When it finally came time for the Washington Mystics to make their pick late in the first round of the WNBA draft Wednesday, a handful of big-name players were left on the board, from Iowa’s Megan Gustafson to Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham.
But for the second year in a row, Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault eschewed the list of players the league deemed worthy of an invite to New York and a spot on ESPN.
Washington instead selected North Carolina State’s Kiara Leslie with the 10th overall pick. She joins Ariel Atkins, last year’s seventh overall pick, as something of a surprise selection for Thibault’s Mystics.
“I was totally — I was surprised,” a giddy Leslie said in a phone interview from her watch party with family, friends and teammates in North Carolina. “. . . I guess to hear my name, I was shocked.”
Said Thibault: “I don’t think [being invited to New York] has any bearing on it. This is a player we’ve been focused on for quite some time. We interviewed five players, six players for this position, and in the course of all of our staff watching the various players and our interviews and doing our homework, we felt that this was the most ready player as far as playing both ends of the court.”
At the top of the draft, the Las Vegas Aces took Notre Dame point guard Jackie Young at No. 1 , making her the third player in WNBA history to go No. 1 after just three years in college. Jewell Loyd, also from Notre Dame, was the top pick in 2015. Candace Parker was the top pick in 2008 after three years at Tennessee.
Louisville’s Asia Durr went second to New York, and Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan went No. 3 to Indiana.
ESPN had Leslie going at No. 19 in its most recent mock draft, but the 6-foot wing from Holly Springs, N.C., may carry more name recognition with local basketball fans. She spent the first three years of her college career at Maryland, sat out the 2016-17 season because of injury and then transferred to play with the Wolfpack.
Leslie averaged 15.9 points and 7.2 rebounds while leading North Carolina State to a 28-6 season that peaked with the Wolfpack earning its highest ranking (No. 8) in nearly two decades. The Wolfpack opened the season 21-0, the best start in program history.
“I feel more prepared than ever [to join the league],” Leslie said. “The next level is something that I’ve been waiting for all my life, and I think with a little bit of help from the staff and the players there, I’ll fit in well.”
Thibault called Leslie “a pro defender coming out of college” and praised her self-awareness and readiness to play at the WNBA level.
Leslie’s preparedness was a priority for the Mystics, who made it to their first WNBA Finals last season and are expected to make a deep playoff run again; after sitting out a year, Emma Meesseman returns to a loaded lineup that includes 2018 all-stars Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver.
In addition to the usual rigorous evaluation players go through before the draft, Thibault has seen Leslie compete in the NCAA tournament in person multiple times, including the second-round game in last year’s tournament in which the Wolfpack knocked Maryland out in Raleigh, N.C., and North Carolina State’s postseason games this year.
“Maybe one of the more advanced players I’ve drafted as far as being ready for this level, defensively,” Thibault said. “And then offensively, over the last couple years, she’s had to really improve in the areas that have become the most important in pro basketball, three-point shooting being one of them. . . . She’s always played well at tournament time, which is a really great trait that a player is not afraid of big moments. We saw what Ariel Atkins did in the playoffs last year; we felt she was in the same mold. She’s not intimidated by big games. She’s kind of one of those level, steady, big players that kind of translates well to our league.”
The Mystics will reunite two pairs of former teammates at training camp in May. Leslie played with Washington guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough in College Park, and Sam Fuehring, the Mystics’ second and final pick in the draft at No. 34, played with forward Myisha Hines-Allen at Louisville.
Washington chose Fuehring in the third round after giving up this year’s second-round pick in a trade for Aerial Powers last season. Fuehring, a 6-3 forward, averaged 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds last season for Louisville.