on this team. That's not the easiest thing to develop or maintain when so much on the floor revolves around one player. But the Blue Hens have come up with their own recipe to make it work.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.