October 2, 2023
Answering the Washington Mystics’ offseason injury questions
Shakira Austin, Queen Egbo and Kristi Toliver are all rehabbing injuries
The Washington Mystics endured 28 injuries during the 2023 season, the most in the WNBA. From heads to hips to knees to ankles, the Mystics kept the training staff busy.
“This year felt like a little bit of bad luck, to be honest with you,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on Sept. 21, a day after the Mystics lost their first-round playoff series against the New York Liberty. “It was like one after the other of some one-off stuff. Stepping on feet. We went a month there feeling like somebody stepped on a foot every night.”
Every starter dealt with at least one injury, though guard Brittney Sykes avoided missing any games with an eye injury by wearing goggles. Beyond Sykes, the only other players to appear in all 40 regular-season games were reserves Tianna Hawkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough — who ended up starting 36 games between them in place of injured teammates.
In the WNBA’s 27th season, save 27% on your subscription!
The WNBA Finals may be over, but our staff of writers is working hard to bring you everything you need to know about the WNBA, women’s college basketball and much more. Get started with a paid subscription, which helps support all of our writers, editors and photographers who work tirelessly to bring you this coverage, and save 27%!
The Mystics’ bad luck even extended to hardship players, general manager Mike Thibault said on Sept. 21. The team had four hardship players on its roster at various points in the season. But there was another player the Mystics had agreed to bring in on a hardship, only to have her tear her hamstring in a workout before she arrived.
Though the Mystics have closed the book on the 2023 season, the injury concerns persist for several players. Here’s what we know after the players’ and the Thibaults’ exit interviews as they begin their offseason.
Shakira Austin, left hip strain
Austin originally injured her hip when she appeared to step wrong in transition against the Liberty on June 25. She missed 16 games before returning in mid-August, and she appeared in six games before re-injuring the hip on a hard fall on Aug. 31.
That kept the 6’5 starting center out for the rest of the season, and she will spend her offseason in Washington rehabbing and fulfilling a player marketing agreement with the WNBA.
“I think probably in her mind, she was just eyeing the calendar and trying to see about, ‘Can I get back for a playoff series?’” Eric Thibault said. “… Now that that’s done, we can focus on getting her right. She was definitely headed [in] the right direction before she took that fall in Vegas. She was back on the court, obviously, and getting stronger.”
Austin and the Mystics still aren’t sure, though, what “getting her right” entails. She saw specialists during the season, and Austin told reporters on Sept. 20 that she was continuing to talk with doctors. Thibault said it would be “a few weeks” until they got a full picture of Austin’s injury and the next steps.
“The most important thing I think with her is just thinking about her long term,” Thibault said. “… That’s why we didn’t try to rush her back or do anything crazy because all of a sudden, you’re sitting here and you’re looking at the future and you’re going, that’s one of the most important pieces going forward is making sure she’s right and confident. … Injuries are tricky, not just what they do to you physically, but what they do to you mentally, so we’ll make sure she’s supported from all angles as she works to get back to 100% and then get better.”
The Next and The Equalizer are teaming up
The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribe to The Next now and receive 50% off your subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.
Austin admitted that she has struggled mentally during her recovery process, especially because this is her first major injury as a professional and her life after college has revolved almost entirely around basketball. But her hip is starting to feel good as she fully rests it, rather than testing it to prepare for a return, and she is very motivated for next season.
“[Before the injury,] I was on a pretty good run, if I must say,” Austin said. “I was feeling really good, confident in myself, and I was figuring stuff out. So for me, I still have a lot to prove. I have nothing right now. I mean, I’m 0-4 in the playoffs, that’s all I know. So yes, I’m focused on getting my health back. But there’s a lot that I want to take on for next season, and there’s a lot of goals that I still feel are very reachable.”
“You just try to be better throughout the whole [rehab] experience,” she added, “[and] come out a better person, a better teammate, a better athlete.”
Queen Egbo, right knee surgery
Egbo, a midseason acquisition by the Mystics, dealt with an ankle sprain this season, but the offseason questions are about her right knee. She wore a bulky knee brace during the season, and in her exit interview, she revealed that she’d had surgery before the 2023 season and was “never 100%” this summer.
Like Austin, Egbo will stay in Washington in the offseason to rehab and strengthen her knee. Once she’s healthy, Thibault is excited to see how the 23-year-old backup center can improve with the Mystics’ player development staff.
“If you’re not feeling like your legs are under you completely, it’s tough to improve,” he said. “… Everybody can see some of the gifts she has and some of the traits she has that can really help us: her ability to rebound the ball, ability to protect the rim, to finish. … We didn’t even have a training camp with her. [So] getting some time with her to work on nuance of screening and rolling and catching and finishing in traffic, finishing in space — that’s all going to be stuff that’s important to her development.”
Myisha Hines-Allen, left knee surgery
Hines-Allen had surgery to partially repair the patellar tendon in her left knee in September 2022. She had been expected to recover in three to four months, well before the start of training camp, but her rehab dragged on, forcing her to miss the first five games of the season.
