The plan entering the season was never for Washington Mystics' third overall pick Shakira Austin to have a large workload placed on her shoulders. There’s enough talent and experience ahead of her on the depth chart that she could just learn and refine her game throughout her rookie season.
Well in just her second game as a professional, Austin was called to start. Her first assignment? Slowing down a four-time gold medalist and future Hall of Famer in Sylvia Fowles.
Goodness did the first-year player deliver in a 78-66 win over the Minnesota Lynx.
Austin put in work against one of the 25 greatest players in WNBA history on Sunday. The 6-foot-5 center limited Fowles to just 13 points, shooting 5-for-12 from the field. And that stat line is favorable toward the former 2017 MVP based on what was witnessed at the Target Center. Most of Fowles's production came in garbage time after Austin’s grit and denial of entry passes held her to four points and 1-for-4 shooting at halftime. At that point, Washington had doubled up Minnesota with a 47-23 edge.
“You’re talking about playing against the Hall-of-Fame center and in many ways matched her as far as the statistical part,” head coach Mike Thibault said postgame. “She just played her butt off. I'm really proud of her.”
Austin was fearless for much of the night, never backing down from the challenge.
Shutting down Fowles is easier said than done. Throughout her historic 14-year career, she's played 380 games and scored 13 points or more in all but 134 of them. Last season alone, she was held to that mark or fewer in only eight of 31 contests.
Austin – who did have the benefit of playing against Fowles in a preseason game – did it in just her second game.
“This is why we drafted Shakira. We knew that she could come in and have an immediate impact on our organization,’ Natasha Cloud said postgame. “Her versatility, her ability to disrupt so much on the defensive and to go up against the Hall of Famer and Olympian in Sylvia Fowles and make her work all night.”
To those that know Austin, it won’t come as any surprise that she battled and performed at the highest level. Not only does she say there aren't any lapses in confidence, but she exudes it in how she carries herself on the floor and in the locker room.
Sometimes, though, she still needs her coaches to keep an eye out in her first season. Midway through the third, Austin bent down to help Fowles up while the Mystics were off in transition. Assistant coach LaToya Sanders made sure to give her an earful right in front of their bench.
“I got yelled at for helping her up, but I felt like 'yo, come on man this is the GOAT right here, I'm not gonna leave her on the floor bro,' so I had to help her up,” Austin joked. “But I mean, at the end of the day when the ball jumps up, that's my competitor so I'm coming at her head and I feel like the respect was there, but I'm trying to get to that next level too.”
“I probably won't help nobody else up so I hope Sly appreciates that,” Austin added.
Offensively, her game is still developing at the WNBA level. She posted her first career double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds as well as a game-high +18. That’s much further along than anyone could have hoped just two games in.
Related: Mystics hope familiarity leads to fast start
Starting Austin was out of necessity in lieu of choice against the Lynx. The Mystics were without Elena Delle Donne (rest), Tianna Hawkins (personal), Alysha Clark (foot) and Elizabeth Williams (overseas). Washington was down to eight players. Only three were post players, two of which (including Austin) came into the contest with a combined 112 minutes of WNBA action.
It's a great sign for the Mystics (2-0) how quickly she was prepared for this moment.
As the season goes along and Delle Donne rests more games, the team will have to turn to Austin more.And if the Mystics weren’t anticipating utilizing their star draft pick much this season, just imagine what’s on the horizon as Austin earns more playing time as the year goes on.
“She's getting better every single day,” Cloud said. “And when you have a rookie that is extremely professional in how she goes about her work, the work that she puts in before and after practice every day, we’re seeing it translate on the floor. And so when you have a rookie that is doing all her work, how can you not be proud and have a moment like this, a double-double on her second game ever in the W, we're excited for the ceiling that she has and she's gonna continue to grow and continue to lead us. Without her tonight we don't win the game.”