August 14, 2023
Shakira Austin’s return gives Washington Mystics desperately needed jolt
Austin’s return, Egbo’s efficiency show how good Mystics’ center rotation can be
WASHINGTON — When Washington Mystics star Shakira Austin emerged from the tunnel for individual warmups at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Sunday afternoon, the home crowd roared, and so did teammate Myisha Hines-Allen.
“Yeah, Kira!” Hines-Allen yelled, persistently enough that Austin chuckled as she prepared to start shooting with associate head coach LaToya Sanders.
Austin had missed the previous 16 games after straining her left hip against the New York Liberty on June 25 — one injury in a cascade of them for the Mystics this season. But here she was, possibly ready to return after progressing rapidly in August. She was the last player to shoot pregame, so for Hines-Allen, who was sitting on the bench after finishing her own routine, that meant Austin needed someone to cheer her on.
Austin was a game-time decision against the Chicago Sky as the Mystics waited with bated breath to see how she felt and what her range of motion was after warmups. Fans’ anticipation was high, too: They shouted her name as she walked off the court after shooting, prompting her to wave once with each hand in different directions, and again when she re-emerged for team warmups.
Wearing a full-length sleeve on her left leg, Austin ended up playing 13 minutes and 30 seconds off the bench in the Mystics’ 83-76 win. The 6’5 center/forward finished with four points on 1-for-2 shooting, four rebounds, two assists and a block. Those weren’t near her pre-injury averages of 11.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, but no one expected them to be.
“She checked a lot of boxes of what we’d like to see: her activity defensively, she ran the floor,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters postgame. “Couldn’t ask for much more on the first game back.”
Austin was the Mystics’ first substitute, checking in for Hines-Allen with 5:59 remaining in the first quarter. The fans gave her a standing ovation, and she grinned as she raised both hands to high-five Hines-Allen. Austin told reporters postgame that she had “a lot more nerves than normal,” but “I really felt the love and I felt like it was time for me to be back.”
Austin played just 1:48 in her first shift but got longer runs after that. She knew she wouldn’t instantly be the player who made the WNBA All-Rookie Team in 2022 or was in consideration for an All-Star nod before her injury, but she wanted to establish a flow in her first game back.
“I didn’t want there to be hesitation,” she said. “Obviously, as far as me being aggressive, it’s gonna take some time. But I just wanted to show that I’m still a smart-ass player, so I can get out there on one hip and still do something good, you know?”
Austin didn’t look hesitant, calling for the ball on offense and battling for rebounds. But she also let the game come to her, saying postgame that she’d learned during her rehab process that she didn’t have to play at “1,000 miles per hour” to be effective. “I feel like I was out of control weeks before,” she said. On one of her first touches on Sunday, she caught the ball in the midrange with a defender on her and a guard primed to help. She surveyed the situation and passed the ball out to a teammate.
Early in the second quarter, Austin made one of her signature defensive plays, sliding over to help when Sky guard Marina Mabrey tried to drive all the way to the rim. Austin blocked the shot nearly straight up and corralled the loose ball herself.
“I couldn’t believe … the opportunity was coming,” Austin said postgame. “I was like, ‘Oh, she really coming in here!’”
“I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, there we go. There we go,’” Hines-Allen told The Next. “She got hype — [a] little hype. I need her to get a little more hype.”
There was a brief scare later in the quarter when Austin collided with Sky wing Kahleah Copper. During the ensuing stoppage in play, point guard Natasha Cloud patted Austin’s left hip, and Austin walked off a slight limp to stay in the game. She scored her lone field goal soon after that, getting post position and then facing up for a 13-foot jump shot that bounced on the rim a few times before dropping in.
Even at less than full strength, Austin was impactful on both ends, even drawing a double-team from the Sky in the third quarter and finding guard Brittney Sykes cutting in the lane. As Sykes made the layup — cashing in two of her season-high 30 points — Austin turned back downcourt and celebrated by making a goggles sign with her fingers.
“Not the double team first game back,” Austin later wrote in an Instagram story, adding the melting face emoji.
Defensively, Austin gave the Mystics the size and rim protection they’d lacked without her and 6’5 starting forward Elena Delle Donne, who sprained her ankle for the second time this season on July 9 and has yet to return. Before Austin’s injury, she had anchored the best defensive team in the WNBA, but the defense struggled mightily in her absence.
“The thing [Austin] does well is she [covers] more than one thing,” Thibault said. “She can get a hand up on the guard and drop to the big and protect the rim. She’s just so mobile, [plus] her timing and instincts. You could spend a long time trying to teach other people to do some of the things that are natural for her. … She’s an elite player on that end.”
