There’s an assuredness in the greatest of the great. It’s not cockiness; it’s earned confidence. Washington Mystics rookie center Shakira Austin has it, and it’s evident in her play. She hasn’t operated as if 2022 is her first year in the WNBA. Shakira possesses the poise of an All-Star, and she’s performed like one, too.
Shakira’s confidence is also evident in her speech. Again, she isn’t cocky; the 22-year-old is incredibly down-to-earth and personable. But when Queen Ballers Club asked her what her goals are professionally, she didn’t hesitate or mince words.
“I just know I’m going to be one of the best to ever do it,” she said.
Mystics head coach, Mike Thibault, sees Shakira’s confidence as an indicator of her future status amongst the best of the best.
“I think the great ones have it,” he said. “You see it in Rhyne Howard right now. You see it in [Shakira]. If you’re a top three pick in our league, those are the championship players in our league. Almost every championship team has a couple of those on their team. [Brittney Griner] and Elena [Delle Donne] and Skylar [Diggins-Smith] all had that confidence. Stewie had it. Maya Moore had it. A’ja Wilson had it. All those top lottery pick players have that.”
Indeed, Mike Thibault selected Austin third overall in the 2022 WNBA Draft, giving her access to the exclusive club of top three picks in league history. Washington originally owned the top selection in the draft. But Mike felt so strongly about Austin’s potential that he traded No. 1 to Atlanta in exchange for No. 3 and a 2023 first rounder (via Los Angeles).
Shakira’s teammates have noticed her confidence, and gush over her potential in the league.
“Shakira’s doing a hell of a job,” Mystics point guard, Natasha Cloud, told Queen Ballers Club earlier this season. “She’s a phenomenal player and I don’t even think she’s scratched the surface yet of her potential in this league. Not even close to it. Like, not even in speaking distance of it yet.”
Effusive praise of that caliber isn’t thrown around lightly – it’s a sign of Shakira’s skyrocketing trajectory.
Long before Shakira was turning heads at the professional level, however, she was developing herself into a well-rounded player who could adapt to any challenge or climate. The foundation Shakira and her father built has positioned her as a future superstar in the most competitive league on the planet.
Shakira’s dad, David, tried to get her into basketball at the age of five, but it didn’t take. David followed a wise parenting credo: if your kid doesn’t like something, don’t force it upon them. So Shakira continued along in her life, gravitating towards other sports while leaving the round ball for others.
Fast-forward to middle school – somewhere around 7th or 8th grade – and Shakira stood 6-foot-3. Naturally, she decided to revisit the sport that rewards height, because, well, why not?
“I was tall as can be and just decided I was going to start playing again,” recalls Shakira.
Shakira had played football and soccer previously, so she understood what it took to be on an athletic team. When she decided to give basketball another shot, David promptly found an AAU program for Shakira to participate in, and the rest is history.
Here’s where the work you put in growing up can lead to greatness as a professional. David impressed upon Shakira the importance of not simply relying on height at the expense of other basketball skills. Sure, she could dominate in grade school off of stature alone. But what about when she went off to college, or potentially got drafted? If Shakira was able to learn a variety of skills, holding the keys to a toolkit of versatility, that would make her truly unstoppable.
“My dad always put that on me,” said Shakira. “My height never defined me. He trained me up to pretty much be a guard. That’s what we always worked on, being versatile, being able to handle the ball, stuff like that. I’m still building onto that.”
Shakira could’ve planted her feet in the paint and swatted anything that came into her reach. Instead, she trained herself to defend all five positions, using her feet and lateral quickness to stick with smaller, faster players.
Jump ahead nearly a decade and Shakiras ability to defend guards excites Mike Thibault to no end.
“I think what we’ve been most impressed about is her ability to cover ground,” the Washington head coach told Queen Ballers Club early on in the 2022 season. “She’s got quick feet and so if somebody gets beat, she’s got a great instinct for turning and helping people and shutting down driving lanes for guards. I think she’s really good at that.”
David may’ve taught Shakira not to rely solely on her height. But he certainly encouraged her to embrace it. There’s a key distinction here. Using height as an excuse to be lazy was not an option. But understanding the power Shakira held in her height – that was integral to her development.
