Kitija Laksa was predicted to go No. 10 overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft, but three games into the 2018-19 USF season, the Bulls’ standout wing went down with a torn ACL, and her shot at being part of the draft that year was gone.
After a year of recovery and a season of EuroLeague basketball in her native Latvia, Laksa was back on the road to the draft. Now, she’s WNBA-bound after being selected 11th overall in the 2020 draft by the Seattle Storm.
Just when Laksa got where she wanted to be, the coronavirus pandemic put everything on hold.
“The ride has been crazy,” she said on a Zoom call with The Oracle. “Just being forced not to play because of the injury, finally being able to play and feeling good, and kind of finding my own rhythm, and then everything’s just shut down in the world.”
Laksa and the Storm came to an agreement that she would not join the team until the 2020-21 season. The effect of the pandemic factored into that decision, as the resumption of leagues — or start, in the case of the WNBA — remains uncertain.
“It was a mutual agreement and decision, knowing how crazy things are going on right now in the world,” Laksa said. “We don’t even know when things are going to start or regards to the season or traveling.
“That is kind of the hardest part, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
The uncertainty of league play also means Laksa’s immediate future is uncertain. After forgoing a redshirt senior season with USF last year, Laksa joined TTT Riga, her hometown team in Latvia.
But where she’ll end up before joining Seattle is up to her agent, Laksa said.
“The goal up until next year’s WNBA season is for me to play somewhere in Europe,” she said. “In EuroLeague, EuroCup, some of the top leagues over here in a top team or wherever it is, right now, that’s uncertain.
“It’s early days for me to tell where I’ll end up for the next European season.”
While she awaits linking up with a professional team, maintaining fitness is a priority. The Latvian government has handled the pandemic relatively well. In Riga, social distancing is enforced, which means some businesses, including gyms, have been shut down.
Despite not having access to professional exercise equipment, Laksa has found a way to stay in shape while abiding by the government’s guidelines.
“It’s still kind of cold and chilly outside so not much to do outside,” she said. “I do have a hoop, put some shots up, go for a little run, but other than that, I have my garage with my little weight room setup, so that’s been very helpful just to like actually stay healthy, stay in shape, stay fit.”
Most people would probably classify these activities as exercise. Laksa thinks of them differently.
“That’s my entertainment in the quarantine,” she joked.
Regular communication with her trainer has helped make sure Laksa doesn’t overdo it. That same trainer helped her rehabilitate after her torn ACL and got her back into the rhythm of basketball.
“I’ve been working with him over two years before I got hurt. He was our national team athletic trainer and strength coach as well,” Laksa said. “When I decided to stay at home, I knew I wanted to work with him.”
Careful recovery and “working her butt off just to be able to play ball again,” as Laksa put it, led to her finding a place in this year’s draft.
It was never a question of if she would get drafted. It was a matter of when, according to Laksa.
“It was a matter of time, a matter of who’s going to pick me,” she said. “I was very confident, very sure about it. I know my game. I proved myself when I was in the States.”
That confidence led to her selection in the first round. She was the fifth European player to do so in the past five drafts.
Laksa was one of two European players to be selected in the first round, former Oregon forward Satou Sabally (Germany) going No. 2 overall to the Dallas Wings.
With the success of Sabally and Laksa, as well as teams like USF building a squad of European talent, professional women’s basketball in the U.S. could grow to become more diversified as it recognizes talent from across the world.
“Just food for thought,” Laksa said, “there’s a lot of good basketball going on around the world.”
While Laksa’s journey to the WNBA was somewhat unconventional, her hope is that girls learn from it and understand that the path to professional basketball isn’t always a straight shot.
“I think it doesn’t matter where you go, everyone can play basketball,” Laksa said. “My path to the draft was kind of crazy, so I hope that kind of shows little girls, ‘You should just dream. You can dream, you can do it and you can reach those goals.’ That’s the big pride that I will carry.
“I hope it just shows someone else that, ‘I can do this. If she can do it, I can do it.’”
For the full conversation with Kitija Laksa, watch The Oracle Sports Podcast with Brian Hattab and Nolan Brown, which premieres later this week.