Shakira Austin is ‘ahead of the game’ compared to other WNBA rookies

Strong start has Mystics' rookie Austin set up for bright future originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON — Every time the Washington Mystics and the Atlanta Dream have faced off this season the leading storyline has been the two rookies who were drafted first and third overall in this year’s draft.

Their third head-to-head of the season had that driving narrative once again at the Entertainment and Sports Arena. Rhyne Howard – who the Mystics passed up selecting at No. 1 overall to trade back to third – tried to replicate the magic she had the first time she played Washington. Shakira Austin – who has carved herself a huge role on a roster littered with seasoned WNBA stars – continues to impact a team where she is not a focus of the offense.

But if one was placing a Rookie of the Year vote solely based on the Mystics’ 92-74 win on Tuesday night, it would be unfair. By season’s end, it’s unlikely that Austin will be in the running for that prestigious award simply due to what Austin’s job is with the Mystics. She’s not the focal point of an offense like Howard’s is with the Dream. Nor is she the key building block like Nalyssa Smith in Indiana. 

Austin is, for now, a role player on a championship-contending roster with Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins leading the charge. Not everything we’ve seen this year is that of a role player, but she offers glimpses of the Mystics’ future.

Tuesday was yet another solid night for Austin. It wasn’t spectacular or anything that will stand out in her game log over the course of a season. Her nine points, seven rebounds, one steal and one block were right on pace with her season averages. It was, however, an embodiment of the influence the Ole Miss product has brought to Washington in just 22 games. 

Led by Austin’s interior defense, Atlanta was held to 26 points in the paint (10 of which came in the fourth quarter where the Mystics were enjoying a 20-point lead). That’s more of the same that’s been seen this year as Washington is second in that category defensively.

“(For) Shakira, people have stopped even going at her a little bit right now just because they know she’s going to be there,” Mike Thibault said postgame. “Her shot blocks have gone down but her changed-shots factor has gone up and I think that’s from a reputation of how she started the season defensively.”

That reputation was built on her squaring off against some of the league’s best. In just her second game of her career, Thibault made her a starter and had future Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles as her assignment. She’s gone on to play against Candace Parker, Jonquel Jones and Tina Charles – more than holding her own in each of those matchups against Olympians and all-time greats.

Austin has started every game since March 20 and shows no signs of relinquishing that role.

“Yeah, I think I gave myself a good starting point,” Austin told NBC Sports Washington pregame. “Just from defensively being able to come in and really just do what I need to do on some key players. But I think I still have a lot more that I want to work towards. I think offensively I’ve really been able to be successful with cuts, and energy and effort plays, but I haven’t even really dipped into my talent yet. So just trying to balance everything and continue to be consistent for the team.”

Her teammates have also taken note of the defense and rim-protection that she provides. It’s an element of the team’s makeup that the Mystics have not had since LaToya Sanders back in 2019. And in many respects, Austin is even more of a presence down low than Sanders was throughout her long career.

“I can see she’s already ahead of the game with them rookies, first-year, second-year players,” Myisha Hines-Allen said of Austin. “So, with her, it’s just like when she gets stronger and then even more confident, then the sky’s the limit for her because she’s capable of doing anything she wants in that court. And I think for me personally, what surprised me most was her defensive knowledge. Like, she’s so smart on the defensive side and you don’t see that often with rookies.”

The last rookie to start for Washington was Atkins back in 2018. Like Austin, Atkins earned her minutes through her defensive play. Ever since Atkins has become a mainstay on the roster and was just named to her second All-Star selection

There’s no denying Atkins’ success was a huge component of the Mystics’ back-to-back WNBA Finals appearances. And while Thibault didn’t necessarily believe Austin’s role would be that of one who gets the team over the top to a championship challenger at the onset of the season, she could be that now with a lot more still to come. 

“I think the most exciting thing about Kira to me is she’s willing to learn,” Atkins said postgame. “Like that is exciting when you have a rookie that’s coming in and just wants to soak it all up. She wants to be great. The exciting part about her is that she’s not even good yet. Like there’s so much more that she can be better at and she’s still doing a phenomenal job and she’s only going to get better.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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