The past six weeks have been a mind-spinning blur for Shakira Austin.
Austin was practicing with her new team, the Washington Mystics, a week later and making her WNBA preseason debut six days after that. She also was taking exams and trying to finish her degree the entire time.
WNBA rookies face a unique challenge in having the NCAA tournament, the draft, training camp and the start of the season happen within weeks. The championship game was April 3 and the league tips off Friday, when schools will still be wrapping up classes.
That part has been the biggest challenge for Austin, who’s closing in on a degree in multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on psychology, sports management and journalism. She still had an exam to take last week but will have to complete a summer class to earn the degree. Austin was supposed to be finished after the spring, but a hectic basketball schedule forced her to miss an in-person exam for a psychology class. She received a zero that caused her to fail the class.
“It’s been tough,” Austin said. “Some of the teachers are really understanding. But some of them have their views on athletes … I guess.
“She wouldn’t allow me to retake it. I needed like a medical excuse or something. So it sucks for that one, but the rest of them [were] online.”
Austin could easily pick up those final credits in the future, but the degree holds special meaning. She will become the first in her family with a college degree, and they want to see her walk across that stage. The new plan is to walk in August — though the commencement ceremony hasn’t been set and could conflict with a Mystics playoff run.
“One exam … are you serious?!” Austin said with a laugh. “I guess I wouldn’t have to be more stressed than I already am with trying to cram that last credit in.
“My mom, she wasn't able to be at my first graduation in high school. I want her to make this one. It's been a big, big thing for me and just for my family. They're super excited with everything I'm doing. So that'll just top it off.”
The family should be excited that Austin, a Virginia native who played high school ball in Prince George’s County and her first two years of college ball at Maryland, has returned to the D.C. area. The situation is the best of both worlds for the 6-foot-5, 190-pounder. There’s little pressure as she joins a veteran team with a post rotation of two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne, second-team all-WNBA pick Myisha Hines-Allen, all-defensive team selection and former most improved player Elizabeth Williams and the versatile Tianna Hawkins. But there will be opportunities for early minutes: Williams will miss the beginning of the season to finish overseas obligations, and the team will manage Delle Donne’s load to be careful with a back that underwent a pair of surgeries.
“She can pair up with all of them,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “She’ll kind of have that LaToya [Sanders] role from a few years ago where you can mix and match your posts and she can play with all the shooting bigs.”
The preseason games were a good start: Austin posted 12 rebounds and six blocks in the opener against the Atlanta Dream and eight points, 13 rebounds, two blocks and a steal against the Minnesota Lynx. The early focus is to bring energy in the form of defense and rebounding, with the idea that the offense will come along. Austin led the Rebels at 15.2 points per game last season, so she knows how to put the ball in the basket, but the Mystics won’t be running plays for her at the same rate Mississippi did. Those opportunities will come, but the foundation is already there.
“Good mobility, balance, athleticism — all those things that are just important as you’re making that jump to the next level,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said. “She can create off of the bounce. She’s got a pull-up from midrange, rebounds out of position, good shot blocker. I think the thing with Shakira is she’s made it clear that she does want a more perimeter-oriented position on the court, and I think she may have to be willing to play a little bit more inside to start her WNBA career and expand more outside as the game goes on.”
Austin seems like a natural fit for the Mystics and represents a bridge of sorts. This is an organization in win-now mode after missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker in 2021. She’s almost a luxury for this team, which hopes Austin develops into an all-star.
For now she gets to grow under the tutelage of veterans such as Delle Donne, Hines-Allen and Hawkins and has Sanders as her position coach. All four of them have championship rings.
“She’s a little goofy, but I’m goofy, too,” Hawkins said. “But she’s a little more goofy than me. She’s great. Eager to learn. And she loves to compete, so that’s going to take her really far with this group.”
Added guard Natasha Cloud: “That’s the scary thing about her — she has a ceiling that she hasn’t even scraped the surface of yet.”