Ruffin-Pratt Making Most of Opportunity

Five minutes.

That’s how long it took the Washington Mystics to call Tierra Ruffin-Pratt after the 2013 WNBA Draft came to a close.

Five minutes. But it felt like forever for the former University of North Carolina guard.

Five years ago going undrafted for Ruffin-Pratt would’ve been unheard of. Coming out T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, V.A. Ruffin-Pratt was the number one ranked guard and ninth best overall player — in the country. During her time in high school she was a four time All-MET selection and was the All-MET player of the year during her junior and senior seasons.

So of course Ruffin-Pratt had her choice of college offers — highlighted by the University of Maryland, Duke, and the University of Virginia — but she ultimate chose to be a Tar Heel.

“[UNC] was just a home environment,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “The coaches are great and North Carolina was great. It was a great place for me.”

The beginning of Ruffin-Pratt’s success came when it was time to transition from recreational ball to the varsity high school team.

In high school, Ruffin-Pratt had to face the harsh reality that she wasn’t going to grow anymore, which meant a change in position was in order. After playing in the post during her early days of basketball, her high school coach, George Porcha, knew she had to be moved to a guard position.

“Starting from my 8th grade year I played a lot with the varsity team and Coach Porcha pushed me to be the player that I am,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “I played in the post until I got to high school so he had to transition me to a guard because I wasn’t going to get much bigger than I already was. I contribute a lot of [my success] to that change and to my coaches.”

The eventual transition to college ball started off well for Ruffin-Pratt, who averaged 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game. UNC immediately fell in love with her versatility, moving her all around the floor. However, her freshman year was also the beginning of her fight with shoulder injuries. She fought off a dislocated shoulder, but was still able to appear in 30 games — starting 19 of them.

During her sophomore year, Ruffin-Pratt averaged 6.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. On December 19, 2010, Ruffin-Pratt re-injured her shoulder and suffered a partial shoulder dislocation, but managed to not miss a game because of it. She continued her strong sophomore season in the NCAA Tournament where she averaged nearly a double double in tournament play before the Tar Heels fell to Stanford in the Sweet 16.

Her shoulder continued to be an issue during her junior season, where she missed the first 13 games of the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. She was eventually able to perform at a high level in the final 18 games of the season averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists for the Tar Heels.

Ruffin-Pratt saved her best for last and broke out during her senior season. She led UNC in scoring (15.5 ppg), steals (2.6 spg), and assists (4.2 apg) earning her an All-ACC selection. However, her lingering shoulder injury continued to be a concern for WNBA scouts.

During her time in Carolina blue, Ruffin-Pratt found herself all over the court playing a variety of different positions. Her versatility has always been a strength and was one of the reasons Mystics coach Mike Thibault noticed her.

“What I like about her is her versatility,” Thibault said at the beginning of the season. “She can play a bunch of different positions. She can play the 3, the 2, the 1, and she can guard people. We might even throw her in there as a power forward in some games against teams with small power forwards. She gives us versatility, and that’s kept her on the floor so far is her ability to defend.”

The Mystics were reportedly interested in selecting Ruffin-Pratt in the third round, but eventually traded that pick away. When the UNC guard wasn’t taken by anyone else, she received a call from Coach Thibault telling her there were things she needed to work on before camp — most notably getting into better shape.

She did and now she finds herself back home. Against all odds the undrafted rookie made the team and its been a successful marriage ever since.

“[My favorite WNBA moment so far] would probably have to be when coach Thibault told me that I made the team,” Ruffin Pratt said. “That was probably the greatest moment.”

Ruffin-Pratt has made the winningest coach in WNBA history glad he made that call.

“[Her game has] changed just from college to coming here,” Thibault said. “The conditioning, her attention to detail, her jump shooting has gotten better since she got here. She’s gotten more consist, she’s what we hope she would be: an athlete who can play two or three positions.

“There have been daily improvements in her skills. Working on her ball handling, working on her shooting, learning the league, she’s trying to figure out what physically she can get away with. In college she was able to get up there and block some shots, but she’s not going to be able to do that in our league, get out there and getting pump fake and things like that.”

In her first 10 games, Ruffin-Pratt was averaging around 15 minutes per game and putting up 4.5 points, 0.9 assists, and 2.4 rebounds. But the last four games have been a stronger offensive showing for the 5’10’’ guard who has posted 8.5 points per game on 57% shooting.

And fellow Tar Heel alum, point guard Ivory Latta, can’t help but notice her young teammate.

“[Her game] has changed a lot,” Latta said. “But then again I knew she had it in her. At UNC she had a different role, she had a lot of roles, but here she’s comfortable to play her position that coach wants her to play.

“She’s shining bright, man. She’s shining bright.”

Added Ruffin-Pratt: “[Latta] has helped me a lot since I got here. All through training camp she’s always talking to me always in my ear about everything so she’s helped me out a lot.”

With Latta there to help show her the ropes, Ruffin-Pratt has had a fairly smooth transition to the pros.

“She and all the other rookies have been accepted by the veterans because the young ones are high energy,” Thibault said. “They know she plays all out almost everyday so that almost gives you instant acceptance from veterans [when] you come in and play that hard everyday.”

And her high energy, fast-paced style has been easily worked into Thibault’s system.

“At Carolina we played up and down a lot with lots of fast break opportunities,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “And that’s exactly what coach Thibault wants to do. A lot of pick and rolls, a lot of up and down stuff.”

With the first half of the season coming to a close its clear that Thibault’s system has been working for Ruffin-Pratt — as well as for the rest of the Mystics. Washington currently posts an 8-9 record, good for third in the East.

It’s hard to believe that the Mystics won a total of five games last year and have an 11-57 record over the past two seasons. And despite coming off the bench there’s no question that Ruffin-Pratt has been apart of that improvement.

“You know, my goal for her is to see her be that all around player and move her around and see her do things that we need for that night to help us win,” Thibault said of his undrafted rookie. “And she’s done that. She’s helped us win some games in the fourth quarter with her defense.”

Added Latta: “She’s a great girl [and] I’m just so proud of her. She’s growing up and all around she’s a great person, but out there on the court she’s all business. TRP just gets the job done out there on the court [and] I’m just so proud of her on how she just came in, soaked everything in, just learning and doing everything coach wants her to do.”

Not only has her rise from an undrafted rookie to a legitimate threat off the bench been a reason for Mystics fans to cheer for her, but also having a hometown player to root for has made it all the more exciting. And Ruffin-Pratt has been enjoying just as much.

“I just want to stay in the league,” she said. “Stay here in Washington and keep playing.”

Washington hopes the same.