June 27, 2023 

How Shakira Austin’s hip injury changes things for Washington Mystics

‘A huge, huge loss on both sides of the ball’

The Washington Mystics announced on Tuesday that second-year center/forward Shakira Austin will miss at least three weeks with a strained left hip. It is the first major injury of her professional career.

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Austin was injured just over two minutes into the fourth quarter of an overtime loss to the New York Liberty on Sunday. She deflected a perimeter pass from New York’s Sabrina Ionescu, but as she chased down the ball in transition, she seemed to step wrong and immediately grabbed her upper leg. She crashed to the court, and after play was stopped, several teammates huddled around the crying Austin. Veteran point guard Natasha Cloud helped carry Austin to the locker room and was talking to her, trying to comfort her, as they exited.

An MRI on Monday confirmed the injury, which is not severe enough to require surgery. Before the injury, Austin was playing like a candidate for WNBA Most Improved Player and was in the conversation for an All-Star berth. The former No. 3 overall draft pick has started all 13 games this season and is averaging 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 26.2 minutes per game while shooting 50.8% from the field. She has particularly excelled on defense, ranking in the top five in the WNBA in defensive rating, defensive rebound percentage and defensive win shares through Monday.

Austin will be re-evaluated in three weeks to assess when she can return this season. “We’ve got to kind of let her body calm down a little bit so we can get a better read on it,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on Tuesday.

According to Lucas Seehafer, a physical therapist and The Next contributor, recovery from a hip strain starts with decreasing a player’s pain and inflammation. Ways to do that include massage, icing and dry needling — the latter of which Austin had on Tuesday, according to an Instagram story she posted. The typical recovery process also includes working to regain range of motion early on, then building back strength and, eventually, regaining conditioning and basketball rhythm.

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin and guard Natasha Cloud are shown from behind, walking side-by-side. Their heads are both tilted down toward the ground.
Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (0) and guard Natasha Cloud (9) walk up the court during a game against the New York Liberty at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Austin is arguably one of the hardest players for the Mystics to replace based on her combination of defensive ability, athleticism and rim finishing. Thibault has called her “a live wire” for her moves with the ball and considers her the team’s most mobile frontcourt player. At 6’5, she also gives the Mystics more size than they might have in other lineups, and her backup at the center position, 6’5 Amanda Zahui B., has averaged less than six minutes per game.

“[Austin is] a massive piece for us,” Elena Delle Donne, who typically starts next to Austin at power forward, told reporters on Tuesday. ‘It’s a huge, huge loss on both sides of the ball. … You can’t replace a player like Kira, so we’re gonna have to play a little bit differently.”

Zahui B. and forwards Tianna Hawkins and Myisha Hines-Allen are all expected to play more minutes in Austin’s absence, though Thibault wouldn’t reveal who will start. And every player, regardless of position, will have to contribute a little more to fill the void, he said: “We need our starters to play well and be a little bit more on point. We need our bench to come in and give us a lift. Whoever starts in that spot’s gotta be themself and not try to be Shakira.”

Offensively, the Mystics will look to space the floor more without Austin. Delle Donne, Zahui B., Hawkins and Hines-Allen are all capable 3-point shooters, whereas Austin is more of a threat to dive to the rim. All except Delle Donne have started the season slowly in that respect, though, so whether they can knock down shots while Austin is out will be critical for the Mystics.

In Thibault’s estimation, Austin’s defense will be even harder to replace than her offense. “Her combination of mobility and rim protection is very unique in our league,” he said. “… That’s probably the biggest thing. She gives us a dynamic presence offensively, too, but [her absence] probably forces us to make some changes defensively.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin blocks a layup attempt from behind using her right hand.
Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (0) blocks a shot by New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“Defensively, she’s someone that’s irreplaceable,” Delle Donne added. “… We’re really going to have to have one another’s backs, and we’re gonna probably have to send more double teams at times. We’re gonna have to show teams different schemes at times and get more creative because she’s such a good defender. She’s able to kind of mess teams up on her own.”

With Austin unavailable, Thibault wants his team to help sooner defensively when a teammate gets beat, stay disciplined to avoid fouling, and focus more on rebounding. All are areas he had circled for improvement anyway, but Austin’s injury creates a greater urgency.

The Mystics may also add another player temporarily using an emergency hardship contract because Austin’s injury leaves them with only nine healthy players. They had already added rookie guard Abby Meyers on a hardship due to a foot injury to guard Kristi Toliver and guard Li Meng being unavailable while she plays for China in the Asia Cup, but Austin’s injury gives them room for another.

According to Seehafer, if Austin recovers fully before returning to play, this injury should not impact her long-term. The Mystics will likely be cautious with her, just as they have been in recent seasons with other players coming back from injury. That includes Hines-Allen, who remains on a minutes restriction after offseason knee surgery.

The hope, Thibault said, is that the Mystics make the necessary adjustments while Austin is out and are a better team when she returns. Until then, they’ll support her physically and emotionally as she goes through the unfamiliar experience of being injured.

“Seasons never go perfectly. There’s always obstacles, and right now, we’re facing some big ones,” Delle Donne said, thinking about both Austin’s injury and the loss to New York. “… It’s a time to respond and not dwell on certain things. We’ve got to pick it up for Kira.”

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.

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