May 12, 2023
‘This is my day’: How going head-to-head in Israel helped Washington Mystics players raise their games
Shakira Austin, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Jazmine Jones all starred on top Israeli League teams
The trash talk between some Washington Mystics players began in their exit interviews last August, as they prepared to compete for rival teams in Israel during the WNBA’s offseason. Guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who was set to play for Maccabi Bnot Ashdod, said of Mystics and future Elitzur Ramla center Shakira Austin, “[I’m] going right at her. Tell her that when she comes in.”
Austin responded in kind: “I’m ready to whoop Tori. Whatever she wants on the court, I’m ready for it.”
The trash talk hasn’t stopped since, and it’s also included Mystics guard Jazmine Jones, who played for A.S. Ramat Hasharon. Their three teams comprised three-quarters of the Israeli League semifinals, with Walker-Kimbrough and Ashdod sweeping Jones and Hasharon before falling to Austin and Ramla in an epic five-game championship series.
Austin took home the MVP, Finals MVP and Center of the Year awards, while Walker-Kimbrough won Guard of the Year and joined Austin on the All-Israeli League First Team. And all three Mystics players averaged at least 19 points per game, showing off skills they don’t always get to use in the WNBA and adding to their games in preparation for another WNBA season.
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For several reasons, Israel is known as a good place to start an overseas basketball career. Plenty of people speak English, the culture is Americanized and the weather is good, with average high temperatures in the 60s and 70s from November through April. In addition, salaries are fairly high — reaching $10,000 to $20,000 per month for top Americans — and the level of play is competitive. This season, many Israeli teams added American centers, and beyond the Mystics players, the list of current and former WNBA players competing there included Kalani Brown, Liz Cambage, Charli Collier, Jillian Alleyne, Alysha Clark and Natisha Hiedeman.
“It’s not too crazy [as a first experience overseas]. But at the same time, it’s still a very competitive league, too,” Mystics guard Brittney Sykes, who played in the Israeli League after her first WNBA season in 2017, told The Next. “You’ll have fun if you go there.”
Austin had originally tried to avoid playing overseas at all. But, fresh off an impressive rookie season with the Mystics and a gold medal with Team USA in last fall’s World Cup, she arrived in Israel with her confidence “at 1,000.” She hadn’t even met her new coach yet, but she was ready to prove that she was more than the complementary piece she’d been for the Mystics and Team USA.
“I really just got straight to it,” Austin told reporters on May 1. “… I just wanted to get back to my bag. I wanted to show that I could do it on a professional level, not just in college, and I really just got back to dominating.”
“It was elite,” she added with a grin.
Across 43 games with Ramla in Israeli League, EuroCup and EuroLeague competition, the 6’5 Austin averaged 19.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals in 31.5 minutes per game. She shot 48.7% from the field and recorded 32 double-doubles. In her Ramla debut in October, Austin recorded 19 points, 19 rebounds and six blocks. Six months later in the Finals, she had a season-high 39 points in 38 minutes and, in the semifinals, she had a season-high 22 rebounds.
Austin said that Ramla rarely ran plays for her, even though she was the best player. She was used to that with the Mystics, and she thrived with Ramla by being aggressive, making intelligent reads, crashing the boards, and sometimes pushing the ball in transition herself.
“I’m not gonna lie: There was a couple times she was hitting us with some moves, I was like, ‘Don’t clap. Don’t tell her good move. She is an opponent,’” Walker-Kimbrough told The Next. “But, I mean, the thing with her is … it’s just so natural to her. It doesn’t look like she’s trying. So when she’s hitting these in-and-out [dribble]s, behind-the-backs that guards normally make, and you see this 6’5 player coming at you in transition, you’re like, ‘How am I about to stop this?’”
Walker-Kimbrough, too, proved to be a menace for opposing teams. Averaging 39.0 minutes per game, she worked on her endurance and her versatility and, like Austin, she rose to the challenge of being a go-to player rather than part of Washington’s supporting cast.
“That was probably the first time she’s really been in that position of having to kind of carry a team,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told The Next. “… She was the one steady throughout the whole year [for Ashdod]. … It’s good for her to go and be aggressive and have to carry some of the load.”
