September 13, 2021
‘Sensational’ Shatori Walker-Kimbrough continues to thrive
Midseason acquisition has been vital for DC
On Sunday afternoon, Walker-Kimbrough breathed life into the Mystics’ playoff hopes, blowing past the Chicago Sky with six steals and adding 14 points in a 79-71 win. The Mystics now sit in the final playoff spot, one game ahead of the New York Liberty with two games to play.
Walker-Kimbrough’s contributions started on the defensive end, where the wiry 5’9 guard has been overshadowed at times by All-WNBA Defensive Team guards Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud. Earlier this season, Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault compared Atkins to a free safety in football with her active hands and Cloud to a shutdown cornerback who takes a star player out of a game. But with Atkins out on Sunday due to a death in her family, Walker-Kimbrough played a little of both roles with her aggressive defending, and her two early steals set the tone for what was to follow.
Mystics head coach Mike Thibault and point guard Leilani Mitchell said postgame that the plan was to have Walker-Kimbrough pressure Chicago’s guards, including star point guard Courtney Vandersloot, with her foot speed and long arms. The idea was to make the Sky turn their backs to protect the ball and limit their vision, and it worked: Walker-Kimbrough’s career-high six steals came against six different Sky players, including five different guards.
Thibault added that Walker-Kimbrough’s ability to read passing lanes and anticipate opponents’ decisions, cultivated through hours of watching film, makes her a good defender. “When we were doing some of our switching, you can sometimes bait people into making a pass and then taking it away, and she did a good job of that,” he said.
For her part, Walker-Kimbrough credited the Mystics’ scouting report for putting her in good position. “I actually was just joking [that] I literally don’t think that I did much,” she said postgame. “I feel like Chicago was just throwing me the ball, honestly, and I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time six times today, so that’s a good feeling. But I just try to be active, get deflections, be disruptive, and I feel like collectively defensively we did a good job.”
Her efforts were sorely needed on a Mystics team that has struggled to gel defensively due to rampant injuries and entered Sunday ranked 11th in the league in defensive rating. But the Mystics needed her offense, too, as they rank eighth in offensive rating and have often lacked a third scorer when Atkins, Hines-Allen or Tina Charles struggle or are injured. Atkins and Hines-Allen (non-covid illness) both missed Sunday’s game, but Walker-Kimbrough was an efficient third scorer behind Charles (31 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists) and Cloud (16 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds).
“Tash has been telling me since I got here to be aggressive, and … especially because we didn’t have Ariel for the last two games, I wanted to step up and provide more aggressiveness, whether that means on the defensive or on the offensive end,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “And when you have teammates that give you that confidence, you want to step up to the plate, step up to the challenge and do whatever the team needs.”
Walker-Kimbrough made all but one of her eight shots and had a particularly productive third quarter, when she had eight points on 4-of-5 shooting to help the Mystics get through the quarter that has often been their nemesis. “She was sensational to get us going,” Thibault said.
“We thought that she could take her defender to the rim,” Mitchell said, based on Walker-Kimbrough’s speed and shiftiness, “so we made sure, especially in the second half, that we put her in some iso situations.” Walker-Kimbrough capitalized on that throughout the game, making four layups and a 3-foot floater to give her 10 points within three feet of the basket.
In the fourth quarter, Walker-Kimbrough took just one shot, but it was a big one, as she buried a 20-foot jump shot with 1:18 left to push the Mystics’ lead to five points. They had led by as many as 18, but the Sky were mounting a comeback when Walker-Kimbrough hit her shot. The Sky never cut into the lead again.
“The way she came out in the second half, I knew she had great confidence,” Charles said about passing to Walker-Kimbrough for that shot. “… She always rises to the occasion, [is] always working on her game, always does whatever the coaching staff and what we ask of her, and she wants a place in this league. She definitely deserves it, and I’m happy she’s able to keep showing out her game every time she takes a step on the floor.”
As Charles alluded to, Walker-Kimbrough’s big performance wasn’t an isolated incident this season. Despite being signed to a seven-day contract on July 1 and not earning a rest-of-season contract until Aug. 18, Walker-Kimbrough has started 12 games and scored in double figures four times, including another strong showing against the Sky on July 10. It has been a whirlwind for a player who came off the bench for the Mystics’ 2019 championship team, was traded away in 2020, was waived by the Atlanta Dream in training camp this season and walked 1.5 miles to and from a Connecticut YMCA to train until the Mystics brought her back.
“I think immediately when she joined us for the New York game [on July 3], her presence was felt offensively [and] defensively,” Mystics guard Sydney Wiese said in late August. “It’s good and helpful that she’s been with the Mystics for a couple seasons, so she knows the system … She was able to just jump right in, and she picks up concepts really quickly. She’s gifted on both ends of the ball … Her impact has definitely been felt in only positive ways.”
Wiese is new to the Mystics this season, arriving via trade on the same day that Walker-Kimbrough was waived, but others who have been with the Mystics since the team drafted Walker-Kimbrough in 2017 have noticed several improvements in the now-26-year-old’s play. On the mental side, both Thibaults said that she is more adept at letting mistakes go and stringing together consistent defensive performances regardless of whether shots are falling. She also has more experience guarding WNBA players and, she has said, an extra dose of gratitude to be back in the league.
Although Walker-Kimbrough hasn’t shot well this season from 3-point range, her coaches also said that her long-range shot has improved, pointing to her 43.1 percent shooting a season ago compared to sub-34 percent in the previous three seasons. And even without the 3-pointers falling, Walker-Kimbrough has hit a career-high 57.1 percent of her twos and made a difference offensively, averaging 7.1 points and 1.0 assists in 21.5 minutes per game.
“We’ve had a couple cues that we’ve worked on her with, mostly about being ready to score, being ready to shoot and staying aggressive, and I thought she came in and tried to do them,” Eric Thibault said on Sept. 3, days after she scored 17 points against the Connecticut Sun. “But sometimes … the makes don’t come right away and I think now what we’re seeing is the makes starting to catch up to the work she’s done to get ready.”
“It makes all of our lives easier,” Atkins said of Walker-Kimbrough’s shot-making after the Connecticut game. “We know what Tori is capable of. That’s why she’s here. That’s why everyone was excited when she was able to get back with us. … That’s something she can do for us night in, night out.”
The Mystics hope that Walker-Kimbrough can give the team another lift on Friday, in what will nearly be a winner-take-all game against New York for the final playoff spot. Like Chicago (and Atlanta, whom the Mystics beat in their previous game), New York has a guard-oriented team, so Walker-Kimbrough will have a big responsibility defensively, even with Atkins expected to return.
“It’s huge to know what you have in a player, especially going into the playoffs,” Charles said of Walker-Kimbrough on Sunday. “… She has an amazing story, being cut and coming back in the league and just showing out that she has a place in this league and especially on this team. It means a lot to have players like her.”
What is even more remarkable about Walker-Kimbrough’s path back to the WNBA, let alone a WNBA starting lineup, is the gamble that Mike Thibault had to make in order to sign her in the first place. Unsatisfied with his team’s performance through the first month and a half of the season, he cut three players, creating a roster spot for Walker-Kimbrough but leaving the Mystics with only six available players for a game on June 29. Not all coaches would so boldly sacrifice the present in search of a future result.
But when asked after Sunday’s game whether it was fair to say that signing Walker-Kimbrough had paid off, Thibault smiled. “Yes, that would be a safe assumption,” he said.
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.