May 16, 2024 

Back from injury, Washington’s Shakira Austin seizes her chance at a bigger role

Eric Thibault: ‘She took charge of her own future’

WASHINGTON — Shakira Austin seemed to soak in her introduction on Tuesday night, waving to the crowd with both hands as she ran onto the court at the Entertainment and Sports Arena ahead of the Washington Mystics’ season opener.

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Almost exactly midway through the game, she reacted to her first career 3-pointer by “throwing out every three celebration I could think of,” as she told reporters postgame.

And less than 30 minutes after she finished her postgame media obligations, Austin took to the social platform X, writing in part, “I’m back with my girllllssssss and IM FREEEEEE.”

It was that kind of night for Austin: a celebration and a coronation for the third-year center/forward, playing her first regular-season game since undergoing offseason hip surgery. With a minutes restriction in place, Austin logged 19:35 — but her impact was substantial enough that it almost felt like she played the other 20:25, too.

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Austin finished with 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting, five rebounds, five blocks and two assists. The five blocks were a career high, easily surpassing her previous best of two. And beyond the blocked shots, the 6’5 Austin stymied New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart, helping hold the reigning WNBA MVP to eight points on 3-for-9 shooting with three turnovers.

The Mystics ultimately fell to the Liberty, 85-80, but Austin’s star seemed to overshadow even that.

“It’s a testament to her and the work she put in from the time she knew she was having surgery to now. … She took charge of her own future, essentially, to get back to this point,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told reporters postgame. “So it’s great to see. It’s really rewarding, I think, for everybody to watch her back on the court.”

Austin had had a promising start to the 2023 season before straining her left hip against New York in June. She returned in mid-August but reinjured it six games later, and on Dec. 1, the Mystics announced she’d had surgery.

It was Austin’s first major injury as a professional, and it was frustrating and scary at times. On Tuesday, she said, “There was question of whether I was gonna play again.” Nearly every movement she made on the court involved her hip in some way, so she had to be patient and methodical in her rehab.

She did that, working intensively with associate head coach LaToya Sanders, head athletic trainer Christina Kennedy and director of performance Sarah Walls all winter. She matured and learned how to take care of her body like a much older player. One day during training camp, for example, she explained in an Instagram story how she’d been at the gym for nearly 10 hours for practice, media obligations, her rehab routine and a massage.

“I honestly am grateful for this experience,” Austin said at the Mystics’ preseason media day. “I think it’ll make me three times the better player I was going to be coming into this year. … I’m excited for the lessons that I was able to learn … about your body, things that go into being prepared and just being a pro.”

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Austin was cleared to play 5-on-5 shortly before training camp began in late April. She ended up starting the team’s two preseason games, which helped her reacclimate to playing live basketball in front of fans.

By the time Tuesday’s season opener rolled around, Austin seemed confident and in rhythm. Thibault warned reporters pregame about Austin’s comeback, “You can’t get it all back at once.” But Austin challenged that idea with her performance — seemingly the only thing that didn’t return right away was her regular number of minutes.

Austin scored the Mystics’ first points on Tuesday, driving from outside the arc all the way to the rim for an and-one. A few minutes later, she again got the ball outside the arc, but this time, she took a few dribbles and hit a 16-foot pullup over Stewart.

“I felt like I was pretty poised [offensively],” Austin said afterward. “I felt like I played to my strengths … and I think I was just pretty efficient in showing my versatility as well.”

In the first half, Austin racked up blocks almost as quickly as baskets. She got her first rejection only 1:14 into the game and had four in the half, all with her right hand. The fourth, on Stewart with 43.9 seconds left, was particularly emphatic, and Austin pounded her chest and shouted to the crowd in celebration.

“Knowing that I got Kira behind me [defensively], oh, I’m going full out,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough told The Next on Sunday, before Austin’s block party. “… I feel even more secure pressuring up, just knowing like, OK, if you get by me, good luck down there.”