In 39 Israeli League and EuroCup games, Walker-Kimbrough averaged 20.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.4 steals per game. She made 52.9% of her 2-pointers and 39.0% of her 3-pointers and had 12 double-doubles. Despite standing only 5’9, she even notched two triple-doubles — both against Austin and Ramla. In the first, on Dec. 12, she recorded 11 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists.
Walker-Kimbrough said that Ashdod’s game plan that day was to have Brown box out Austin and the guards grab the defensive rebounds. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this my day!’” Walker-Kimbrough recalled, laughing. “‘This is my day! As long as Kira is out the way, this is my day!’”
“I’m gonna get on her about her rebounding now,” Thibault said. “I know it’s in there. … She’s been holding out on us.”
Whereas Walker-Kimbrough and Austin both have clear and perhaps growing roles with the Mystics, Jones arrived in Israel looking to improve her game and solidify her future in the WNBA. She had spent the 2022 preseason with the Indiana Fever before getting cut, then signed short-term contracts with the Connecticut Sun and the Mystics. She played in only one game for Washington and knew she’d have to battle for a WNBA roster spot in 2023.
In Israel, Jones focused on producing consistent performances on both ends of the court. The 6’ guard scored in double figures in 22 of 25 games and had two double-doubles, one of which came against Walker-Kimbrough and Ashdod. Overall, she averaged 19.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.2 steals per game while shooting 50.4% on 2-pointers and 41.2% on 3-pointers.
What impressed Walker-Kimbrough most about Jones was how she led her team from last place early in the season to the semifinals. Hasharon lost its first three regular-season games in the Israeli League and four of its first five, but it won eight of its last nine to tie for third with an 11-7 record. (Ashdod won the regular-season title at 16-2, and Ramla finished second at 13-5.)
“They started clicking,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “… Jaz was really in her bag. You could tell her confidence [was high] … Jaz was just handling the ball, calling out plays, directing traffic defensively.”
With only 10 teams in the Israeli League and Austin, Walker-Kimbrough and Jones all playing well, their paths collided often. Including the playoffs and two EuroCup matchups, Austin and Walker-Kimbrough faced off 10 times, with Austin and Ramla winning seven of them. Walker-Kimbrough and Ashdod beat Jones and Hasharon in five of six tries, while Jones’ team swept Austin’s in two meetings.
All three players rose to the occasion in those games. Austin got 11 double-doubles in 12 total games against her Mystics teammates, and she outdid her season averages in points, rebounds, assists and blocks against Walker-Kimbrough. Walker-Kimbrough poured in a few extra points, rebounds and steals against Jones. And Jones? As she put it:
“[We were] just all going against each other, trying to bring out the best in each other for real, and I think some of my best games was definitely against Kira, against Tori.”
Sitting next to Austin at the Mystics’ media day on May 1, Jones shared a memorable play from a Ramla-Hasharon game in March. The arena was packed with young fans and very loud, and Ramla was dominating. Jones knew the momentum had to change, and out of a timeout, she figured Ramla would run a familiar play featuring a flare screen set for a guard.
“I told my team coming out of [the] timeout, I said, ‘Whoever’s setting that flare, I’m gonna run through [their] chest,’” Jones said. “And what I did? Ran straight through Kira’s chest!”
“I don’t know who she think she is, Kobe or something,” Austin retorted, “coming in, making a statement … She know I ain’t been lifting no weights over there. I almost went flying!”
The decision paid off, Jones said, as the momentum shifted and Hasharon came back to win. After the game, Jones emphasized to Austin that it wasn’t personal — she just happened to be the screener on the play.
“We needed to win [that] one,” Jones said on May 5. “So I had to do something to put my team on my back.”
Austin and Walker-Kimbrough similarly lifted their teams during a dramatic championship series. Buoyed by the midseason addition of Clark, another former Mystic, Ramla won the first two games to push Ashdod to the brink of elimination. But Ashdod won the next two, including Game 4 in overtime, to force a winner-take-all Game 5.
