For WNBA fans, Kiara Leslie’s first WNBA season has been full of surprises. The first surprise came on draft night, when the Washington Mystics selected the former NC State star as their first-round pick. Leslie had been widely projected as a second-round pick, but Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said that she was “a player we’ve been focused on for quite some time. … we felt that this was the most ready player as far as playing both ends of the court.”
Unfortunately, Leslie will likely not have a chance to show her end-to-end talents this season. One month after the draft, on the eve of the team’s first preseason scrimmage, the Mystics announced that Leslie had suffered a torn meniscus in her right knee and undergone surgery. Leslie recently told High Post Hoops that she first found out about the injury a week before training camp and had had no knee pain in college. The Mystics announced that she would miss an estimated three to four months, which would put her return date in late August or early September.
However, Leslie’s return date was soon delayed indefinitely. On June 9, Thibault told High Post Hoops that Leslie had had a second surgery. Leslie recently explained, “My swelling wasn’t going away and I was still having a little bit of pain, so [the doctors] wanted to see what was going on.” She called the setback “frustrating” but “something that I had to get taken care of.” The second surgery revealed no clear reason for Leslie’s discomfort.
Leslie has continued with her daily rehab and says that the knee is now “a lot better. It’s getting there.” On June 27, Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud posted a video to her Instagram story of Leslie working out on a stationary bike, with no sign of a limp or favoritism toward her injured knee.
By mid-July, two months after her first surgery, Leslie had progressed to some on-court work. “She’s been doing ball-handling drills, kind of stationary,” Thibault said on July 13. “She’s been able to stand still in the lane shooting. … She’s happy to be touching a basketball.”
Despite her progress, Thibault is still unable to say whether Leslie will play this season, and the team has not stated how many extra weeks of recovery she will need based on the second surgery. “I don’t know if she’ll even suit up at all this year. I really don’t,” Thibault said on July 13. “We’re just kind of going every two weeks to [see] where she is.” Leslie has broken down her recovery into even smaller chunks of time: “I’m just taking it day by day, making sure that my body is fully healed before I try to go back out there.”
In the meantime, Leslie has been a consistent presence at practices and home games. Last month, Thibault said she might travel with the team late in the season, but recently he emphasized that it would only happen if she is close to returning. “We’re not going to travel her to just be on the plane for the sake of it,” he said. “She can get more work done here. It’s better off for her to be here.” Leslie explained that when the team has short road trips, she is rehabbing daily at the Mystics’ arena, but during their longer trips she is sometimes able to go visit family or otherwise travel for a few days.
When the Mystics are in DC, Leslie has also had the opportunity to get to know her teammates. When asked which teammate has been most supportive during her rehab, Leslie replied, “Everyone contributes … I spent a lot more time with [Aerial Powers] because I would ride with her to and from practice every day. I would ride with Shatori [Walker-Kimbrough] sometimes and Myisha [Hines-Allen]. I was roommates with Shey [Peddy] during training camp, so we bonded … they all helped me in some kind of way.” However, she admitted that not traveling with the team as a rookie has been difficult: “It’s definitely hard because they’ve bonded a lot more over time because they travel together. They’re together all the time.”
The good news is that Leslie is expected to be at full strength for the 2020 WNBA season—and hopefully for a season overseas this winter, if she chooses. In June, Thibault called the 2019 WNBA season “kind of a lost year [for her] right now, other than to be around here and learn and watch, get stronger, get her body right. Next year will be more of her rookie year.” But she will have a “huge advantage” over the rookies taken in the 2020 WNBA Draft, according to Thibault, from “seeing what it’s like, [getting] to know how we go about things, to know plays, to know teammates. … it should help her a lot.”
Leslie said that her biggest takeaway so far has been “the general concept of how much easier basketball is when you just play and just keep moving on the court … not necessarily running plays, just feeding off each other and feeling where everybody’s most comfortable out on the floor.”
Not much has been easy in Kiara Leslie’s first WNBA season, but rather than rushing her back, Thibault is focusing on the big picture. As he told The Washington Post in May, “We didn’t draft her for 10 to 12 weeks; we drafted her for 10 to 12 years. So we’ll get through this.”
Hopefully, going through these surprises and setbacks will ultimately prepare Leslie to make an impact whenever she returns—whether that’s late in her first rookie year or right away in her second.
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