July 3, 2022
‘You’re having an impact on winning’: The maturation of Shatori Walker-Kimbrough
Not many players have had a WNBA career like Walker-Kimbrough’s, filled with ups and downs, an MVP, and a GOAT
After Shatori Walker-Kimbrough was drafted by the Washington Mystics in 2017, head coach and general manager Mike Thibault called her to discuss her first workout. The workout was set for a Monday, four days after she had been picked sixth overall.
“Okay, cool,” Walker-Kimbrough told him.
“Okay, and Elena will be there,” he added.
Walker-Kimbrough was momentarily taken aback. “Elena – like Elena Delle Donne,” she thought, digesting the news that she would soon work out with the 2015 WNBA MVP. “Oh, Lord, okay. So life is coming at you fast.”
As nervous as Walker-Kimbrough was, that workout became a fond memory, one that she plans to tell her future grandchildren. For her part, Delle Donne doesn’t remember the specific workout, but she told The Next that she makes a point to “be there for our rookies” when they join the team. “That is pretty funny,” Delle Donne says. “I didn’t even realize what she was feeling in that moment.”
Delle Donne finds the story funny because, despite a nearly six-year age difference, she and Walker-Kimbrough bonded right away. In fact, Walker-Kimbrough says that Delle Donne and veteran guard Kristi Toliver were the teammates she was closest with as a rookie. Five years and one WNBA championship later, Walker-Kimbrough is a veteran herself. She has matured in so many ways from the wide-eyed rookie who worked out with Delle Donne on that Monday.
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In 2013, espnW ranked Walker-Kimbrough as the 43rd-best high school senior in the country, but the speedy, slashing guard wasn’t heavily recruited. The frontrunner for a time was mid-major Duquesne, near her Pennsylvania hometown. But then Maryland head coach Brenda Frese swooped in.
“I had to convince that kid that she was good enough to go to Maryland,” Frese told The Next. “… She’s got a great story of just, the path to get to where she’s at is just incredible.”
Walker-Kimbrough ended up being plenty good enough for the Terps, developing into an All-American and the nation’s top 3-point shooter as a junior. And nearly immediately as a freshman, she left an impression on WNBA scouts.
“We saw Tori her first week of practice at Maryland,” Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault told The Next. “I didn’t have any idea who she was, but we knew after that. … I was like, ‘Oh my god, this looks like a track athlete out here.’ And just out in transition, the way she could move and run, I mean, was just impressive. And then obviously in her college career, she developed her outside shot so much.”
“This was a young lady that came into college with one-word answers, eyes down at her feet,” Frese says. “Very introverted, very quiet.”
For anyone who knows Walker-Kimbrough now, that’s hard to believe, but Jones confirmed with a laugh that Frese wasn’t confusing Walker-Kimbrough with someone else. According to Jones, Walker-Kimbrough began to speak up more ahead of their sophomore year, when the Terps graduated a large senior class and needed younger players to fill the void. From then on, Jones told The Next, “Every day was entertaining with her … She was just hilarious every day.
“I think she always brought the energy and then, as soon as you stepped on the court, you knew she was going to be locked in and ready to take over.”
Walker-Kimbrough rocked a bold look at the 2017 WNBA Draft, a sleek white jumpsuit with a cape. But she spent much of her rookie season trying to blend in on the court and avoid making mistakes. Quiet Shatori was back.
“I was just trying to be a sponge and just absorb it all,” Walker-Kimbrough told The Next.
Walker-Kimbrough entered the WNBA with the reputation of being a scorer, but the Mystics also saw someone who could become a disruptive defender with her quickness, anticipation and length at 5’9. Former Mystics teammate Emma Meesseman says that she remembers the rookie as “athletic and fast,” and goofy but also quiet.
There was also a perfectionist streak in Walker-Kimbrough that sometimes showed itself as stubbornness. “She’s a stubborn little — whatever,” Eric Thibault says good-naturedly. “I mean, she’s probably gotten a little better that way every year … I think the feeling was that when she was being corrected, she was being picked on, [that] maybe some people like Kristi or [point guard Natasha Cloud] or whoever didn’t get corrected the same way.”
