By Victor Mather – The New York Times
Elena Delle Donne, the newly anointed most valuable player of the WNBA, does many things well. She led the regular season in scoring and was in the top 10 in numerous other categories. She led her team, the playoff-bound Chicago Sky, in minutes, rebounds, blocks and even 3-pointers.
She also has been outstanding in an overlooked category, not always associated with most valuable players: free throw shooting.
Delle Donne, 26, led the league in both free throws and free throw percentage, making 207 of 218 shots for 95 percent, including a streak of 58 in a row. She is the first WNBA MVP to lead in that category.
Accurate free throw shooting and superstardom do not always go together. An NBA MVP has led in free throw percentage only six times, including Stephen Curry last season. (The others are Steve Nash, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird (twice) and Oscar Robertson.) Recent free throw leaders like Brian Roberts, Jamal Crawford and Jose Calderon are not even All-Stars, much less MVP candidates.
Free throw shooting might seem to be the most straightforward of tasks on the basketball court. But quite a few of the game’s best players, like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal, were notoriously terrible from the stripe. More recently, DeAndre Jordan has been a vital part of a good Clippers team and was a sought-after free agent this summer while managing to make only about 40 percent of his free throws. (Paradoxically, he has led the league in field goal percentage three years running.)
The greatest free throw shooter in WNBA history was Becky Hammon, who led the league in percentage six times. Last season, her final one in the league, she went to the line 35 times and made them all. Hammon has gone on to become the first full-time female coach in the NBA with San Antonio.
In general, WNBA players are strong free throw shooters. The league leaders have shot better than their male counterparts in nine of the past 10 seasons. Delle Donne’s 95 percent this season topped Curry’s 91.4 percent. As a league, the WNBA shot 79.5 percent this year, better than the NBA’s 75 percent under nearly the same conditions (the women use a smaller ball).
Over three seasons in the league, Delle Donne is 448 for 477 for 94 percent in 77 games, about the length of an NBA schedule. No NBA player with 400 attempts in a season has matched that percentage, the WNBA noted.
As a rookie in 2013, the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne joined a team that had never had a winning record and helped it get to the playoffs. Last season, the Sky made the finals, losing to the Phoenix Mercury.
This year’s Sky had the league’s third-best record and reached the playoffs.
“A WNBA championship is by far the biggest goal,” Delle Donne said on ESPN, but the Sky were eliminated in the playoffs.