May 22, 2023
Career-high performance shows how Shakira Austin could unlock Mystics’ offense
'She’s spinning and shaking and all that stuff’s coming out'
In the preseason, there was a lot of buzz about what Washington Mystics center Shakira Austin might be capable of in her second WNBA season. Austin had impressed in 2022, averaging 8.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game en route to a spot on the All-Rookie team, and she won MVP of the Israeli League this offseason.
Addressing the national media on May 16, Mystics head coach Eric Thibault didn’t shy away from those expectations for Austin. “We see her development as a real two-way player at an elite level, hopefully,” he said. “We’re not putting any timetable or any box around her. She can be as good as she wants as soon as she wants.”
That day seemingly came on Sunday against the Connecticut Sun in just the second game of the season. The Mystics lost 80-74, squandering a 12-point first-half lead, but the 6’5 Austin set a career high with 21 points and added 11 rebounds for the first 20-10 game of her career. She shot 10-for-14 from the field and added two assists and one block in just over 26 minutes of action.
Austin’s dominant performance bodes well for Washington’s offense, which Thibault said is still “a work in progress” to start the season. If the Mystics can get more production consistently from last season’s fifth-leading scorer, the offense could be formidable when it all comes together.
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Austin started the 2023 season much like her rookie year. Last season, she had a quiet three points and three rebounds in the season opener, then recorded a double-double against former WNBA MVP Sylvia Fowles and the Minnesota Lynx. On Friday, Austin had another relatively quiet opener with six points, three rebounds and three assists before starring against a vaunted Sun front line of Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones on Sunday.
Austin was not at her best on Friday, she said, in what was her first game action with this year’s roster. She had finished her Israeli season mere days before training camp opened, so Thibault elected to rest her for the team’s two preseason games. “First game, it was trying to just knock the dust off,” she told reporters on Sunday.
Thibault and his coaching staff are also still determining how to use Austin best while also ensuring that two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, 2020 Olympian Ariel Atkins and veteran guards Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes all get enough touches.
“[We’re] still trying to figure out where we can get [Austin] the ball and put her in action that gives her an advantage,” Thibault told reporters before Sunday’s game. “Trying to figure out the same thing with Elena, trying to figure out the same thing with Ariel.”
On Sunday, Austin started strong, scoring her first points less than a minute into the game. She caught the ball on the block with the shot clock at eight seconds, then took one dribble into the lane. She absorbed contact from Thomas as she finished a right-handed layup, landing flat on her back.
Austin scored just twice more in the first half, though, both on layups. She told reporters afterward that she played with more energy than in the season opener but was “a little too rushed” in the first half. But in the second half, Austin got to work.
Just over two minutes into the third quarter, she was at the elbow and dove toward the rim. Delle Donne found her, and Austin finished while getting fouled. On the Mystics’ next possession, she posted up Thomas, took two dribbles, faked and hit a turnaround jumper, again through contact, as her team tried to hold off a Sun comeback.
“I love playing with Kira,” Delle Donne told reporters postgame, after she and Austin had combined to assist each other three times and each had recorded double-doubles. “… Kira’s got a knack for really good timing on her cuts, where she allows me to try to attack first but then when she sees, okay, the double’s coming, she’s really good at getting behind the defense and I can find her.”
In the fourth quarter, after the Sun had taken a six-point lead, Austin had perhaps her best play of the game to keep the Mystics close. She defended Jones well and rebounded the missed shot, and she got the ball back on offense outside the 3-point line. Sizing up Jones, she confidently drove into the lane, faked a spin move to her right, and slipped past Jones for a left-handed layup.
“She’s our most mobile big for sure, just [with] her athleticism,” Thibault said postgame. “… Kira’s just a live wire. She’s spinning and shaking and all that stuff’s coming out.”
All 10 of Austin’s baskets on Sunday came within nine feet of the rim, and eight came within five feet. But many came through contact, four were from drives, and two came at the end of the shot clock, adding degrees of difficulty.
“I felt like I finally was able to get a little bit more of a groove,” Austin said postgame. “… I think it’s all just about timing, knowing when you should probably do certain things and when you should take advantage and be aggressive one-on-one.”
Thibault said that the ample defensive attention the Sun paid to Delle Donne, Cloud and Atkins gave Austin more room to work, and she exploited that space throughout the second half. She didn’t often get to drive the ball last season, playing a relatively limited offensive role, but Thibault is giving her more latitude in her sophomore campaign. She was effective on Sunday against any defender the Sun tried, including Thomas, Jones and wing DeWanna Bonner.
“She’s a challenging matchup, that’s for sure,” Sun head coach Stephanie White said postgame with an eye toward the teams’ rematch on Tuesday in Washington. “… You come at her with a smaller player in the post and she goes right over the top of them. You come at her with a bigger player in the post who can match up from a physicality standpoint, and she goes right around them. So we’ll have to make an adjustment in our schemes …
“She’s an outstanding player who’s going to be an all-time great in this league by the time her career’s finished.”
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Even with Austin’s strong performance on Sunday, the Mystics have sometimes struggled to score in the halfcourt in their first two games. They are averaging 92.2 points per 100 possessions, and though that’s a small sample size, it’s well behind the 102.5 they averaged through as many games last season. (Their season average in 2022 was 101.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranked only seventh-best in the league.) The contrast between the two offenses is especially striking given that the Mystics return their top five scorers from 2022 and have had Delle Donne in both games this season, whereas she missed the second game last season to rest her surgically repaired back.
However, if Austin takes a leap offensively, that will make this Mystics team much more dangerous. Thibault told The Next during training camp that his offense wouldn’t have to change much for Austin to increase her average from about nine points per game last season to 15 because she gets so many of her points from smart reads and offensive rebounds rather than set plays. In fact, on Sunday, he noted that Austin didn’t score when the Mystics ran plays for her but did within the flow of the offense.
The next step is for Thibault to put Austin in more actions that play to her strengths, using Sunday as another data point. “I’m still trying to figure out what works best for her offensively,” he reiterated postgame. “You only get so many opportunities to draw up plays for Elena and Ariel and those guys, so we got to sprinkle it in for her.”
In his first season as head coach, Thibault has taken a very collaborative approach with players, asking for their opinions and insights. Even though Austin is four years younger than any other Mystics player, Thibault wants to hear from her, too. They have discussed which spots on the floor are best for her and how to open up space for others. They have also worked through when to deploy her many moves and countermoves, Thibault said, “so she doesn’t try to empty the bag all at once.”
On Sunday, Austin showed off more of what makes her special — even before her team has fully figured out how to harness it. She is finding her footing in a new WNBA season and confident in what she can do, and now it’s on the rest of the league to keep up.
“The sky is the limit for her,” Delle Donne said. “So she’s just going to continue to keep improving, and I think together we can be a really tough duo.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.