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Elena Delle Donne must shoulder heavy load in early going

FILE - In this July 12 2013 file phoChicago Sky's ElenDelle Donne right drives basket while being guarded by Connecticut

FILE - In this July 12, 2013 file photo, Chicago Sky's Elena Delle Donne, right, drives to the basket while being guarded by Connecticut Sun's Allison Hightower during the first half of a WNBA basketball game in Uncasville, Conn. Delle Donne could be the first rookie to lead the WNBA in All-Star voting when the starters are announced, Thursday, July 18, 2013, for next week's game.(AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

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Last season: 24-10, first place in Eastern Conference, eliminated in conference semifinals.

Key additions: C Sasha Goodlett, C Markeisha Gatling.

Key losses: F Swin Cash,
C Carolyn Swords.

Outlook: Without Sylvia Fowles and Epiphanny Prince to start the season, even more will be asked of Elena Delle Donne. If Delle Donne can keep the Sky going until Fowles and Prince return, another finish in the top half of the East is possible.

Elena Delle Donne did a lot for the Sky last season. She was the unanimous WNBA rookie of the year and became the face of the franchise, which broke through for its first playoff ­appearance.

She might need to do even more this year.

When the Sky opens their season Friday against the Indiana Fever at Allstate Arena, they will be without two of their best players. Center Sylvia Fowles, the 2013 WNBA defensive player of the year, is out after offseason hip surgery and could return next month at the earliest. Guard Epiphanny Prince recently returned from playing overseas and has been granted time to handle personal and family issues.

Combined with the trade that sent forward Swin Cash to the Atlanta Dream, that leaves Delle Donne and guard Courtney Vandersloot as the only starters from last season’s 24-10 team who will play in the opener. Vandersloot is an emerging player, so the Sky will rely on Delle Donne to get them through the early parts of the season.

“I’m just trying to be a steady leader for the team,” Delle Donne said. “We have so many new faces. Obviously not starting the season off with Syl and Piph is definitely a struggle. But we’re still really excited about the season and excited about the new players that have joined this team.”

Some of those new players include first-round draft pick Markeisha Gatling and center Sasha Goodlett. But nobody will be watched as closely as Delle Donne, who averaged 18.1 points and grew into one of the WNBA’s most prominent players.

Now she has to build on that — without Fowles and Prince to open her second season.

“I wouldn’t even say it’s pressure. The opposition will look at Elena, and what that will result in is she’ll probably have about two or three more assists a game,” coach Pokey Chatman said. “Every defensive scheme will be on her. There will be double-teams early on. Some other people will get some nice easy looks.”

Even with Delle Donne, things won’t come as easy for the Sky at the start. Fowles’ presence on both ends of the floor will be missed as she recovers, and Prince helped stretch the floor for the Sky.

That doesn’t mean the Sky want to just survive without them. As Delle Donne acknowledged, the first part of the year will be a challenge, but not one they just want to get through.

“Our goal is to win every game we play,” Delle Donne said. “Nothing about survival. It’s about making that first punch and winning these games.”

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