“For a week, I had a weight on my shoulders after the losses,” Ramla’s coach, Shira Haelion, told Sports Rabbi.
Austin and Walker-Kimbrough combined for 36 points in Game 5, and Ramla won a defensive battle 62-54.
“Our two teams were the top teams in Israel. So … that’s the team you want to beat because you get bragging rights,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “… [And] it hits a little different when you lose to somebody you know, for sure.”
The championship loss to Austin stung for Walker-Kimbrough, and so did losing out on the MVP award — and the accompanying financial bonus. “She took my bonus,” Walker-Kimbrough said on media day. “I’m still healing from that.” Days later, she joked that Austin’s presence in training camp was “a constant reminder” of her missing money.
As competitive as the Mystics players were in Israel, though, they also maintained a close bond. They sometimes hung out off the court because their teams were all located within a 40-minute drive of each other. “It was dope just knowing that we got people out there that we know we rock with,” Austin said.
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With several players in Israel, the Mystics staff was watching as much Israeli League film as they could get. That’s how a fourth player there, Alisia Jenkins, came to join the Mystics on a training camp contract. The 6’1 Jenkins had participated in the New York Liberty’s training camp in 2016 and played in five games for three teams in 2020, but she had been out of the WNBA since then.
But Jenkins starred alongside Jones for Hasharon, winning Forward of the Year and a spot on the All-Israeli League Second Team. In 33 Israeli League and EuroCup games, she averaged 19.7 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.0 steals.
“The rebounding numbers are the first thing that jumped out,” Thibault said. “… We just felt she was somebody worthy of a shot. She plays with a huge motor and I think has been very coachable and trying to be in the right spots. So she totally deserved to be in a camp.”
As part of their decision-making process, the Mystics staff asked Jones, Walker-Kimbrough and Austin about Jenkins. “She’s gonna grab every single rebound, even probably rebounds she probably shouldn’t grab. I don’t know if that’s a thing,” Walker-Kimbrough said she told them. “… She has one gear: 100%.”
When Jenkins arrived in Washington, she told reporters that she felt “at home” because there were so many familiar faces from Israel. She recorded four points, a rebound and a steal in an exhibition game against the Minnesota Lynx on May 5, but the Mystics waived her on May 7. That, along with the Mystics waiving guard Evina Westbrook, prompted point guard Natasha Cloud to tweet, “We need more [WNBA] teams. These players deserve to be on a roster. It really kills me.”
Though Jenkins was waived and Jones is still fighting for a roster spot, it’s clear that the things Mystics players learned in Israel this offseason could benefit the team tremendously this season. That starts with Austin, who will get to show off more of her game. There may not be in-and-out dribbles, but she may handle the ball more, and she’ll likely shoot more from 15 feet rather than getting everything near the rim.
“Year 2, we’re gonna let her try some things and roll with a couple mistakes along the way,” Thibault told reporters at media day. “… We’ve challenged her to be great, and that’s what she wants to be … So we’re gonna push her and let her try some things and see where it takes us.”
“[Guard skills have] always been something in my game … especially when I have bigger, slower defenders who were down there trying to get a rebound with me and then I catch the ball and I’m pushing the break,” Austin told reporters on May 10. “So … applying it to D.C., it’s just about continuing to play with pace and making the right reads … But this is something that’s kind of been [my] natural instinct.”
Walker-Kimbrough, meanwhile, is expected to play a key role off the bench again. She wants to be even more aggressive, especially defensively, and she is committed to keeping the level of play high during her minutes. “I want to come in there and there’s no drop-off,” she said. “I want to be able to check in and the other team is like, ‘Oh, shit.’ That’s what I want. … So whatever that looks like, whether that’s defensively, whether that’s offensively.”
The Israeli League has given Mystics players confidence and momentum entering training camp, and it continues to fuel trash talk half a world away from where they battled so many times. But now, the rivals are back to being teammates. After the game in which Jones plowed through Austin, Austin asked her, “You know we’re going back to D.C. together, right?”
Fortunately for the Mystics, the answer to that question — for several Israeli League stars — is yes.
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 and Power Plays.
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