August 9, 2022 

Mystics rookie Shakira Austin is ‘radiating’ confidence

'She oozes talent'

In the press conference after the Washington Mystics beat the Las Vegas Aces on Aug. 2, rookie Shakira Austin was her customary confident self. She discussed her 15-point, eight-rebound performance and didn’t dodge a question about the Rookie of the Year race, saying with a broad smile, “I should be Rookie of the Year … Nothing else to talk about.”

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Austin’s play this season has warranted that confidence, as she’s averaging 8.7 points (on 55.0% shooting from the field), 6.4 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and 0.7 steals in just 21.5 minutes per game. The 22-year-old center/forward ranks second in the WNBA in defensive rating and in the top eight in defensive win shares, rebound percentage and field goal percentage.

But Austin developed that confidence long before she became a top-three WNBA draft pick and an impactful rookie. Her father David told her from a young age that she was “destined” to be a star, and her height got her used to being noticed.

“Being almost a six-footer since sixth grade, bringing a lot of attention just forces you to be confident,” Austin, who now stands 6’5, told The Next. “Everybody comes to me, and basketball is just my way of expressing who I am.”

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Austin developed her basketball skills first under her father’s tutelage; then in high school in Upper Marlboro, Md.; and then in college at Maryland and Mississippi. Shay Robinson, an assistant coach at both of her college stops, helped her build her basketball IQ with an eye toward the WNBA, and the Mississippi coaching staff allowed her to showcase an all-around game that impressed WNBA scouts.

The Mystics saw in Austin an advanced defensive player, shot-blocker and rebounder who was also an efficient and prolific college scorer and would have an extremely high ceiling in the WNBA. They selected Austin third overall, but head coach and general manager Mike Thibault told reporters that he thought Austin was talented enough to be picked first.

Austin seemingly validated those expectations before training camp even began, when the Mystics players gathered for a pickup game.

“The first play down, Shakira just sent the shot,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen said at the Mystics’ preseason media day. “Not my shot, now, not my shot! But she sent the shot, and I was just like, ‘Yes, this is it!’”

“I think it just made a statement, like the energy I’m gonna bring,” Austin said. “Everybody knew I was coming in as a shot-blocker, but for me to do that in front of everybody, they were pretty hyped, so it was cool.”

Despite Austin being a high draft pick, Thibault’s original plan was for her to be a role player on a deep, veteran-laden Mystics team. Referring to Austin and second-round pick Christyn Williams, Thibault said on draft night, “Those players aren’t going to come in and probably be in our top eight or nine players to start the year. It’s on them to earn those minutes, to take some minutes from the starters.”

Austin’s regular-season debut against the Indiana Fever seemed to follow that script: She had just three points and three rebounds on 1-for-4 shooting off the bench, but she was a +12 in as many minutes and the Mystics won by 14.

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (right) defends Chicago Sky forward/center Candace Parker during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Since then, however, Austin has had a much greater impact than anyone anticipated. Seemingly the only place that she shows her youth is in the locker room, where, according to veteran Elizabeth Williams, she’s “just high-energy, constantly bubbly, singing, dancing, [making] TikToks — stuff that some of us are like, ‘What are you doing?’”

On the court, Austin has become a consistent starter and double-double threat, and the Mystics are flourishing because of it. With her on the court, the Mystics outscore opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions. That is the second-highest margin among the team’s regular rotation players and nearly double its overall margin of 4.5 points per 100 possessions. Austin is an integral part of the Mystics’ top-ranked defense and the perfect complement offensively to players such as two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and point guard Natasha Cloud.

Austin got her first big test in the Mystics’ second game of the season against the Minnesota Lynx, when she filled in for Delle Donne in the starting lineup. All she did was notch her first career double-double, with 13 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-8 shooting, and hold former MVP Sylvia Fowles to 13 points and eight rebounds on 5-for-12 shooting. Three games later, Austin came off the bench against the Dallas Wings to score a career-high 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting, prompting Dallas head coach Vickie Johnson to remark, “Her energy level was on another level.”

In the sixth game of the season on May 20, Austin permanently became the starting center alongside Delle Donne. That meant that Austin would regularly battle All-Stars such as Fowles; Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones; Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson; and Tina Charles, who started the season with Phoenix and now plays for Seattle.