At least twice during Austin’s stints on the court, she and Sykes talked animatedly after stoppages in play. Sykes told reporters postgame that those discussions revolved around defensive coverages and readjusting to having Austin behind her.
“I gotta listen to my post. She called the coverage, and I was like, ‘No,’” Sykes admitted. “But she came to me and she goes, ‘Hey, I’m there. I got you,’ and I’m like, ‘All right. I haven’t had you like that for a couple months. So I’m not used to it.’ But it’s cool to be back in pick-and-roll coverages with her, whether it’s on offense or defense. We just, we missed that inside presence.”
Austin’s timeline to return had been uncertain ever since she was injured while chasing down a loose ball in transition on June 25. Originally, the team announced that she would be re-evaluated three weeks after the injury. But the rehab process for the first major injury of her career stretched on. Her hip didn’t feel stable, and moves like jab steps felt scary. She began to wonder whether she’d return this season or even be healthy to play in the offseason.
“I just had a lot of stuff going through my mind,” she said. “But … any chance I got to be me in my rehab, I did. When we’re doing conditioning, I’m doing extra. … They told me I get 10 jumps one time for a workout. I’m trying to just get a little bit more. Anything that I can get to get back on the floor, that’s what I was doing. So I appreciated this journey. It’s still not done, but I know I was built for it.”
Austin did that little bit more in warmups on Sunday, too, squeezing in one more layup as her teammates filed off the court ahead of the national anthem. It was a relief for her to be back, and she wanted to make the most of it — especially because her recovery isn’t linear. Some days, she feels great and can play five-on-five without issue; other days, her hip is “telling [her] to sit down.”
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Hines-Allen knows what that feels like, and how to help her teammate, after a longer-than-expected recovery from offseason knee surgery forced her to miss the first five games of the season.
“I’ve been trying to allow her to accept the days and what’s to come,” Hines-Allen said. “So sometimes you don’t always want to have someone in your ear and talking about, ‘Oh, come on, you got this.’ Sometimes you just want to just feel how the process is going for yourself. So sometimes I take a step back, but for these past couple days, I’ve been in her ear a lot more and just knowing that she’s coming close to where … she’ll be out there full go.”
Though Austin is on a minutes restriction for the time being, Thibault said she could have played another few minutes in the fourth quarter. However, he opted to stick with 6’4 reserve center Queen Egbo, who had a career-high 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting in 16:58.
The combination of Austin returning and Egbo being so efficient provided a tantalizing preview of what the Mystics’ center rotation will look like when the team is fully healthy. The Mystics traded for Egbo in July, after Austin’s injury, so both players hadn’t been available at the same time before Sunday.
Entering Sunday, Egbo had averaged 6.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game with the Mystics, but she told reporters pregame that she thought she could contribute more. She did that despite Austin taking some of the minutes at her position.
“She rolled at the right time [and] found nice windows. Made a couple of tough finishes through contact,” Thibault said. “Made a great kick-out to Tianna Hawkins … and Tianna hit a corner three. … [Queen] was rolling, and I decided to just roll with it.”
“I’m really proud of Queen,” Sykes added. “We demand a lot from Queen, me and [Cloud] specifically when it comes to pick-and-rolls and screening and getting out and using her athleticism and just being a force in the middle of that paint. She has responded each time we’ve come to her.”
When Austin and Egbo are healthy and playing well, that gives the Mystics more frontcourt pieces to mix and match and two defensive anchors at center. “A breath of fresh air,” Hines-Allen called it. At times, Thibault has had only three frontcourt players available, and he has started the 6’3 Hawkins and 6’1 Hines-Allen together in 13 games. That’s a smaller lineup that has worked well for stretches but is likely best as a secondary option to keep teams off balance.
“We’ve got some options now,” Thibault said. “We can stay bigger with [Austin and Egbo switching off] at the five; we can play smaller like we’ve been doing. Might have a chance to play some big lineup again … on the magical day where all five of our bigs are healthy.”
Then he caught himself: “No, shoot, I’m about to get too far ahead of myself.”
The return of a player like Austin — preternaturally talented and the linchpin of the defense — invites that kind of dreaming about the future. And on Sunday, she helped the Mystics snap a three-game losing streak and move into a tie for sixth place in the standings with 10 games left.
As the Mystics dribbled out the clock on the win, Austin and the Mystics’ bench celebrated, and Egbo walked toward center court. She raised one arm and encouraged the crowd as it erupted again, capping a joyous day in a season where injuries have too often swallowed the Mystics’ joy.
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.