We had to see this coming, right? A unanimous lottery pick that all the scouts, models, and predictions raved about. They discussed her “pro-ready frame,” capable of excelling at the next level. They talked about her versatile post play and ability to rebound the basketball. But for third overall pick Shakira Austin to be this good this quickly, especially on the offensive end? I’m not sure anyone could have seen this in their crystal ball back at April’s draft.
“She’s always had the tenacity and the sense on defense, that’s what we liked about her when it came to the draft,” assistant coach and former Washington Mystics big Latoya Sanders remembered. “She already had a lot of the defensive knowledge; we didn’t have to teach her, she already knew. Coming here and seeing how she’s played here offensively has been an added bonus.”
As soon as the Washington Mystics traded down in the 2022 WNBA draft from the first overall pick to the third, Shakira Austin’s fate was all but sealed—she would return to her “DMV” roots (she grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia) to play professional basketball.
On draft night, when asked by ESPN’s Holly Rowe about what she will bring to this Mystics team, Austin offered, “I’m going to bring that young energy, that versatile player, whatever they need coming off the bench, starting, whatever, I’m just ready to work.”
It’s that energetic confidence that has gotten her to this point, and it’s that same confidence that’s guided the outstanding start to her career.
“She has a fire about her,” says former teammate Kennedy Burke. “I just feel like no matter the situation she’s just going to bring that energy. Like I said, she just brings that fire whenever she’s in the game, even on the bench you hear her screaming, it’s just the little things. Not a lot of players do that on a consistent basis, but she’s the one who does that every single time.”
Her “fire” has gotten the attention of other veteran teammates as well. “Shakira doesn’t back down from no one, you know,” says veteran teammate Tianna Hawkins. “Whether she’s playing against [Sylvia Fowles], Candace [Parker], or any other elite post player in the league, she’s coming in with lots of confidence, you know. She’s good on the boards for us, her defense is great, she’s making big plays already this season so that’s really impressive.”
When asked about Austin’s immense confidence for being a rookie, head coach Mike Thibault offered an interesting perspective. “I don’t think it’s uncommon [for top picks to have this confidence], but what I think is a little uncommon about Shakira is to have it at the defensive end.” Thibault went on to explain, “I think a lot of players come into the league saying, ‘I can score, I scored in college.’ She is in the upper echelon of defensive players in our league right now, and for that to be a rookie, that’s a special thing, and I think she felt like she was going to be that coming in. We were impressed that she could come in and talk and communicate on defense, rotate and help people and then get back to hers or block a shot. That’s hard to find. I think that’s the uncommon part about her.”
It’s that level of confidence the 21-year-old brings, especially on the defensive side of the ball, that has forced Thibault to transition her from a useful role player to a bonafide starter on this veteran-laden team. While her traditional stats don’t stand out too much—she averages just 8.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game in just over 21 minutes—it’s the analytical numbers that really show her true impact on the game.
When anyone asks about Austin, the first question should always come back to her defensive chops. Austin’s defensive rating is an incredible 92.2. This is an astounding feat for anyone, but the fact it’s coming from a rookie with a mere 22 games under her belt is shocking, even with her defensive prowess. When Austin is on the court, the team gives up 4.5 fewer points than when she’s off, second on the team.
“My defense comes the most easily,” Austin explained. “Just being able to go against some of the best players in the league every night, you know, and having to go up against them. I feel like my defense comes pretty [naturally].”
In a recent game against the Las Vegas Aces, Austin was matched up on A’ja Wilson, one of the premier players in the W, and much like every other battle against all-star-cladded bigs, Austin held her own against the former MVP.
Note her strong on-ball defense against Wilson, who has every move in the book at her disposal down on the block. The rookie confidently stands her ground, doesn’t get caught in the air, and plays as strong of defense one can hope to play against arguably the best big in the WNBA.
At the other end of the court, Austin’s offense, while not the sharpest part of her game, hasn’t been nearly as raw as some thought coming out of the draft. Austin’s offensive rating is a strong 105.1, and when on the court, the team is 13.6 points better offensively than when she’s off, second on the team.
Her offensive instincts are there, as shown above. She recognizes that switching to the other side would help open up more room for her teammate, then smartly rolls to the perfect spot for Natasha Cloud to find her for a tough, contested layup (against Wilson again, who’s no defensive slouch) for an and-one.
The most impressive thing about her offensive game has been that she’s creating it for herself. Thibault has routinely said they don’t run offensive plays for her; rather, her points come from her ability to create off her teammates. For a defensive-minded rookie to have that kind of awareness and ability on offense demonstrates how well she fits with this team.
