WASHINGTON -- Ole Miss star Shakira Austin is coming home and there couldn't be a better opportunity for the 6-foot-5 forward to begin her professional basketball career.
The Washington Mystics selected her with the third overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft. A local player who finished her high school career just down the road at Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro, Md.
Luckily for her, the Mystics do not have to rely on their top draft pick carrying them to wins in her first season, unlike what is normally awaiting may lottery selections. As currently constructed, the Mystics are a championship-contending team when healthy.
Austin is expected to be just the eighth or ninth player in the rotation to start the season according to head coach and general manager Mike Thibault. That is an ideal situation for a player who's trying to get her feet wet in the WNBA.
“I feel like I got lucky," Austin told the media after her selection. "To be in a position to learn from vets and people who you just look up to as role players, it's just an amazing feeling. I feel like this opportunity is going to bring the best out of me, and I'm ready to just start a career in D.C. back home. It's just an honor.”
"I'm going to have a long career, a successful career," Austin continued. "And coming into the Mystics I feel like it's just the best opportunity possible for me to learn and take my time but also learn from the best. That's a championship-level team, and that's where I'm meant to be.”
That alleviates pressure right away for a young star that faces a big challenge to stick on a roster in the years to come. No learning on the fly. She'll be under the tutelage of the winningest head coach in WNBA history. Also, a coach with a proven history of developing players.
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From the start of the draft process, she knew that Washington could be an option. Coming back to not only the area where she went to high school (she also spent time at Colonial Forge High School in Fredericksburg, Va.), but also to the school where she started her collegiate career: the University of Maryland.
She played her first two seasons in College Park - less than 15 miles from the Mystics' Entertainment and Sports Arena. Playing for the Mystics was certainly one of the destinations of choice.
“My dad, my family - I have my mom, who wanted me to go to Atlanta - my dad pushing for D.C., so I think my dad's prayer worked a little bit more," Austin said. "But we're just excited, like I said, just for this opportunity to be able to learn and to really grow and to be able to help a community that I've been playing in, that I'm familiar with, the DMV. That's my home. To be able to bring a championship there is now my next goal.”
There's long been a Maryland-to-Mystics mini-pipeline. Tianna Hawkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are former Terps. There are also former Mystics Kristi Toliver and Crystal Langhorne just to name a few.
It made scouting Austin a little bit easier her first two seasons in college. Bringing her back home, though, wasn't necessarily a factor in selecting her.
"I don't care where they're from. They can be from Mars. It doesn't matter to me," Thibault told the media after the draft. "We want to get the player that is talented but they fit with our group, they're unselfish, that they have a team concept first, and I felt both players we drafted to excel in those areas."
Still, Austin will have an impact with Washington during her rookie season. Whether that ends with a deep playoff run or another high draft pick will be contingent on the players in front of her. That was going to be the case with any draft pick in this year's class.
But Austin's ability to impact the game with her defensive skills will be valuable. And, she'll get the chance to learn behind some of the best perimeter and interior defenders in the sport. Four Mystics have earned All-Defensive Team honors in their careers - Alysha Clark, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Elizabeth Williams. Each in their own way are known for how they impact that side of the court.
She'll be able to learn behind all of them, practice against all of them, and not be thrust into a perform-now situation. Already, she knows that is how she can fit in.
"For me, it's just about maintaining my energy coming into the pros," Austin said. "I'm really just focused on my defense. I'm pretty sure that's going to be able to translate easier than my offense, and that's going to get me time on the floor and that'll build my confidence as well.
"Just not expecting too much from myself is really where I'm headed mentally, but also knowing that I'm playing for somebody who understands my game, and it doesn't matter if I'm at the five or the four, it's just about getting that time on the floor.”
It should be comfortable for Austin - as comfortable as it can be for a prospect. She's back home. She's on a franchise that's not relying on her talents right away. Learning behind some of the WNBA's best is just an added bonus.
And on top of it all, the organization was really excited to draft her.
"When you have an opportunity to draft a 6-foot-6 post player who's athletic, can play both positions, can run all day, I think it's a rare thing... when you have a young player at that position, who buys into all the things at the defensive end, that's a good way to make your mark with a team right away," Thibault said.
"I think we're seeing a player in front of us that's only going to get better, that in the long run for this franchise gives us a solid piece for a lot of years to come," he added.