Austin held her own, so much so that she was among the top 30 players in the first round of WNBA All-Star fan voting in June. “Put me in that thing!” she lobbied in a postgame press conference. She didn’t end up getting in, but a viral moment a few days later showed the world that same confidence.

On June 14, in a nationally televised game against Charles and the Mercury, Austin had 16 points and 10 rebounds for her second-career double-double. In the postgame television interview, ESPN’s Holly Rowe asked Austin why she was unafraid of facing the league’s best players.

“Cause I’m like that!” Austin responded with no hesitation. “I mean, I put in the work, I have the confidence and I’m ready to show everybody what I got.”

The quote caught on, to the point that Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn referenced it when discussing Austin on June 23 and some of Austin’s friends asked whether she was going to create merchandise featuring it. Austin didn’t do so, wanting to stay focused on basketball, but the T-shirt company BreakingT quickly memorialized the quote.

After speaking with Rowe, Austin headed to the postgame press conference, where a reporter asked her how high her confidence was based on that performance. “My confidence is always at a 10 [out of 10],” she said. “I just come in and … try to be aggressive, try to take on the plate that I’m given. And I really enjoy playing defense and shutting people down, so it gets me going.”

Austin has continued to produce, scoring in double figures in five of her past six games and notching two more double-doubles. She has recorded at least five rebounds in 26 games, the most of any rookie this season and the second-most for a rookie in Mystics history, per Mystics PR. And her shot-blocking is intimidating enough, according to Thibault, that teams sometimes shy away from challenging her at the rim.

On July 31, the Storm saw that firsthand when they were down three points with under four minutes left in a crucial game for both teams’ playoff positioning. Guard Jewell Loyd shed her defender and got free under the basket, but Austin came over to help and blocked Loyd’s layup attempt nearly straight down. She grabbed the loose ball and the Mystics went on to win by three.

“That kind of changes the momentum of the game a little bit,” Thibault said on Aug. 2. “And those are moments that you hope any of your players make, but when you get a young player that’s got enough poise to do that and do it without fouling and keep it in bounds … those are big plays.”

Washington center Shakira Austin blocks a layup from Atlanta Dream wing at the cup, while Mystics teammates look on
Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (0) blocks a shot by Atlanta Dream guard Rhyne Howard (10) in a game against the Atlanta Dream at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC, on May 24, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Looking at Austin’s season more broadly, the blocked shots and double-doubles stand out, but it’s how she has seamlessly fit into the Mystics’ schemes that has made her shine this season. Defensively, teammates have called Austin “one of the anchors” and compared her to a safety in football, able to guard her matchup one-on-one and help when a teammate gets beat. Knowing she is behind them allows the Mystics to be more aggressive on the perimeter, gambling for steals or forcing drivers toward Austin and her 3.4% block rate, which ranks 18th in the league.

Elizabeth Williams and Mystics assistant coach LaToya Sanders — both among the top 20 WNBA players all-time in blocks per game — told The Next that Austin’s length and timing make her an excellent shot blocker.

“She’s very tall with long arms, very big hands,” Sanders said. “So defenders try to get into her body, but she’s so slender, like I was, that it’s hard.”

“She does a good job of getting balls that are in the air,” near their peak rather than near a shooter’s hand, Williams added. “That’s a way to block without fouling. So I think she’s done a good job of … being a protector.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin smiles during a game against the Las Vegas Aces at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 2, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Another aspect of Austin’s defense that has fit perfectly in Washington is her willingness to communicate. “One of the best attributes of a post player defensively is to be able to kind of direct traffic and call out coverages on pick and rolls and things in the lane. When we watched her in college, she was a really good communicator with her teammates on defense,” Thibault said on July 19. “… It’s hard enough I think sometimes at any level to get your whole team talking and communicating the right way. But if you have a rookie that can come in and do some of that stuff on the first day, it’s really helpful.”

Austin also has a confidence defensively that is rare for a rookie, Thibault said. Lottery picks usually come into the league confident in their offensive game, but it can take time for them to find their footing defensively. But from day one, Austin embraced the tough assignments that come with being a rookie center.

“She has no fear. She just doesn’t,” Thibault said in June. “… She was looking forward to all these players to play against because [they are] people she had looked up to. They play her position. She’s tried to steal from parts of their games, and she wants to go and test herself against them.”

To Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Austin’s confidence is different from that of other rookies because of how contagious it is.

“We kind of feed off of her energy because she’s just such an energy player and her confidence is like radiating,” Walker-Kimbrough explained. “You can feel it and you’re not even out there. … And she hasn’t backed down from anyone.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (0) shoots past the outstretched arm of then-Phoenix Mercury center Tina Charles (31) during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Offensively, Austin has just the fifth-highest usage rate of the Mystics’ nine regular rotation players, but she has figured out and bought into her role. Thibault doesn’t run plays for her; instead, she scores off of offensive rebounds, setting screens and rolling to the rim, running the floor in transition, and sensing where and when to cut. When Delle Donne commands a double-team or a guard needs to pass out of trouble, Austin “knows instinctively where to be,” Thibault said. And she has been working on her baseline jump shot, which she didn’t use much in college but will help her space the floor even more with the Mystics.

“It might be a different role than what I might have wanted,” Austin admitted, “but I take that role serious, and I just continue to try to build off of that.”

Like any rookie, though, Austin has also struggled at times. She was held scoreless against Indiana on May 31, and Fowles bested her in their final matchup on July 17, with nine points and 12 rebounds to Austin’s four and seven. (Fowles and Austin embraced after the game, and Austin said that Fowles “put some wisdom into me and just told me to keep going. You know, ‘you’re like that,’ I guess.”)

On July 28, Austin also struggled to contain Dallas center Teaira McCowan, who is two inches taller and has a much stronger build than the lithe Austin. After Austin battled McCowan and Seattle’s Charles and Ezi Magbegor in consecutive games, Thibault said that Austin had “had an education this week” and would need to get stronger in the offseason. Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault told The Next on Aug. 7 that there is also room for Austin to improve her balance and learn when to simply contest rather than block a shot.

Yet the way Austin approaches challenges also reveals how special of a player she is. Eric Thibault said that Austin is coachable and doesn’t take criticism personally. “You can get on her; you can demand things of her,” he said. Austin processes it and moves on, and she does the same after tough games.

“She’s never got down about anything,” Sanders said. “Even if she has an off night, she’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I had an off night, but it ain’t gonna happen again.’ She always bounces back.”

Austin told The Next that she does that by acknowledging her feelings but also maintaining perspective. She’ll call her dad after a tough practice or game and “vent it out,” so she can bring good energy the next day. And she knows that one day is only a blip on the radar for getting where she wants to be.

“I understand that my first year is gonna have ups and downs and learning curves,” Austin said. “So I … [know] that I’m still going to continue to rise up. I’m not going to take too many steps back. It’s only going forward.”

Sanders has also been impressed with how Austin has made adjustments against opposing players. If Austin hits a “rookie road bump” against a particular player, she figures out how to get around it in the next game — or even the next half. “It’s hard being a rookie and then starting, playing against the best player on every team,” Sanders said, “but … she’s finding her niche on how she can capitalize on opponents.”

“She wants to be great,” Mystics guard Ariel Atkins said in June. “The exciting part about her is … there’s so much more that she can be better at, and she’s still doing a phenomenal job. And she’s only going to get better.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (0) and point guard Natasha Cloud (9) embrace during a game against the Atlanta Dream at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 28, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Austin will get her first taste of playoff basketball this month, then spend the WNBA offseason playing for Elitzur Ramla in Israel. When she returns to Washington, expectations will be high for her second season, and her production won’t take anyone by surprise again.

“She oozes talent,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said on Aug. 2. “… I don’t think there’s any limit on her in how she develops. I think she’s got all the talent in the world.”

Mike Thibault expects Austin to become a perennial All-Defensive team selection at some point in her career, and Eric Thibault said that Austin should aim for Defensive Player of the Year. Current Aces and former Mystics forward Theresa Plaisance told The Next that Austin has the potential to be “a face of the league.”

Just as Austin doesn’t shy away from battling WNBA legends or wanting to win Rookie of the Year, she is approaching those expectations by continuing to work and staying confident.

“When you have a belief in yourself and when you have a vision, there’s nothing anybody can do or say [to] stop you from getting there,” Austin said. “And I feel like my life so far has just been a testimony to believing in myself. So I’ll continue to push that.”

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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