“[My dad] always told me, ‘don’t play small, play big,’” said Shakira. “Just doing that and being aggressive and showing your dominance on the defensive side is what allows you to get better on the offensive end. If people can’t score they’re not going to go back on the other end and try to play defense usually. That’s my motto.”
Play big. Shakira no longer enjoys a vast height advantage over her competitors. Yet her determination to play big is overt to viewers across the globe.
Again, it all goes back to the work she put in growing up in the DMV. Confidence is inherent in “playing big,” and building confidence is a lifelong process. Shakira would play with the boys at her local YMCA, and soon became more comfortable using her voice and trusting her play.
“We would go over [to the YMCA and] play pickup with the guys,” Shakira recalled. “That’s really where I learned how to be confident and talk my sh*t. We would have drills where we would come off ball screens, shoot 3s, pull-ups. That’s probably why my pull-up is so consistent right now.”
By the time she began playing for Riverdale Baptist High School in Maryland, Shakira was flaunting a variety of skills that had Division 1 coaches taking serious notice.
Her transition from high school to college, however, was far from smooth sailing.
ESPN’s number four overall prospect coming out of Riverdale Baptist, Shakira committed to the University of Maryland, choosing to play in close proximity to her family and for a Division 1 powerhouse. She suited up for the Terrapins as a freshman and sophomore, and to onlookers, things were going well.
In 2018-19, Austin was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team and the All-Big Ten Defensive Team, breaking Maryland’s single-season blocks record with 89 denials. She was also a force on the glass, averaging 9.5 rebounds including a 21 board effort in her first ever game against Coppin State. Shakira arrived on the national scene and did not blink.
She continued her excellent play as a sophomore for Maryland the following season, named 2020 Second-Team All-Big Ten, as well as being included on the Lisa Leslie Award Watch List. She shot over 50 percent from the field, dramatically improved her free throw percentage, and averaged 3.5 combined blocks and steals per game. All roses and sunshine, right?
Nope. Despite Maryland’s success over her two seasons at the school – the Terps won the Big Ten regular season title both years and added one Big Ten Tournament title – Shakira felt as if she wasn’t growing in the fashion she was capable of. So she transferred far away from home, to the University of Mississippi, and took a risk by betting on herself.
“It sucked,” remembered Shakira. “I never thought about leaving a school once I committed. I love playing for home, I love playing for the state of Maryland and DC. Nobody really agreed with my decision. Everybody was questioning me; everybody thought I was crazy. I might’ve been crazy, but I made it work.”
To say Shakira made it work is an understatement. Over her junior and senior seasons at Ole Miss, Austin blossomed into one of the top WNBA prospects in the world. She was named First-Team All-SEC both years, averaging 18.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.6 steals as a junior and 15.2 points, 9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and 1.2 steals as a senior.
“It was tough playing there but I knew I needed to prove to everybody that it was a decision that still could work out,” said Shakira.
Work out it did, as Shakira became a lock to be drafted in the lottery and landed on a franchise with a dynamic roster and some championship DNA.
Earlier in the regular season, Shakira succinctly and effectively summed up her journey.
“I took steps back when I got to college. But I was able to make another move, showcase what I had again and I’m just building on that.”
By every available metric, Shakira’s rookie season has been a resounding success. She started at center in 32 out of Washington’s 36 games, despite the Mystics adding former All-Defensive center, Elizabeth Williams, in the offseason. Shakira averaged 8.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, and shot 55 percent from the field, helping propel her team to the No. 5 seed in the WNBA Playoffs.
Her impact was grander than the numbers suggest. Rarely are WNBA rookies as adept defensively as Shakira was this season – her aforementioned versatility shining through in a major way. She was routinely pitted against some of the best bigs in the league, and didn’t just hold her own – she excelled. Shakira notched her first professional double double in her second career game, and she did it against future Hall of Famer and former MVP, Sylvia Fowles.
“There is no night off for her,” said Natasha Cloud. “She’s guarding Sylvia Fowles, she’s guarding Cheyenne Parker, she’s guarding Izzy Harrison, she’s guarding all these phenomenal players every single night and she’s doing her damn job.”
