Shakira Austin’s rookie year with the Washington Mystics exceeded expectations. Despite being new to the league and playing in a city with championship aspirations, she put together a year worthy of a third overall pick, averaging 8.7 points per game (PPG) along with 6.4 rebounds per game (RPG) and being named to the 2022 All-Rookie squad.
Entering this season, the stakes were even higher for the Mystics. Playing alongside point guard Natasha Cloud and legend Elena Delle Donne, Austin was primed to make a significant jump in her production and help lead the Mystics through an Eastern Conference featuring powerhouses like the Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty.
And jump she has.
Austin has been one of the major bright spots for Washington’s offense to open this season, acting as an effective post-up shooter and cutter for D.C. as they figure out how to score more consistently. On defense, she looks as strong as ever, acting as a formidable paint protector and deterring other teams’ drives with her presence.
“Smarter, more mature…more skilled,” head coach Eric Thibault said after the Mystics June 2 victory over the Dallas Wings, “You see her left hand now has gotten better from a year ago. Simple things like that. I don’t know right now if I was defending her, what shoulder I’d try to take away, what shimmy I’m taking down. Stuff like that, it’s big time.”
Austin’s usage has gone up significantly this season, going from just 21.6 minutes per game (MPG) up to 28.3 so far. She has made the most of that increased opportunity on offense, staying efficient at 54.2 percent from the field, while increasing her shots per game from 6.2 last season to 9.8.
Several plays from the Mystics’ last few games show off Austin’s offensive prowess, and how it has given Washington something to work with despite them being second to last in offensive rating (ORTG).
In this clip, we see Austin driving with finesse and speed to the basket, easily euro-stepping around her defender and finishing with ease, showing how much of a threat she can be in space; and, a guard like Cloud will keep her head on a swivel to ensure Austin and others are being fed when open.
This play shows Austin’s strength in the post, and how important it is for her to be aggressive when she has a mismatch or is otherwise able to secure her spot in the restricted area. Here, she seals off her defender at the perimeter, preventing her from getting into the paint, and she’s able to call for the ball, make the catch, and finish while off-balance. Her aggression on offense is just as important as her aggression on defense, and it has been a point of emphasis for her so far this season.
“My teammates kept telling me, be aggressive,” Austin said after their win over the Wings. “Just knowing that there’s not a lot of people, center-wise, that can stay with me, just being efficient…you can have a million dollar move, but if you don’t make it, who cares?”
Even though she has clearly improved her shot and her efficiency on offense, Austin’s defense has remained at an impressive level. Averaging 1.1 steals (SPG) and 1.0 blocks per game (BPG), she has already bumped up her averages from last season. She is also ranked 15th in the league in defensive win shares, boasting a rating of 0.175 when on the floor. When sharing the court with another defensively-minded player in Delle Donne, they average 6.1 SPG, the most of any two-person lineup on the Mystics this season.
But, her rebounding is where the improvement has truly shown—she’s averaging three more defensive boards per game (DRPG) compared to last season, going from 4.7 to 7.7, and it has given the Mystics a chance to win games as they still seek consistency on the scoring end of the floor.
This battle between Austin and Seattle Storm center Ezi Magbegor in Washington’s win over Seattle on June 9 was one to watch. While Magbegor is having a strong season herself, Austin was able to stick with her in the post as she continued to get backed down, and eventually was able to grab the rebound off Magbegor’s miss.
Another fun matchup for Austin so far this year has been against Elizabeth Williams of the Chicago Sky. Williams is an elite center, especially on defense, but Austin helped seal her off in this crunch time sequence and grab a big board while the Mystics were tied up with the Sky, giving them the chance to clinch the win on the road.
Austin has attributed much of her current early season success to her time with Elitzur Ramla, a women’s professional team that plays in the Israeli League. While averaging 15.5 PPG, 13.5 RPG, and 3.5 BPG, she helped them to their second straight championship and was named the league’s best player.
“I learned a lot overseas, being on my own and really figuring out how to be a professional,” Austin said of transitioning from Israel to Washington. “I think having that first year and then coming back over here with all the tools that I have allowed me to take a lot more advantage. I think I have taken steps in maturity. I have slip-ups all the time, my teammates know it! They be like—yup, there she go. But they keep pushing me every day.”
Austin is also getting the love she deserves from the league and her teammates alike. Cloud said during a press conference on June 3 that she believes Austin will be “the best 5 in this league.”
Added Cloud, “She is playing as a vet in her second year. It is really exciting to see. I take a lot of pride in Kira, her growth that she’s had from last year to this year, which people don’t acknowledge. If she is not the most improved player this year, y’all are tripping.”
Stats as of 6/15/23 and, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of WNBA Stats.