In the WNBA’s Florida bubble, Kiara Leslie showed why the Washington Mystics made her the 10th overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft. Coming out of North Carolina State (and before that at Maryland), Leslie was a dynamic guard who had just averaged 15.9 points and 2.8 assists playing 33.4 minutes a night. She was also named to the First Team All-ACC and All-ACC Defensive Team, averaging 7.2 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, as a guard.
Not only were the Mystics getting a player who could facilitate and score, Leslie was seen as a capable lockdown defender who could limit wing scorers and disrupt in the paint. At 6-foot, Leslie was grabbing seven rebounds a game and averaging almost one block per game. Belying her height was an incredible work ethic and eyes in the back of her head.
Only days into the 2019 WNBA preseason, Leslie was diagnosed with a torn meniscus, an injury that would require surgery, and was expected to miss three to four months. Despite missing what would have been her entire rookie season, she flashed her versatile skill set in 19 games this summer in Florida.
The 2020 rendition of the Mystics offered Leslie the opportunity to earn valuable minutes most rookies don’t get. She started in 10 games for Washington and averaged 21.8 minutes. In Florida, the former N.C. State star averaged 5.5 points per game, 3.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.4 blocks.
In the Mystics’ lone playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury, Leslie scored seven points, had six rebounds, four assists, one steal and two blocks. As a rookie, playing for a championship team, she was able to acclimate to the intensity and physicality of the WNBA — an experience that will undoubtedly prove beneficial upon the commencement of the 2021 season.
Even in a season where, as a 6-foot guard, Leslie managed to grab three rebounds and half a block per game, her contributions did not fully appear on the stats sheet. What the former N.C. State guard does so well, and what will keep her in the league for many years, is an unending motor and drive on defense.
To cement the argument of Leslie’s defensive genius, arguably her best game of the season came in a match in which she scored only five points. In a late August matchup, the Mystics took on Phoenix in the first of back-to-back meetings. Against the Mercury, Leslie was tasked with locking down Diana Taurasi, fairly deemed one of the best players of all time, if not the best.
In that August 23rd matchup, Leslie defended a player who has appeared in 24 times as many games as she has. Against one of the legends of the game, Leslie, unsurprisingly, did more than hold her own — the 2019 draft pick made life uncomfortable for the White Mamba.
The now worst-kept secret within the Mystics’ organization: Leslie is an absolute stud on defense. In that Against contest, Taurasi scored 23 points (34 including 11 made free throws) en route a Mercury win, but only three of her total points came when she was guarded by Leslie. Other than one foul on Taurasi, Leslie mostly held one of the all-time greats in check.
While Leslie will need to work on her shooting — 35 percent from the field and 36 percent from three — she is poised to be the heartbeat of the Mystics’ defensive corps moving forward. Having fully displayed what she can do on the defensive side of the ball this season, Leslie should be in the discussion for the team’s primary on-ball defender tasked with locking up the opposition’s top offensive threat on a nightly basis.
With two years remaining on her rookie deal, Leslie will have time to develop her shooting stroke. What makes Leslie such a lethal defender is her premier speed and anticipation coupled with an ability to stay in front of her player. More often than not, when the Mystics force a turnover or retain possession, Leslie’s number 1 is carrying the ball; she is a hustle and team-first type of player. Just imagine adding a consistent shot to the game of a 6-foot, rookie guard who has already flashed a keen defensive awareness and an ability to block and rebound.