“She thought I picked on her, which I did some days,” Mike Thibault says.
“I saw a person who wanted to work,” he continues. “[I] never questioned her work. I think she’s willing to watch film. She’s a basketball junkie. … She asks questions. I think the hardest thing for her that she’s gotten better about is that, if she missed a couple shots or if she made a mistake, she let it stay with her longer. And we always had to kind of say, ‘Come on back. You’ve got to learn to play the next play.’”
Walker-Kimbrough appeared in 27 games in 2017, starting eight, and made the WNBA All-Rookie Team. But her playing time was inconsistent: She played just 94 seconds on July 14, over 20 minutes in each of the next two games, and fewer than five minutes in each of the two games after that. For the season, she averaged just 12.4 minutes and contributed 4.4 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.6 steals per game while shooting 37.1% from the field.
Looking back, Walker-Kimbrough would tell her rookie self to take a deep breath. “It’s okay,” she would say. “Enjoy the journey. It’s all a process.”
Quiet Shatori was gone by 2018, when veteran center LaToya Sanders returned to the Mystics after missing 2017 due to foot injuries. “I’ve never seen that Tori,” Sanders told The Next. “… I would love to see what that is like.”
Walker-Kimbrough says that she got more comfortable speaking up as she watched Delle Donne and Toliver field dozens of questions from the media seemingly daily. She watched a new quiet rookie, Ariel Atkins, do the same. And she settled into her home with the Mystics, just miles from her college campus.
As she had done with Delle Donne and Toliver, Walker-Kimbrough struck up a special bond with Sanders, who is nearly a decade older. Sanders, now a Mystics assistant coach, describes it as “a big sister, little sister type relationship.” Walker-Kimbrough will cheerily greet Sanders and ask for a hug (“Hell no” is the typical response), or she’ll tug on Sanders’ shirt just to elicit a reaction.
“She’s just so, like, to herself, and I was just like, ‘I just want to get a reaction from her,’” Walker-Kimbrough says. “… I’m like, ‘Do you have emotions?’ So I just made it my point to get her to react. I’m still working on that.”
“We kind of have a little joke between us. Like, she’s kind of the person that annoys me a little bit,” Sanders says. “… But at the same time, I cherish her friendship. I cherish our relationship that we had on the court when I was a player and even now as a coach and a player.”
On the court, though, Walker-Kimbrough logged about half as many regular-season minutes as she had as a rookie, topping 20 minutes just once. So, when she went overseas the following offseason, Walker-Kimbrough told her coach, “I want to get better. Even if I get mad, just keep pushing me.”
A breakthrough came for Walker-Kimbrough in 2019, the same year the Mystics broke through to win their first WNBA championship. She still came off the bench, but she averaged a career-high 17.1 minutes per game and upped her field goal percentage to 43.2%. She was one of just three Mystics to appear in every regular-season game and helped compensate for Toliver missing the last month of the regular season with an injury.
“It’s kind of hard to say what everybody’s particular role was because it was a whole team together,” says Meesseman, who also missed several games to compete internationally for Belgium. “… But you would know when they were not there because something would be missing. For [Shatori], it was bringing energy off the bench and keeping the energy light, too, like making some jokes.”
“We had so many different pieces and so many people were in and out that I really had to stay ready,” Walker-Kimbrough says. “… Before, I don’t know if I would have been able to do that. But that year was a big jump for me. I was super excited the whole year, just learning and having so much fun.”
Still, Walker-Kimbrough and her coaches knew she hadn’t peaked yet. Unlocking her full potential required her to be more consistent and more focused. She hadn’t proven enough to the Mystics to be indispensable — a reality that she faced when the Mystics traded her to the New York Liberty in April 2020 as part of a package for former WNBA MVP Tina Charles.
