April 6, 2024 

Mystics’ Shakira Austin gives positive injury update, possible timeline for return

Washington’s frontcourt star said she’s ‘ahead of schedule’ after hip surgery

After a USA Basketball practice on Thursday in Independence, Ohio, Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin stayed behind with teammate Ariel Atkins and associate head coach LaToya Sanders. Austin posted one sequence from their post-practice work to her Instagram story.

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In the clip, Atkins shoots a free throw while Austin boxes out Sanders. Then Austin takes off running downcourt, and Sanders passes the ball to Atkins. “Rim run,” Atkins says. She takes one dribble and lofts a pass half the length of the court to Austin, who catches it and makes a layup. Then Austin dribbles the ball back upcourt, fakes a handoff to Atkins and attacks the rim for another layup.

All told, it’s about 20 seconds of on-court work, but it’s encouraging for a player who’s recovering from hip surgery. She isn’t fully cleared to play yet, but Mystics general manager Mike Thibault told reporters in mid-March that she was “progressing well.”

For her part, Austin hopes to be ready when the Mystics open preseason training camp on April 28.

“I’m not gonna put it out there that I’m great, but … I’m ahead of schedule,” Austin told reporters on Friday. “… So whether I’m ready for the beginning or whether that takes a little minute — I think right now we’re on track, but if it takes a little longer, it’s okay.”

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Austin’s injury woes began on June 25, when she strained her left hip in a game against the New York Liberty. She returned in mid-August but reinjured it in a hard fall against the Las Vegas Aces on Aug. 31. She saw specialists during the season and early in the offseason, and on Dec. 1, the team announced that she’d had surgery to repair a torn left hip labrum. Her recovery time was estimated at four to six months from the date of surgery.

She’s had to be patient in her recovery this winter, she said, which she wasn’t always last summer. She feels good when she sticks to the plan, but “you will feel it if you do something you shouldn’t. … It’s been a weird injury.”

Before the injury, the 6’5 Austin was developing into one of the Mystics’ cornerstones in just her second season. She was the third overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft and was named to the All-Rookie Team that season. She followed that up by averaging 10.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 19 games last season, despite being on a minutes restriction when she returned from the initial injury. Austin completely changed how the Mystics could play defensively, to the point that she had to urge guard Brittney Sykes to trust the coverages she called once she returned.

Team USA center/forward Shakira Austin extends one leg and bends the other knee to stretch her legs.
Team USA center/forward Shakira Austin stretches during training camp at the Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence, Ohio, on April 3, 2024. (Photo credit: Alex Shigio/USA Basketball)

But Austin is hungry for much more in her third season, and the injury has given her a new outlook on basketball. At USA Basketball’s three-day training camp, she got to watch the best players in the WNBA go head-to-head, and she visualized being out there and what decisions she would make on the court. She also posted Instagram stories of her “post injury Kira” prepractice routine, including rolling out and using resistance bands.

She even got to know veteran Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner — and salivated over potential Team USA lineups with herself and Griner playing together. “I don’t think there’s much [opponents] can do with that,” she said with a laugh.

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With the Mystics, Austin wants to make up for lost time and increase her production. The Mystics won’t have forward Elena Delle Donne or point guard Natasha Cloud, two of their longtime stars and leaders, this season, so Austin will be asked to do more once she’s healthy. Sanders, a former defensive ace for the Mystics at the center spot, has mentored her since she entered the WNBA, and the staff believes Austin is ready.

“It’s pretty much going to be a team revolved around me. I understand that,” Austin said. “So I don’t think I feel any pressure. I feel excited for this new chapter.”

She’s felt ready for that challenge since she entered the WNBA. It just happens to be now that she gets it.

Austin added, “Regardless of who was coming back this year, my mentality was to change regardless. I feel like the first two years, I kind of just wanted to do what I thought people wanted and didn’t try to do too much and tried to really play it as safe as possible. And I think just going into my second year, I started amping it up a little more and feeling that confidence. And it started showcasing, and I was really doing great until my injury. …

“So for me, [this season is] about just being the leader that I’m supposed to be, being the dominant player that I’m supposed to be from Day 1. And it’s no more people getting a piece of me. I want to give everything. I want to give my all and I don’t want to have another game where I feel like I haven’t. So I think this injury for me personally has shifted my perspective when it comes to just what I want to look like on the court and what type of player I want to be.”

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Austin has had several conversations with the Mystics staff this offseason, and they too want her to take on a leadership role, even at just 23 years old.

“Shakira has a great future ahead of her,” Thibault said. “… Shakira really wants to be a great player, and she knows that part of being a great player is kind of demanding more of herself before she could demand it of her teammates. … So I think you’ll see that kind of role for her increase.”

And whenever that happens for Austin — whether she’s back on Day 1 for the Mystics or takes a little longer with her hip — look out. On April 2, Austin posted a series of photos on Instagram of her practicing at the Mystics’ facility with the caption, “Once it’s mine, I ain’t giving it back.”

She punctuated the sentence with a crown emoji.

The Next’s Tee Baker contributed reporting for this story.

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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