Combined with her defensive numbers, Austin’s net on/off court differential of 18.5 is second best on the team by a wide margin. Additionally, of players who’ve averaged at least 20 minutes per game, Austin is fourth in overall rebounding percentage. Using the same parameter, she’s also 22nd overall in player impact efficiency (PIE), which factors in the stats the player puts up relative to the total statistics the team accumulates during the game. Overall, Austin is 22nd in the league in win shares at 1.9, according to Basketball Reference, tied with All-Stars Skylar Diggins-Smith, Arike Ogunbowale, and no-doubt hall-of-famer Sylvia Fowles. So far this season, Austin’s immense impact on both ends of the court cannot be ignored.
Life as a WNBA player hasn’t been all roses for Austin, however. “It’s definitely overwhelming sometimes. Just feeling like I never really got to just settle down and take in where I am. It’s been a roller coaster,” Austin said, though she commends her teammates for helping her adjust.
“This has just been something I’ve never experienced before. Teammates always have your back, but from a coaching standpoint the coaches are just amazing. No one is out to get you, no one is bringing drama, every single one of these vets are out here to win, so when you put that first, everything else just falls in line. They help me get along with putting me in the position of starting and being able to make an impact, it’s just been a great environment.”
Speaking of her teammates, what has impressed them most so far in Austin’s young career? Her desire to get better.
“You’re playing against the best players in the world,” forward Alysha Clark said, “so it’s going to be an up and down season, [whether]you’re a 20-year-old rookie or a 30-year-old rookie. She’s been getting better every game, she pays attention in practice, she watches film, she’s working on her shot. She’s doing the little things to give us confidence, to give her confidence, so when she’s put into these moments, she’ll be ready for them.”
Veteran point guard and vocal leader Natasha Cloud expressed immense pride in the rookie, saying that Austin “watch[es]a lot of college film, film of herself over this last year and just remind[s]herself that she’s that girl. But Shakira is going to continue to grow. You heard [teammate Alysha Clark]talk about not even scraping the ceiling yet, like Shakira is not even good yet, that’s the scary thing. She has the potential to be one of the best players in this league, one of the best five’s to ever play in this league. She’s hungry and she’s confident so we’re going to continue to push her and continue to challenge her and she’s up for that challenge.”
Austin’s rise this season has also garnered a lot of positive attention from her coaches. “I think she’s done a really good job doing what she does well,” explained associate head coach Eric Thibault. “Sometimes, rookies come in and they want to show you everything they got in their game, and she’s committed to defending and rebounding consistently, and just trying to figure out where to fit in offensively, and there are nights when she’s scored and nights when she didn’t score, but her defense has been consistent.”
“I think defensively she’s been everything we’ve hoped for,” Mike Thibault offered. “She’s a great help defender, between her and Elizabeth [Williams], I think our guards know they have some serious help behind them protecting the rim a little bit. And her offense is starting to come along. Initially her offense was to get an offensive rebound, set a good pick and roll to the basket. That’s still her primary role in our offense, but I think she’s getting more comfortable and sees where opportunities are for her to score a little bit.”
Austin’s game this season has also earned her the attention and respect from head coaches around the WNBA. “What a great young talent,” New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said. “I love her confidence, she believes in herself. She gets better and better with more time on the court, chemistry with her teammates. They don’t run a lot of stuff to her, [but]when they go to her, she makes plays. She’s strong, she gets to the rim, she rebounds. She moves really well out there…a lot of it’s just her effort. She’s a handful.”
“Yeah, I’m a fan,” Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard offered. “She’s a nice young player. Tremendous athleticism, seems to grasp a lot of the concepts. I love how she gets up and down the floor. Her tenacity on both sides of the ball, also seems to have a humble demeanor for such a young player. I was impressed with her in college, but I’ve also been impressed with her with the Mystics.”
Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller called Austin a “unicorn,” saying, “[She’s having] an incredible rookie year, and you have to start and talk about the efficiency. This is not a small sample size, were 15 games into the season and her being in the top three in field goal percentage as a rookie is really an impressive state. There’s not many athletes like her at her size, so she can hurt you on the glass, she can hurt you in transition, but you really need to credit her out-of-the-gate finishing percentage, that efficiency she’s playing at the offensive end. At the defensive end, [she]gives them another rim protector. Her length and her athleticism can bother people, so utmost respect from our franchise and our team. Really, really believe she’s off to a great start.”
Even in a top-heavy rookie class, Austin has been able to hold her own, proving that she deserves her top-of-the-draft-class status. Compared to other rookies averaging at least 10 minutes per game, Austin is second in offensive rating, third in defensive rating, and first in net rating, defensive rebounding percentage, and overall rebounding percentage. Simply put, she has shown she belongs in this league and is firmly in the Rookie of the Year conversation. To any WNBA fan, these are numbers we can all be excited about, but Austin sees it differently, highlighting the confidence and growth mindset she epitomizes every day.
“I haven’t even started yet,” Austin explained. “I’ve just been trying to play a simple basketball game. Trying to maintain my aggressiveness on the offensive boards, but I haven’t shown a lot of my skill yet, so just continue to put the work in, watch film, and get better every day.”
All stats through 7/3. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA Stats.