Austin’s timing on her blocks was remarkable given her lack of game minutes in nearly nine months. She joked afterward that she felt even springier than she had before surgery, so “I was in bad shape, I guess.” She also showed her leaping ability when, with two minutes left in the game, she grabbed the rim with one hand as she followed up a Sykes layup, hunting a rebound that ultimately wasn’t there.

The blocks were also a product of Austin’s attention to detail. She said that she focused on blocking shots high in the air, after the shooter had jumped, and not swinging with her arms so she wouldn’t get in foul trouble.

Shortly after her fourth block, Austin gave the Mystics the lead entering halftime. She set a screen to free guard Karlie Samuelson, then popped behind the 3-point line. When she caught the ball, she didn’t hesitate, launching a 3-pointer right in front of Thibault. It swished through the net with 5.1 seconds left, as the shot clock expired.

Guard Brittney Sykes threw her arms out wide and ran toward a jubilant Austin. But Thibault intervened, stepping onto the court and pushing Austin back toward the defensive end.

“I didn’t even know,” Austin said about the remaining time. “I was too hyped.”

Once the halftime buzzer sounded, the Mystics players got the celebration they wanted, with Austin holding up three fingers and getting chest-bumps from her giddy teammates. The shot capped a 13-0 run for the Mystics, giving them momentum that they would largely keep until a challenging fourth quarter gave the Liberty the win.

Austin kept up her work, too, in the second half, including driving on both Stewart and Liberty center Jonquel Jones for scores and bringing the ball up the court herself off a defensive rebound. She also slid across the lane to get her fifth block of the game in the third quarter, deflecting a shot from Liberty forward Nyara Sabally off the backboard.

“You see what her weak-side help does to our defense when she’s out there,” Thibault said. “She closes space that just, there’s not many players in the league who can do that.”

With under a minute to play and the Mystics trailing 81-80, Austin contributed to two straight offensive rebounds to give her team more chances.

She tipped the first one out for center Stefanie Dolson to chase down, then cut around Jones and grabbed the second with one hand. But she chastised herself postgame for missing the go-ahead putback of the second rebound — one of several examples of the Mystics’ effort being there, but their execution letting them down.

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The Mystics were in good spirits postgame despite the loss. Thibault praised his team’s ability to respond to New York’s runs and attributed the result to “just a few careless possessions.” Austin called it “a great start,” pointing to the team’s competitiveness and cohesion.

Tuesday was also hugely promising because of the potential Austin showed. She had accepted a limited role in her first two seasons but always knew she could do more. After veterans Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud departed in the offseason, Thibault was expecting Austin to “make a jump,” and Austin was eager to take that challenge.

Her role expanded right away on Tuesday, as she slid between her usual center spot and power forward. Austin admitted to having some nerves before the game because she wasn’t “used to moving them hips that much” at power forward. But she didn’t miss a beat, not even against one of the WNBA’s toughest frontcourts in Stewart and Jones.

Offensively, Thibault can run more actions for Austin and get her more touches this year, rather than mostly asking her to get whatever she could while setting up Delle Donne. Defensively, Austin often guarded Stewart at power forward, but late in the game, she shifted to center in a quicker defensive lineup.

“It’s always hard finding yourself after an injury,” wing DiDi Richards, who has also battled injuries in the WNBA, told The Next postgame. “So … her keeping her head up the way she did and [being] able to stay afloat somehow, some way, and coming around the corner when she did was just beautiful.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin runs down the court as the home crowd cheers behind her. She appears to be saying something, but no other players are in the frame.
Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (0) celebrates during a game against the Connecticut Sun at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Tuesday’s game illustrated how good Austin can be when she’s healthy — especially now that there’s more space for her to show all that she can do.

“I see her growing every time I see her on the floor,” guard Ariel Atkins told reporters postgame. “So my favorite thing about Kira is her personality and her competitiveness. And we need it. …

“I saw her fire today, and I’ve been missing it, to be honest with you.”

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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