Laksa drafted by WNBA’s Storm

Kitija Laksa was drafted by the Seattle Storm in the WNBA Draft on Friday night. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/USF ATHLETICS

It may have happened a year later than initially planned, but Kitija Laksa is headed to the WNBA — and as a first rounder, to boot.

The former USF standout was selected with the 11th overall pick by the Seattle Storm in Friday night’s WNBA Draft, which was conducted virtually due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The social distancing element of the draft actually left Laksa in kind of a weird place.

“The moment I heard my name from Commissioner [Cathy] Engelbert — it was actually crazy,” Laksa virtually told the WNBA later Friday night. “I already had a couple of text messages from my friends in the States, because my TV over here in Latvia was a little bit late.  So, it was a crazy, surreal feeling just already kind of knowing what’s happening.

“But the second I saw my name pop on the screen, [I] just tried to hug my family. It was an amazing feeling for all of us — enjoyed it very, very much.”

After winning the 2018 WNBA championship, Seattle finished 18-16 in 2019, ultimately falling in the second round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Sparks. The Storm are led by superstars like Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, which excites Laksa.

“I’ve been following the Seattle Storm for a while with the big names they have,” Laksa said. “It’s a crazy feeling to be a part of this franchise and just to have the opportunity to play along their side and to learn from them.”

But she won’t get to play with them right away. Laksa will not join the Storm until 2021 in order to continue focusing on rehabbing her knee, which she injured in the third game of her senior season at USF, which caused her to miss the rest of the 2018-19 campaign. While it wasn’t her decision to not play in Seattle this year, Laksa didn’t oppose the move either.

“I feel like my knee will be something I will be taking care of my whole career, but I do feel good about it,” Laksa said on a conference call with reporters. “I started playing in December, and I felt good. Of course, there’s ups and downs along the way, but everything was good, everything felt good. Right now, just keeping everything in check in these crazy times in the world.”

Laksa becomes the third USF player to be picked in the first round and just the sixth to be picked overall. The last Bull to be picked in the draft was Courtney Williams with the No. 8 pick in 2016.

“I could not be prouder of Kit,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said in a statement. “Unfortunately, her career here was cut short her senior year, but her impact and influence on our program will go down in history. She was an excellent representative of our program, on and off the floor, and I couldn’t be prouder of her on this special evening.”

That feeling goes both ways.

“I’m very thankfully for the opportunity he [Fernandez] gave me at USF,” Laksa said. “I wouldn’t have been the player I am right now if it wasn’t for the system over there and the opportunities I got at South Florida.”

A 6-foot wing, Laksa was one of the greatest Bulls ever, finishing No. 6 in career scoring (1,764 points), No. 2 in 3-point percentage (39.1) and No. 1 in free-throw percentage (89.6) in program history. She likely would have finished No. 1 in all three categories had she not gone down to injury.

The unanimous AAC Freshman of the Year in 2016, Laksa’s USF career only got better as time went on. Laksa’s sophomore campaign included six 30-point games and 12 games of at least 20 points.

But it was her junior season where she truly shined. She led the NCAA in free-throw percentage (96.5 percent), broke USF’s junior single season scoring record with 717 points (second all-time for any single season regardless of class) and hit an NCAA-record 11 consecutive 3-pointers in a game against Southern on Dec. 15, 2017 on her way to a 40-point night.

The only player in Division I her junior season that posted two games with 40 or more points, Laksa’s most notable effort came in a 41-point performance against No. 13 Ohio State on Feb. 11, 2018.

A unanimous selection to the preseason AAC First Team heading into her senior season and an almost slam dunk top-10 pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, Laksa’s 2018-19 season was cut short before it truly began after she fell awkwardly trying to catch a stretch pass in a blowout win against Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 15, 2018, which caused her to tear her ACL and meniscus. It ended what could have been a special season for both Laksa and the Bulls, but she was able to take some positives away from it.

“It’s still a very, very sick memory that I have, and that I will probably carry for a very long time,” Laksa said. “I’ve put that in the past, and I’m not really focusing on the injury any more or the season that could have, would have happened.

“I’m glad that that year, I learned a lot of different things while staying the fourth year at USF. Seeing basketball from the other side, I would say, seeing how team and just college sports work in general. So there’s a lot that I can take out of that that I learned.”

Laksa averaged 32.5 minutes and 17.8 points across 99 games at USF, starting in 86. The Bulls went to the AAC Tournament championship game and the NCAA Tournament in each of Laksa’s three full seasons and were 74-27 as a program in those years.

Laksa declined entering the WNBA Draft or playing a fifth year at USF after graduating in May 2019 with a degree in psychology, instead opting to play professionally for TTT Riga in her native Latvia.

The WNBA season, originally scheduled to tip off May 15, has been put on hold indefinitely due to the pandemic.