“She is doing her damn job. The impact that she has on our team on both ends of the floor, without her, we’re not winning these games. Period.”
It’s Shakira’s defense that has earned her the trust of Mike Thibault.
“She is in the upper echelon of defensive players in our league right now, and for that to be a rookie, I think that’s a special thing,” the Mystics head coach told Queen Ballers Club. “I think she felt like she was going to be that coming in. We were impressed that she can talk and communicate on defense and rotate and help people and then get back to hers, or block a shot. That’s hard to find. I think that’s the uncommon part about her.”
Shakira’s development continues to be aided by David, who will call her regularly and give tips on her play. It’s helped Shakira be able to hang with a who’s-who of All-Stars and former MVPs.
“I’ve just been able to hold my own,” said Shakira. “A lot of people probably think I’m really skinny and scrawny. But I’m pretty solid. I’ve always been able to defend bigger posts or lengthy posts – either one. Coming in and being able to guard the best players from Candace [Parker] to Syl to Tina [Charles], it feels great. My dad, he’s in my ear every night about different things so I’m just trying to get better every night.”
Part of Shakira’s greatness is how she holds herself to what outsiders might deem an unreasonably high standard. Whereas others might get complacent entering the league and immediately earning a starting role, Shakira refuses to stagnate.
“I still think I could do more, show more,” she told us before a game in New York earlier this season. “I never settle. I feel like I am playing good and I do give myself those props. But I still come out [of] the game and be like, ‘Damn, I could’ve done this,’ or, ‘[I] could’ve gotten that block’ or different things. Always trying to get better.”
Shakira’s defensive game is already advanced. Offensively, she’s holding her own, but there’s much more she can do.
First, the strengths. Shakira is a proficient offensive rebounder, and strong around the rim. She isn’t phased by physical defense, and knocks down a variety of shots in the mid-range on rare occasions when her defender prevents her from entering the restricted area. Shakira has hit a handful of reverse layups this season, including one recently in Game 1 of Washington’s first round playoff series against Seattle.
A reverse layup, you say? What’s so special about that? Shakira hit it with Breanna Stewart guarding her, and did so by flaunting her quick first step, putting the ball on the floor, and blowing by the Storm MVP before finishing beyond her reach. Shakira’s handles are way above-average for a young center, allowing her to score with her back to the basket or facing up.
Shakira’s offensive weaknesses aren’t as glaring. But there are areas to improve upon. She has yet to develop a three-point shot, and her accuracy becomes inconsistent the further she strays from the rim. Even in the paint, Shakira’s touch could use a little softening, though this is simply nitpicking. The biggest priority is free-throw shooting. Shakira hit 62.4 percent of her attempts from the line in 2022. Far from a dreadful mark, but one that incentivizes opponents to foul her with emphasis. Her passing prowess will grow with experience.
Shakira is confident in her ability to add elements to her game.
“I’m a two-way player,” she said. “I can shut anybody down from a guard to a post, and I’m still putting all my offensive tools together. I think once I get my three-ball, I have the handles to be able to do anything on the floor. It’s going to be scary in a couple of years.”
As if Shakira’s immense basketball talent wasn’t reason enough to support her, she has a deep passion outside of sports, too. It’s one of her long-term goals to start a clothing line, and she already makes her own clothes!
“Just being tall, I’ve always wanted to dress cute,” she said. “I have a style that I like to show off. A lot of clothing brands don’t have things that are going to fit me. I honestly started teaching myself how to sew, teaching myself how to make my own pants. That’s where I started to realize that I want to get into clothing and modeling and the fashion industry. I’ve always wanted to have my own clothing line for tall girls so I’m hoping that’s going to be on the way soon.”
Shakira refuses to be defined solely by her athletic talent.
“Having other skills and other habits I like to do off the court is what makes me me,” she said.
The Mystics future star says she is able to finish a clothing set in around two hours. She compares the process to knitting, telling us it’s “Not that bad when you just sit down and focus.”
Focus. That’s the name of the game for Shakira Austin. On the court and off, day in and day out, her focus doesn’t waver, and it’s part of what makes her great.