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.
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 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."
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., might carry more name recognition with local basketball fans. She spent the first three years of her college career at Maryland, sitting out the 2016-17 season because of injury, before transferring to play with the Wolfpack. Leslie graduated from Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in criminology.
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 their 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; they bring Emma Meesseman back to an already loaded lineup that includes 2018 all-stars Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver.
The Mystics will reunite two pairs of former teammates at training camp in May. Leslie played with Washington guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough at Maryland, and Sam Fuehring, the Mystics' second and final pick in the draft at No. 34 overall, 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.
2019 WNBA draft
1. Las Vegas, Jackie Young, G, Notre Dame
2. New York, Asia Durr, G, Louisville
3. Indiana, Tearia McCowan, C, Mississippi State
4. Chicago, Katie Lou Samuelson, G/F, Connecticut
5. Dallas, Arike Ogunbowale, G, Notre Dame
6. Minnesota, Napheesa Collier, F, Connecticut
7. Los Angeles, Kalani Brown, C, Baylor
8. Phoenix, Alanna Smith, F, Stanford
9. Connecticut, Kristine Anigwe, C/F, California
10. Washington, Kiara Leslie, G, N.C. State
11. Atlanta, Brianna Turner, F, Notre Dame
12. Seattle, Ezi Magbegor, F, Australia
13. Phoenix (from Indiana via Las Vegas), Sophie Cunningham, G, Missouri
14. New York, Han Xu, C, China
15. Chicago, Chloe Jackson, G, Baylor
16. Minnesota (from Las Vegas), Jessica Shephard, F, Notre Dame
17. Dallas, Megan Gustafson, F, Iowa
18. Minnesota, Natiha Hiedeman, G, Marquette
19. Los Angeles, Marina Mabrey, G, Notre Dame
20. Minnesota (from Phoenix), Cierra Dillard, G, Buffalo
21. Connecticut (from Connecticut via Atlanta), Bridget Carleton, G, Iowa State
22. Dallas (from Washington), Kennedy Burke, G, UCLA
23. Atlanta, Maite Cazorla, G, Oregon
24. Seattle, Anriel Howard, F, Mississippi State
25. Indiana, Paris Kea, G, North Carolina
26. New York, Megan Huff, F, Utah
27. Chicago, Maria Conde, F, Spain
28. Indiana (from Las Vegas), Caliya Robinson, F, Georgia
29. Dallas, Morgan Bertsch, F, US Davis
30. Minnesota, Kenisha Bell, G, Minnesota
31. Los Angeles, Angela Salvadores, G, Spain
32. Phoenix, Arica Carter, G, Louisville
33. Connecticut, Regan Magarity, F, Virginia Tech
34. Washington, Sam Fuehring, F, Louisville
35. Atlanta, Li Yueru, C, China
36. Seattle, Maci Morris, G, Kentucky