From Latvia, to South Florida back to Latvia and now in Seattle — Kitija Laksa has taken an unconventional journey to the WNBA.
“Whatever it takes,” said the Storm rookie guard. “That’s how it is. My career so far has taken me to a lot of beautiful places and great teams. I’ve been able to have gotten the chance to learn from great players so far. This stop is probably the biggest one, being in Seattle.”
The Storm’s two-week training camp means everything to the 24-year-old sharpshooter who starred at South Florida.
Admittedly, she’s on the bubble and isn’t guaranteed one of Seattle’s 12 coveted roster spots despite the team taking her No. 11 overall in the first round of the 2020 WNBA draft.
“She’s battling for a spot,” coach Dan Hughes said during a Zoom call on Thursday. “We’ve been really up front with that. It’s not like it’s one spot. There are opportunities at a couple of spots, but she knew coming in that training camp was important to her to present the reasons why she should be on the team.”
Last year, the Storm surprised many when it snagged the 6-foot wing who missed most of her senior season at South Florida after suffering a season-ending ACL injury and meniscus tear on Nov. 15, 2018.
Laksa, whose first and last name is pronounced “KIT-ee-uh” and “LOCK-suh,” returned home where she played for her national team and professionally for TTT Riga the past two years.
Considering the composition of a Storm roster that includes seven returners and 13 newcomers, the defending WNBA champion appears to have one spot on the team for the handful of hopefuls in camp, including rookie guard Kiana Williams and 12-year veteran forward Tamera Young.
“He’s been straightforward with the things he likes and the things I need to work on,” Laksa said when asked about her discussions with Hughes. “I like the conversations we’re having.”
Hughes, who favorably compared Laksa to Minnesota Lynx standout guard Kayla McBride, has been enamored with the Seattle rookie’s offensive skillset and shooting ability ever since he saw her playing years ago for the Latvian national team in international competitions.
“She obviously starts from being an excellent catch and shoot and one-bounce finisher,” Hughes said. “She has a good understanding of how to bring that skill out. She moves without the ball extremely well. She’s a little longer than you realize. Kit has some length so if you’re going to guard her well, you better be right on her because if you’re closing out she’s got enough size and she sees things well.”
Despite missing most of her senior season, Laksa finished her career at USF sixth on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,715 points), third on point average list (17.8), first on the free throw percentage list (.896) and second on the three-point field goal percentage list (.391).
South Florida women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez believes Laksa would have been a WBCA All-American, national player of the year candidate and potential lottery pick in the 2019 WNBA draft if she didn’t get hurt.
“What separates her from people in the league is how well she shoots the ball,” Fernandez said Thursday during a phone interview. “She can stretch defenses. And with her size she can create off the bounce. She’s a big guard who is comfortable handling the basketball.
“I’ve coached a lot of good players (including Atlanta Dream guard Courtney Williams) and Kit is one of the hardest working players I’ve ever been around.”
If Laksa remains with the Storm when WNBA rosters are set on May 13, then she’ll be the just third Latvian to play in the league, joining Anete Jēkabsone-Žogota and Zane Tamane.
Laksa idolized Jēkabsone-Žogota while growing up in Latvia, a relatively small country that’s roughly the size of West Virginia, with a population of about two million located in the Baltic region of Northern Europe.
“We had one Olympic appearance (in 2008) so that whole Latvian women’s national team, it was a big accomplishment,” Laksa said. “The leader was Anete Jēkabsone-Žogota, she played in Connecticut and got a title with the Mercury. She’s definitely been a big player and big idol for most of us growing up.”
Laksa’s role with the Storm is still undefined, but in theory she could replace fan favorite Sami Whitcomb, who had been a lethal three-point threat off the bench the past four seasons before Seattle traded her to the New York Liberty in February.
“It’s a very fair comparison,” Hughes said.
However, Laksa’s ability to digest and perfect the Storm’s trapping defense may ultimately determine if she remains with the team.
“That’s the thing I’m working very hard on,” she said. “(Hughes) has pointed out to me there has been progress. I’m happy with that. This is my shot. This is my opportunity to show who I am and what I got and hopefully help the team.”