Less than a week into the WNBA preseason and just a few hours before their first exhibition game, the Washington Mystics had already lost their top draft pick to injury.
Kiara Leslie, a 6-foot guard out of N.C. State whom the Mystics drafted No. 10, is expected to miss three to four months after undergoing surgery Friday to repair a torn meniscus in her right knee. Washington sent Leslie to have an MRI exam Monday morning after the North Carolina native complained of hamstring soreness last week at the start of workouts.
The rookie won’t be the only player missing the Mystics’ preseason opener at the Minnesota Lynx on Friday.
Washington Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said star forward Elena Delle Donne would rest vs. the Lynx as a precaution. Delle Donne just came back to full-strength, on-court workouts in the past six weeks or so after spending much of the offseason nursing a bone bruise on her left knee that she suffered in August during the WNBA playoffs.
Unlike Delle Donne’s, Leslie’s injury was a surprise to the Mystics. Last week was the first time the rookie worked out with the team, which isn’t unusual in the WNBA. Thibault said Friday that teams aren’t allowed to bring in players for physicals or work out players before drafting them as teams in other professional leagues can; teams must go off reports provided by college medical staffs.
“We get whatever their trainers and doctors at the college give to the WNBA, and we’re not allowed to bring them in,” Thibault said in a phone interview. “We’re not allowed to bring players in to work them out like the NBA is and, you know, you’ve got a draft three days after the Final Four anyway.”
Even for veterans, showing up for training camp just a few days before the start of the season is the norm. Players who spend the offseason playing overseas are often out of the country until early May. After spending the offseason playing in Poland, Mystics guard Ariel Atkins had less than a week at home in Dallas before heading to D.C. for camp. Forward Emma Meesseman arrived in the United States on Sunday, a day before training camp officially opened.
Thibault said Leslie will count against the team’s roster this season and cannot be replaced with another player. Her rookie salary, which is just under $45,000, will count against Washington’s salary cap space.
“That’s one of the flaws you’re at the risk of when you draft somebody — not knowing something,” Thibault said. “And the other part of it is, we didn’t draft her for 10 to 12 weeks; we drafted her for 10 to 12 years. So we’ll get through this.”
Leslie’s absence won’t hamper a deep Mystics team too much, although Washington was counting on her to provide balance on a post-heavy roster. Thibault said Leslie’s injury probably means he will play Delle Donne at small forward more instead of at power forward, her natural position. Meesseman also plays power forward.
“It probably means that, because we have a bunch of really good post players, we will play Elena at the small forward some — not huge minutes but some minutes — and that allows us to play a bigger lineup. … And that’s a strength of our team, so we may do that more,” Thibault said. “Especially with the offense that we’re running, it’s not as important whether it’s the three or the four if they can shoot threes.”