Mike Thibault shakes up the WNBA Draft again with surprise selection of Kiara Leslie

Another Mike Thibault special.

The Washington Mystics began the day of the WNBA Draft by making headlines and ended it with a surprise No. 10 pick. At 10:20 am on Wednesday, the Mystics sent an email to fans with the subject line, “Washington Mystics Draft Day Transaction.” There was no transaction, just a thoroughly entertaining video of the perpetually energetic Natasha Cloud telling everyone at the Mystics’ arena, including Pax the mascot, about the impending draft.

Less than 12 hours later, there was similar excitement at a Kick Back Jacks sports bar in North Carolina when Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault selected NC State’s Kiara Leslie with the No. 10 pick. Leslie, who was named an All-American Honorable Mention by multiple outlets this season, celebrated with family, friends, and NC State supporters and spoke with reporters by phone after the announcement.

Most analysts had Leslie projected as a second-round pick, but Thibault said the Mystics had had their eye on the 6’ wing “for quite some time.” Leslie averaged 15.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game for an NC State team that started this season 21-0 and got to the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 3 seed.

She scored a season-high 30 points at Syracuse in February and notched double-digit rebounds ten times this season, including twice in the NCAA Tournament. Thibault praised Leslie’s work ethic and noted the strides she has made offensively throughout her college career, including improving her three-point shooting from 32.5% last season to 38.1% this year. But Thibault seemed most enamored with Leslie’s defense, calling her “a pro defender coming out of college” and “the most ready player as far as playing both ends of the court.” He compared her to the Mystics’ surprise first-round pick from last year, Ariel Atkins, who averaged 11.3 points per game and made the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team as a rookie.

Leslie agreed with Thibault’s assessment of her game, expressing surprise at being taken at No. 10 but saying, “I feel more prepared than ever” to play professionally. It helps that Leslie is familiar with Washington, DC from her time at Maryland. Leslie will also be part of a cadre of former Maryland Terrapins on the Mystics roster, joining Kristi Toliver, Tianna Hawkins, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. Leslie spoke glowingly of her time playing alongside Walker-Kimbrough, saying, “Nobody could outwork her. … It’ll be great to be teammates with her again.” Walker-Kimbrough’s advice to her former teammate was simple: be herself.

Leslie is confident in her ability to do just that. “I think I can come in and defend well, rebound,” she told reporters Wednesday night. “I’ve really improved on my shooting, so I definitely don’t plan on slacking in that area any. And definitely slashing, what I’ve been known for all my life.”

Thibault also stressed that Leslie would not be expected to fill the shoes of Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, a hard-nosed, veteran guard who signed with the Los Angeles Sparks in the offseason. “We loved all of what [Ruffin-Pratt] brought us,” he explained, “but … we’re not expecting Kiara Leslie to come in here and necessarily replace Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. … The draft pick that goes to a team that’s picking eight, nine, ten, eleven, whatever, doesn’t have the same pressure to help a team that somebody does in the first three or four picks.”

While Leslie will compete for minutes at the guard and wing positions, the Mystics drafted Louisville forward Sam Fuehring in the third round with the No. 34 pick. The 6’3” Fuehring went to a Final Four as a junior and averaged 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game as a senior. She will face an uphill climb, though, to make the Mystics roster, as the team already has former WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, Belgian international Emma Meesseman, Hawkins, LaToya Sanders, and Myisha Hines-Allen in the frontcourt. (Coincidentally, Hines-Allen was also a Louisville Cardinal, playing with Fuehring for three seasons.)

Thibault has been known for shaking up the draft in recent years, with Cloud, Meesseman, and Hines-Allen all being second-round selections who beat the odds to make the Mystics roster. Thibault attributed his success in the draft to hard work and a bit of luck: the Mystics coaches create a “several-page dossier” on every player projected to be drafted in the first two rounds, and for the players they like best, they talk not just to the players’ college head coaches and assistant coaches, but also strength coaches and athletic trainers. For picks after the first round, Thibault said, “I think you try to do one of two things: you try to find a player that exactly fits your team, or you take a stab at talent and hope it works out.”

It has certainly worked out for the Mystics over the past few seasons, as many of the players Thibault has drafted were on the roster that got to the WNBA Finals last season. Other teams might have drafted bigger names or had more picks than the Mystics did on Wednesday, but another one of Thibault’s surprises might just put the Mystics over the top in 2019.

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