After that, it took until the last month of the season for her to feel like herself on the court. In particular, she shone in the playoffs, averaging 15.5 points across the Mystics’ two games after averaging just 5.6 per game in the regular season.
“It was a lot longer process: more than she thought it would be, more than our medical people thought it would be … Hopefully this last month and a half or so is a good omen of what’s to come,” Mike Thibault said.
Hines-Allen said in her exit interview that what she was most proud of this season was her availability after those first five games.
“[I’m proud of] not missing another game or a practice, just trying to be there for my teammates, and just knowing some of those days or some of those games, I was not feeling well, but … my teammates need me,” Hines-Allen said. “I gotta give my all, whatever that is. I got to just try to do my best and put my best foot forward for the team.”
Hines-Allen is playing for the Turkish team Galatasaray this offseason. In her first game on Saturday, a win over fellow Turkish team Hatay, she had six points, 10 rebounds and two assists in 25 minutes.
Kristi Toliver, right knee surgery
Toliver tore her ACL against the Los Angeles Sparks on Sept. 3, ending her season and putting her 2024 season in doubt as well. The free-agent-to-be had surgery in New York on Sept. 19. Generally, the recovery process from an ACL tear takes at least nine months.
In an Instagram post on Sept. 20, the 36-year-old Toliver called her injury “the most difficult moment of my athletic career.” But, she continued, “As devastating as this moment was I believe I will be stronger, wiser and more focused than ever to finish my career on my terms.”
Toliver pledged to document her recovery every Sunday on Instagram, and she has also posted snippets in her Instagram Stories throughout the week. Those have included her lying in bed post-surgery, ready to watch Game 2 of the Mystics’ first-round playoff series; her first day of physical therapy, in which she worked on her range of motion; and her second day, in which she “literally gave everything” to lift her injured leg in the air while lying down.
Her stitches from surgery came out on Sept. 28, and on Sept. 29, she flew from New York to Dallas, where Mike Thibault indicated she would do most of her offseason rehab.
“What I’ve learned fresh into this journey is that it’s all about my mindset,” Toliver wrote on Instagram on Sept. 25. (Ellipses are her own.) “These early stages haven’t been easy. A lot of tears, emotions, moodiness, anger….but also gratitude, peace and hope. I’ll cry just answering FaceTime calls. I’ve thrown water bottles at the wall trying to project strength when I’m at my lowest point. I have also actively practiced mindfulness and mindset…consciously attempting to bring myself back from those difficult moments. I have a long way to go in that, but am thankful for these experiences that are waking me up to change. To get in touch with my emotions and anger and learn to find my balance again. This injury is going to change me for the better in so many ways and for that I’m grateful. I’m at peace with where I am in this stage. I am hopeful for what comes next.”
Your business can reach over one million women’s sports fans every single month!
Here at The Next and The IX, our audience is a collection of the smartest, most passionate women’s sports fans in the world. If your business has a mission to serve these fans, you should reach out to Christie Gray at email@example.com to discuss ways to work together.
Ariel Atkins, broken nose
Atkins returned from a broken nose suffered on Aug. 31 to play the final four games of the season with a protective face mask. Mystics head physical therapist Kala Flagg told The Next during the playoffs that Atkins’ nose was healing well but that Atkins would see a specialist after the season ended to make sure she was breathing optimally and fully healed.
Elena Delle Donne, back stiffness
For several years, Delle Donne battled a back injury from the 2019 WNBA Finals. She had two surgeries and missed almost all of the 2020 and 2021 seasons, then sat out 11 regular-season games in 2022 for pre-planned rest.
This season, Delle Donne was healthy and playing at her customary elite level early in the season, even being voted an All-Star. But she missed the All-Star Game after spraining her ankle twice, and as she recovered, she ended up aggravating a hip issue and missing more time. In total, she missed 17 regular-season games, including one with neck stiffness.
“I think people see her having dealt with injuries and kind of view it as, ‘Oh, it’s a chronic thing,’” Eric Thibault said. “I’m like, ‘No, no, no … she rolled her ankle.’”
Add Locked on Women’s Basketball to your daily routine
Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.
Delle Donne was healthy for the playoffs, but in the third quarter of Game 2, she stumbled out of bounds and into the back of the stanchion after a drive to the basket. She went to the locker room briefly with back stiffness and got some stretching in. She returned to play, but Thibault conceded postgame that she “didn’t look like she was feeling 100%.”
However, in her postgame interview and her exit interview a day later, Delle Donne downplayed any concerns about her health. “I’ve been healthy this playoffs,” she said postgame, emphasizing that she returned to finish Game 2.
“I feel good, really good,” she said the next day. “So I’m excited that, all in all, the season went well. Obviously, the ankle stuff, that’ll happen in the game of basketball … but I do, I feel really good.”
As usual, Delle Donne will not go overseas in the offseason, but she said she will participate in “some USA Basketball stuff.” Like Toliver, the 34-year-old Delle Donne is a free agent. She made clear she wants to sign another contract, not retire.
“I’m the strongest I’ve ever been. I’m in great shape,” she said. “I feel like I have a lot more basketball to play, and I want to win.”
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.