That set off a cascade of events that sent Walker-Kimbrough bouncing around the league. New York flipped her to the Phoenix Mercury two days later and she played one season there. In 2021, she signed a contract with the Atlanta Dream but was waived in training camp. She signed a hardship contract with the Connecticut Sun about a week later, but when that ended, she found herself out of the league.
Playing for Phoenix and getting cut both helped Walker-Kimbrough become a more mature and focused player. With Phoenix, she heard some of the same things the Mystics staff had told her from head coach Sandy Brondello. She would also hear it from Mercury star Diana Taurasi if she wasn’t performing well enough or staying focused.
“I didn’t even realize how long my leash was here [in Washington] until I got there,” Walker-Kimbrough says. “[The Mystics staff] might say, ‘Tori, I need you to cut’ or ‘I need you to shoot the ball.’ Diana might sprinkle in a little F-bomb here, a little ball [thrown at you] here, you know what I’m saying?”
Rather than shrink in the face of criticism, Walker-Kimbrough sought to be Taurasi’s shadow. She tried to make sure she was Taurasi’s shooting partner at practice and emulated her workouts on off days. “She’s my GOAT,” Walker-Kimbrough says, using the acronym for “greatest of all time.” “… I’m thankful because I can see that she had the confidence in me.”
In Connecticut, Walker-Kimbrough briefly reunited with Jones, who has played for the Sun since getting drafted there two spots behind Walker-Kimbrough. Jones noticed that Walker-Kimbrough had developed into an eager communicator on the court. “IQ-wise, she’s always seeing things and telling people,” Jones says. “… She definitely was speaking up in that way, just things she saw on the court, being able to share that. As a teammate, that was great to have.”
Walker-Kimbrough stayed in Connecticut with a friend after her hardship contract ended. Each day, she walked the 1.5 miles to train at a local YMCA because she didn’t have a car. That experience gave Walker-Kimbrough a renewed sense of urgency. “I’ve got to be so good that [teams] can’t waive me,” she told The Washington Post last year.
While Walker-Kimbrough was out of the league, the Mystics struggled. They started the season 2-5, and injuries hit the team hard in June. At midseason, Mike Thibault cut three players. When he called Walker-Kimbrough to see whether she would sign a seven-day contract, she answered on the first ring.
“It feels like I never really left,” Walker-Kimbrough said last July. “… It was kind of weird because I didn’t forget like any plays. It really felt like I was just on a little vacation.”
Walker-Kimbrough ended up earning a rest-of-season contract and starting 13 of 16 games. “She just fits here, [is] part of the family here,” Sanders said this season, adding that she pushed for the team to sign Walker-Kimbrough in 2021. “And I’m glad she’s back.”
This offseason, Walker-Kimbrough signed a one-year, unprotected contract with the Mystics, which became guaranteed for the rest of the season on June 25. She has appeared in 21 of 22 games and started three. She is averaging 6.6 points, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals in 20.5 minutes per game.
Although none of those numbers are career highs, Walker-Kimbrough believes she has made the biggest leap of her career this season. “I feel like I’ve just been very intentional with the things I’ve been doing. Before, I was kind of like, ‘Okay, I need to work hard and I need to watch film.’ But now … it’s just a better understanding, and I just think that I’m just maturing as a professional basketball player,” she says. “I’m asking certain different types of questions. I’m more intentional with my defense, just trying to be more aggressive as well.”
Frese sees the difference, too. “You can just tell she’s really comfortable,” Frese says. “She’s back home, loves being there. She’s really matured.”
Walker-Kimbrough’s role this season is similar to the one she has had for most of her career: Change the game and provide energy off the bench. “She’s our spark,” Sanders says. “… She comes in and she can pick up the tempo, she can play defense, she can create her own shot. We want her to get out in transition, because that’s really what she does for us, probably the best on our team.”
However, Walker-Kimbrough is approaching that role with a new mindset of “being the same me” every day. That starts on defense, which is an element of her game that she has noticeably improved. Her defensive win shares and defensive rating this season are both career bests and rank in the 79th percentile leaguewide.
