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

WASHINGTON — Every time the Washington Mystics and the Atlanta Dream have faced off this season, the main storyline has been the two rookies selected with the No. 1 and No. 3 picks in this year’s draft.

Their third head-to-head meeting of the season re-emerged that driving narrative in the entertainment and sports arena. Ryan Howard – the Mystics who gave up picking the No. 1 pick and traded back to No. 3 – is trying to replicate the magic of her first play against Washington. Shakira Austin — who played a major role in a roster full of veteran WNBA stars — continues to influence a team where she’s not the focal point of the offense.

But it wouldn’t be fair if one voted for Rookie of the Year based solely on the Mystics’ 92-74 win on Tuesday night. By the end of the season, Austin is unlikely to be running for the prestigious award solely because of his work with the Mystics. She wasn’t the focal point of the offense on the Dream Team like Howard was. Nor is she a key component like Indiana’s Nalyssa Smith.

Austin is currently a role player on the title contender, led by Elena Dale Dorn, Natasha Crowder and Ariel Atkins. Not everything we see this year is a cosplayer, but she offers a glimpse into the future of the Mystics.

Tuesday was another fulfilling night for Austin. It’s not spectacular in her game record all season, and nothing stands out in her game log. Her 9 points, 7 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block matched her season averages. However, it’s a testament to the impact the Ole Miss product has had on Washington in just 22 games.

Led by Austin’s interior defense, Atlanta scored 26 points in the paint (10 of which came in the fourth quarter, when the Mystics led by 20). That’s more similar to what we’ve seen this year, as Washington ranks second in defense.

“(For) Shakira, people have stopped attacking her now, just because they know she’s going to be there,” Mike Tebow said after the game. “Her blocks are down, but her changeovers are up, and I think that’s her reputation on the defensive end at the start of the season.”

That reputation is built on her matchups against some of the best players in the league. In her second game of her career, Tebow made her a starter and made future Hall of Famer Sylvia Falls her assignment. She went on to take on Candace Parker, Jonquel Jones and Tina Charles — not at her level in every match against Olympians and all-time greats.

Austin has started every game since March 20 and has shown no signs of giving up the role.

“Yeah, I think I gave myself a good starting point,” Austin told NBC Sports Washington before the game. But I think I still have a lot of things I want to work on. I think on offense, I do have success with cutting, energy and effort, but I haven’t even really used my talent yet. So just trying to balance everything and continue to be consistent for the team. “

Her teammates also noticed the defense and rim protection she provided. It’s a team-building element the Mystics haven’t had since LaToya Sanders in 2019. In many ways, Austin’s presence is even lower than Sanders’ status in her long career.

“I can see that she’s already ahead of their rookie, first-year, second-year players,” Myisha Hines-Allen said of Austin. “So, for her, it’s like when she gets stronger and then more confident, the sky’s the limit for her because she has the ability to do whatever she wants on that court. I was surprised”

Washington’s last rookie starter was Atkins in 2018. Like Austin, Atkins earned minutes by defending. She was just named to her second All-Star team since Atkins was a mainstay on the roster.

There’s no denying that Atkins’ success was a big part of the Mystics’ back-to-back WNBA Finals appearances. While Tebow doesn’t necessarily believe Austin’s role will be one that takes the team past title challengers at the start of the season, she probably is now, and there’s more to come.

“I think the most exciting thing about Kira for me is her willingness to learn,” Atkins said after the game. “It’s as exciting as when you have a rookie coming in and just want to suck it all in. She wants to be great. The exciting part about her is she’s not even good enough. Like she can do more and better, she’s still doing great, and she’s only getting better.”

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