Shakira Austin Is Right Where Elena Delle Donne Needs Her To Be
5:23 PM EDT on May 30, 2023
Offense wins WNBA championships. This is the simple story of last year's Vegas breakthrough—the Aces' new coach let dynamic athletes play to their strengths and they all immediately improved and won! It's the story of the miracle Chicago run the year before, of the last great Storm squads, of 2019's pace-and-space Mystics. It's why very good Connecticut Sun teams have never finished the job. It's why no one minds too much that the Ionescu-Vandersloot backcourt in New York is, with all due respect, food.
And when the 2-2 Washington Mystics make their postseason exit this year, their offense will be the reason why. This is a strange thing to write about a team that made headlines for its historically good offense four seasons ago. Those Mystics finished the regular season with the highest offensive rating ever, never turned the ball over, and just zipped it elegantly around until they could find an open shooter. They lived by the three and only lived by it; in the playoffs, they shot 40 percent from three on crazy-high volume. It is also a strange thing to write about a team with the best offensive player in the history of the league. Elena Delle Donne, in what she hopes will be her first full healthy season since 2019, looks soooooo good right now. The hardy 6-foot-5 forward thrives in any on-court conditions. Delle Donne is strong enough to bully her way inside or box out for offensive rebounds, and blessed with unreal shooting touch; she is a true "three-level scorer." We'll forgive this odd blemish on her season: She's already missed two free throws through four games. (In 31 games in the 2019 regular season, she made 114 of 117 free-throw attempts.)
This Delle Donne may be as brilliant as 2019's, but so far these aren't the 2019 Mystics. Washington's close win over the Sky on Friday night made that clear: Delle Donne put up 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting and only her last three, with 22 seconds left, got the Mystics ahead. The team's starting guards, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins, combined for seven points in that game, with Cloud shooting 0-for-4 and Atkins shooting 2-for-10. Through four games, the Mystics are the second-worst three-point shooting team in the WNBA and the fourth-lowest scoring team. One can't help but feel a little sorry for them. They ushered in a new offensive era and now they can barely survive in it. Cloud and Atkins are veterans of the championship team, more talented than their stat lines would suggest, and important parts of the team's elite defense even when their scoring isn't there. But the appeal of an Elena Delle Donne is the room she creates for others, and so far the Mystics haven't taken advantage.
She doesn't have to carry this team entirely on her bad back, though. The Delle Donne show has a new, intriguing co-star: Second-year center Shakira Austin, selected third overall in the WNBA draft last year, is showing already that she can be a real offensive threat on a team starved for them. Austin was a key piece of last year's top-rated Mystics defense, and now it seems like she's rounding into form. In her 21-point, 11-rebound performance against a tough Connecticut defense last week, Austin flashed her finishing skills, some off-the-dribble creation ability—Delle Donne called Austin's spin move the "little razzle dazzle"—and a keen sense of where to be when her teammates have the ball. (Alas, the Mystics also went 3-of-21 from three in that game and lost.) The off-ball sense is an especially valuable skill to have beside Delle Donne, who's certain to attract double coverage while the guards are struggling. Austin, after her 15-point, 10-rebound game against Chicago, gave all the credit to Delle Donne. "All I have to do is cut at the right time," she said, laughing. "It's usually going to be a good bucket for me." But she's being humble there; those cuts aren't quite as easy as she makes them seem.
The Mystics raised some eyebrows when they won the 2022 draft lottery and traded down to take Austin. Rhyne Howard, the first-overall selection that year, looks like she'll be a great WNBA player in Atlanta, but the Mystics are probably pretty pleased they chose the high-ceiling big they needed. If Austin is an ideal fit for this Mystics team, the Mystics also deserve credit for the opportunity they gave her early in her WNBA career. A competitive team winning the lottery can sometimes go disastrously for the prospect, and it didn't here: Though Austin wasn't a perfect, polished offensive player when Washington drafted her, she got a full season of regular minutes on a playoff team, and the trust to try new things (and even fail!) offensively as a rookie.
The playing time, the veterans, the competitive environment, the solid coaching—they make for an ideal development setting in a league that practically punishes youth. "I'm grateful to have the opportunity to come in and not be thrown into the fire," Austin said in a recent postgame interview. "I could've went to a different team and probably been great but right now I'm able to learn from great vets—arguably one of the best players in the league with Elena—in a position that I want to play in and be dominant in. This was the perfect opportunity." Now, she's rewarding their faith.