By SETH BERKMAN of The New York Times — UNCASVILLE, Conn. — After Elena Delle Donne was selected No. 2 in the 2013 W.N.B.A. draft, people wondered if she would fulfill the lofty expectations that accompanied such a distinction and become a transcendent player for a league continually fighting for recognition in American sports.
Delle Donne was overpowering at the college level at Delaware, which is not a powerhouse program like Connecticut, where she briefly went before choosing to play closer to her home.
With the league’s best players gathered at Mohegan Sun Arena for Saturday’s W.N.B.A. All-Star Game, Delle Donne’s colleagues, including Brittney Griner — the player selected No. 1 in 2013 — and the league president are acknowledging that she has arrived at that moment.
“She’s doing what everybody expected,” Griner said. “Elena, she’s a dominant player. It’s good for the league, how everybody always is talking about Delle Donne.”
Griner, who was named an All-Star for the third time in three seasons, remains one of the game’s premier defenders and a cornerstone for the defending champion Phoenix Mercury. But a seven-game suspension resulting from a domestic violence case has clouded her success this season.
Griner’s teammate Diana Taurasi, often considered the best women’s basketball player in the world, is sitting out the W.N.B.A. season at the request of the Russian team she plays for during the winter. Other stars, like the 2014 most valuable player, Maya Moore, are consistent all-around threats, but no player has grabbed the mantle in Taurasi’s absence like Delle Donne, the leader of the Chicago Sky.
“I feel like I’ve worked my entire life for opportunities like these,” Delle Donne, 25, said. “Obviously, there’s a ton of incredible players in the league that could step up any week, any month and be phenomenal. I’m comfortable in the role because I put in that much work. People who work this hard deserve things like that.”
In her first two years with the Sky, the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne established herself as one of the best pure scorers in the W.N.B.A., averaging 18 points a game. This season, she leads the league in scoring at 24.5 points a game and is on pace to challenge Taurasi’s single-season scoring record of 860 points.
“She is deadly in that 15-foot area,” San Antonio Stars guard Kayla McBride said. “Her 3-point game and her rebounding on top of that? She’s averaging a double-double and making it look easy. You can throw double teams at her, whatever you want to try and get her out of her comfort zone, but it’s kind of hard to find where she’s not comfortable on the court.”
One area where Delle Donne lacked proficiency in recent years was rebounding. Sky Coach Pokey Chatman challenged Delle Donne to improve her rebounding during the off-season.
Instead of competing overseas to earn extra money like a majority of W.N.B.A. players, Delle Donne stayed home and worked on her craft.
This season, she is averaging a career-high 9.8 rebounds a game, more than twice as many as last season. Delle Donne, who often plays guard, is second in the league in total rebounds (167), behind Tulsa Shock center Courtney Paris.
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Chatman said she now entered every game believing she had the best player in the league on her roster in Delle Donne.
“I say that not against any other player,” Chatman said. “I’m aware of the things that she’s doing that may not show up on the stat sheet or highlights. She allows me to play five different defenses; she plays four different positions. That, to me, is what separates her.”
Delle Donne experienced a turning point on June 24 in a 45-point effort against the Atlanta Dream. She displayed a full arsenal of offensive moves — behind-the-back dribbles leading to up-and-under baskets in the post, crossover pull-up jumpers and finger-roll layups.
Watching Delle Donne that night, Dream guard Shoni Schimmel took note of how aggressive she had become in drawing contact and earning free throws. Delle Donne finished 19 for 19 from the foul line in the 100-96 overtime victory. This season, she has made 119 of 125 free throws.
“She’s the best,” Dream forward Angel McCoughtry said. “No one can guard her.”
Delle Donne and Chatman credited the team’s new point guard, Cappie Pondexter, with adding a new level of confidence to Delle Donne’s catalog. Together, they have led the Sky to an 11-6 record and second place in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break.
“Her skill level is one of a kind,” Pondexter said of Delle Donne.
For the first time in three years, Delle Donne is also playing without pain. She has been named an All-Star three times, and as a testament to her popularity among fans, she was the leading vote-getter twice, including this year. But she missed the 2013 and 2014 games because of concussion symptoms and ailments related to Lyme disease.
“I feel like more than anything, I’ve been healthy this season,” Delle Donne said.
With a clean bill of health, Delle Donne has ascended in becoming the league’s most recognizable player, replete with regular national television appearances.
Tamika Catchings, one of the league’s marquee players over the last decade, said Delle Donne had long possessed the basketball talent to be considered the best and now had to grow into accepting the public responsibility of representing an entire league.
Laurel J. Richie, the W.N.B.A. president, said she knew Delle Donne was going to be “an incredible asset.”
“I just feel like each year she comes into her own even more,” Richie said. “You think you’re at the peak level, and then she takes it up again. I think it’s great for the league.
“I think when it’s all said and done, E.D.D.’s going to be in a lot of our record books.”