“That was one area I wanted to get better at for sure,” Walker-Kimbrough says. “Especially playing alongside great guards like Tash and Ariel, I didn’t want to be the oddball out.”
That desire only grew when wing Alysha Clark, who has earned two WNBA All-Defensive Team selections alongside Cloud’s one and Atkins’ four, joined the rotation this season. “I’m like, ‘Okay, I gotta step it up, because I’ll be damned if their coach is calling plays to attack Shatori. No, I don’t want to be that person!’” Walker-Kimbrough says with a laugh.
So Walker-Kimbrough approached Clark at the beginning of the season and asked for help. Clark, who is known for her detailed film study, taught Walker-Kimbrough how she watches film and learns opposing players’ tendencies.
“She wants to study that way. She wants to see it,” Clark told The Next. In a separate interview, Clark added, “I think you see [the results] … She’s in those passing lanes. She’s aware of what’s coming.”
Walker-Kimbrough’s defensive intensity has given her a way to impact the game when her shot isn’t falling — which is exactly what happened early in the season. She shot just 30.1% from the field and 15.0% from behind the arc in her first 10 games, prompting Mike Thibault to call her “kind of snakebit” on June 2.
Walker-Kimbrough says it’s been easier this season to move past an off night than it would have been in the past. She has stayed aggressive on both ends rather than compound her mistakes. Her teammates encouraged her to keep shooting throughout her slump, and Thibault threatened to bench her if she didn’t shoot. Eric Thibault told her, “You’re having an impact on winning, even though you’re not shooting the ball well. You’re playing every night, solid minutes, and we’re winning.”
“I’m happy because she’s stayed consistent about her defense,” Mike Thibault said on June 2. “She’s come up with steals and rebounds. … She’s a much more mature player than she was back in 2019, and we’re asking a lot more of her right now as far as her maturity and what she does on the court.”
In her last 10 games, Walker-Kimbrough has validated that belief, shooting 52.4% from the field and 52.0% behind the arc. Best of all, none of those shots have been would-be 3-pointers with a toe on the line — a tendency of Walker-Kimbrough’s that has vexed coaches dating back to her high school years. That reflects the greater intentionality and court awareness she is trying to bring to her game.
“It was cute when I was a rookie,” Walker-Kimbrough says of stepping on the line, “but … that could be the difference [in] a game.”
Perhaps the biggest transformation for Walker-Kimbrough from a rookie into a veteran, though, is how comfortable she is being her unvarnished, chatterbox self. “She used to be [quieter],” Eric Thibault says. “… Me and her, when we’re around each other now, we talk for — shoot, if we were on an hour bus ride, we’d talk the whole time.”
Teammate Tianna Hawkins says that Walker-Kimbrough only shows that louder side when she feels at ease. But the Mystics haven’t seen much of the quiet side lately.
“Nobody in our locker room would describe her as quiet,” says Mike Thibault. “Ever.”
“[My teammates] literally tell me to shut up,” Walker-Kimbrough adds.
Before and after practices at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, Delle Donne methodically rehabs her back. She underwent two surgeries in 2020 and has spent hours keeping her back healthy, to the point that Walker-Kimbrough has joked that Delle Donne must have a bed at the arena because she never seems to leave. That process can be monotonous, but sometimes, Walker-Kimbrough — the player who was once intimidated by the idea of working out with Delle Donne — comes to her rescue.
“She hangs out with me … while I’m doing my therapy and stuff, just to spend time together and help me out, too, because it can get grueling,” Delle Donne says.
“I feel like she’s so isolated because she needs so much space,” Walker-Kimbrough says. “So I just kind of like go over there and check in on her, see how she’s feeling and make her laugh sometimes.”
Maybe that is another thing Walker-Kimbrough will tell her grandchildren: Yes, she worked out with a WNBA MVP in Washington, and she also won a championship, played for Phoenix with her GOAT, got cut, matured, and came full circle to hang out in a Washington gym with that MVP-turned-friend. Not many people can say they had a WNBA career like 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.