HARRISONBURG — After Kirby Burkholder’s freshman season on the James Madison women’s basketball team, some wondered whether the former Turner Ashby High School star was good enough for Division I.
Four years later, she might end up in the WNBA.
Burkholder said Tuesday she has accepted a free-agent contract with the Washington Mystics, becoming the fourth Kenny Brooks-coached player since 2007 to get a shot in the WNBA.
Burkholder was not picked in Monday night’s WNBA draft.
“At first, it was just kind of a little surreal,” Burkholder said Tuesday. “It’s something I’ve always wanted and worked for and dreamed of, so I wasn’t really telling people until now. So I think it’s just hitting me a little more now. I’m definitely excited and very humbled.”
The 6-foot shooting guard from Bridgewater signed her free-agent contract Tuesday, a JMU spokesman said. Burkholder will join Meredith Alexis, Tamera Young and Dawn Evans as Brooks-coached players to get WNBA looks.
Young was drafted in 2008 and currently plays for the Chicago Sky. Alexis and Evans, like Burkholder, received free-agent contracts. Neither ended up on a WNBA roster. A free-agent deal means a player gets a chance to make the team — something Burkholder will try to do starting April 28 when preseason practice opens.
The odds of that happening are better than they’ve been since 2009, when the WNBA cut roster spots from 13 to 11 to save money. Thanks to a new collective-bargaining agreement, the 12 WNBA teams now are allowed to have 12 players each.
The WNBA league-minimum salary, as of 2013, was about $38,000.
“I’m just going to stick with my game,” Burkholder said. “Shooting definitely, I think that’s what coaches saw in me.”
An email to the Washington Mystics was not returned Tuesday.
Burkholder, the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, was the league’s second-leading scorer behind Towson’s Tanisha McTiller, who averaged 19.4 points per game. Burkholder averaged 18.6 points while being one of the CAA’s top outside shooters. She led the league in 3-pointers per game (3.1) and was fifth in 3-point percentage, shooting 36.1 percent (110-for-305).
Burkholder — who helped JMU to the CAA regular-season and tournament championships, as well as its first NCAA tournament win since 1991 — also led the conference in free-throw percentage, making 89.3 percent of 177 attempts. She was third in rebounding, averaging 8.7 per game.
During the regular season, Burkholder was considered a fringe WNBA prospect, but her stock rose as the season progressed. After the Dukes’ two NCAA tournament games, Brooks said, it went up even more, putting her on the verge of being drafted.
In JMU’s opening-round NCAA game against Gonzaga, Burkholder had 28 points and 18 rebounds. In the Dukes’ second-round game against Texas A&M, she had 20 and 10.
“I really thought that it was borderline that she was going to get drafted,” said Brooks, who just finished his 12th season coaching JMU. “I thought her chances were better than anticipated, which was evident, because as soon as the draft was over, I think she had that option probably a half hour or an hour after the draft was over with. It just goes to show that she was pretty high on a lot of people’s lists.”
Burkholder said it was quicker than that.
She said her agent, Eric Wiesel (he also represents Evans, who has been playing professionally in France), called her immediately after the WNBA draft ended Monday night. She said Mystics coach Mike Thibault called her about five minutes later.
Wiesel could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Brooks said the Los Angeles Sparks, San Antonio Silvers and Tulsa Shock also showed interest in Burkholder. But the Mystics were the first team to offer Burkholder a deal, and she took it, she said, because there was no guarantee she’d get another one.
Brooks said the key for Burkholder to stick in the WNBA — it’s not uncommon for first-round draft picks to be cut — is to find her niche. It will, no doubt, be as a shooter.
“I think there are a lot of 6-foot, athletic people in the WNBA, but they’re not a whole lot of 6-foot great shooters who can do other things,” Brooks said. “And I think, before she can show them that she can do other things, she’s got to be able to have a niche to keep her there, and I think shooting is going to be the one thing that keeps her there.”