By all accounts, Shakira Austin had a stellar rookie season with the Washington Mystics. Expectations were not only met but surpassed within the first week of the season. After being named a starter in just her second game, Austin recorded a double-double against future Hall-of-Famer Sylvia Fowles.
The rookie assumed the starting center job permanently not long after that and was the fifth-leading scorer on the team. That was fifth behind a two-time MVP, a two-time All-Star, the WNBA's leader in assists and a budding star in Myisha Hines-Allen.
Yet, despite all of the success that has come her way following her No. 3 selection in the 2022 WNBA Draft, Austin believes that's nothing compared to what she's capable of on the basketball court.
"I think I started off at a pretty good base for a rookie year," Austin said at the end of the season. "Personally, I feel like I haven't done too much, nothing crazy special. But that alone just motivates me to come in and show that I have a lot more to offer and that I can do a lot more for a team."
Her point guard Natasha Cloud and those at the top of the sport share those sentiments. For as good as Austin was in 2022, there's more to come in 2023 and beyond.
Cloud said that she can already tell Austin is "going to be one of the best bigs to ever come through this league."
Already, she's assuming a role among the elite. Following the conclusion of the season, there was no downtime for the 6-foot-5 center. Las Vegas was her destination to join Team USA's training camp for the FIBA World Cup. A roster she would make, joining fellow bigs Breanna Stewart, A'ja Wilson, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones for a Gold medal.
Gaining that respect and being able to produce how Austin did is something she's proud of, considering the expectations placed on her before the season started.
"Just my ability to create for myself," Austin responded when asked what she was proud of this season. "I think coming in this year, there wasn't really an expectation for me to do much for the team and I came in and I established myself. Like I stayed within the role I was given, no plays were called for me, I was told to be a defender and a rebounder and I came in and still tried to make as much impact as I could within that."
The Mystics frankly didn't need the 15 points and 4.3 3-point attempts per game she averaged in her final year at Ole Miss in the 2022 WNBA season. A core of Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins, Cloud and Hines-Allen was supposed to supply the offense. Mix in Alysha Clark coming back from her Lisfranc injury and the addition of Elizabeth Williams, and there was already a lot of firepower and talent on the roster.
Still, Austin's role of cleaning up the glass as a rebounder and providing post defense were areas she thrived. With Williams overseas for the better part of the first month of the season, along with Delle Donne and Clark missing games, Austin proved herself in the time she was given. It was clear, she should be in the starting group.
After May 20, she started every game for Washington.
The minutes were granted but the play design to fit her talent wasn't. Washington kept the focus, and rightfully so, around the trio of Delle Donne, Atkins and Cloud. Austin was there for offensive rebounds and to take advantage of an opponent using an ill-advised defensive switch. Schematically, the coaching staff said no plays were run for the talented 22-year-old.
In her first season, she finished with 8.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, along with four double-doubles. Her 54.7% field goal percentage led the team. She was the runner-up to the Dream's Rhyne Howard in Rookie of the Year voting.
"I think the rookie season is definitely a great opportunity to just go out there and shock people," Austin said. "I think this year, I wasn't really able to shock them as much as I wanted, but I was just able to be as efficient as possible. So they can't really scout a great IQ player, a high IQ player who just knows how to cut and is aggressive and plays with high energy. I just think that's what I came in and did and, like I said, you can't really scout too much about that."
There's no lack of confidence from Austin. Nothing really surprised her in her transition to the highest women's professional basketball league in the world. She knew the quality of basketball and pace would improve from the NCAA. She also expected- er rather welcomed - the physicality in the WNBA.
Next year, Washington - with its revised organizational structure - will have a full season to prepare how they want Austin integrated into the offense. As with most players, her role should expand in Year 2.
Mike Thibault, who is now in a general-manager-only role, agrees that Austin has a lot more to contribute. But, he wants to see what she worked on with Team USA and also while playing overseas in Israel.
"It's not all gonna come at once. She would like to be more involved in the offense, which I think she will be, but part of that is the individual work she's been doing on her game, on her shooting routine. Part of it for her is just being a better student of the game and not that she's not, she has great basketball instincts, but it's a whole new world going from college to the pros," he said after the season.
"The hardest thing for her is that she's going to now go overseas for four months and we don't get to see her every day. And, how do you have the discipline to maintain the workouts that you want to do? She's got to check in with our coaches. We may send a coach over there to spend some time with her. But we'll have videos of her and we'll have FaceTime chats with her to kind of stay on plan," Thibault continued.
It's clear that the future is bright for both Austin and the Mystics. That was the goal when they won the rights to the No. 1 pick before the 2022 WNBA Draft and traded back to third for Austin.
Now, Washington has a dynamic post player who could develop into a star for the organization's new chapter. Now it's a matter of figuring out how to maximize Austin's current potential and the Mystics' current franchise player into another run at a championship.
"She has she's barely scratched the surface in my opinion," Thibault said.