Shakira Austin had no interest in going to Israel. She had just completed her rookie season with the Washington Mystics and was headed to play with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup in Australia, so spending the rest of the offseason playing overseas was not exactly what the 22-year-old had in mind.
As it turned out, that may have been the best decision the 2022 No. 3 overall pick could have made.
"Honestly, I was tired," Austin said. "I wanted to stay home and be around my family. I'm a really family-oriented person, and almost going like a full year without really seeing anybody … it was rough and I was really just scared for a new environment that I wasn't familiar with.
"Most people just don't talk about it. They say, yeah, you automatically go overseas. That's what everybody does. Just go do it. And I wasn't really comfortable with it at first. … When I just got there, it was totally different. I really enjoyed it."
Austin did more than just enjoy it, she dominated the Israeli League. She was named player of the year, center of the year, import player of the year and was the Finals MVP after leading Elitzur Ramla to the championship. Austin snatched a starting position with the Washington Mystics off her defensive prowess and was named to the WNBA's all-rookie team, but she scored buckets in Israel. She averaged 19.9 points per game and gave a sneak peek of what could come this WNBA season.
The culture shock wasn't so bad as Austin described the environment as pretty Americanized. She missed the food from home the most, but that wasn't the worst part – Austin never truly adjusted to the seven-hour time difference. The first three months she would stay up until 8 a.m. or not sleep at all before a 9 a.m. shoot-around. She would often crash during the day before waking up to go play a game in the evening. Another issue was not having the usual support systems for training, so a lot of her individual work was left to herself.
None of that seemed to affect her play and Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough got an up-close view as she was on the Maccabi Ashdod team that lost to Austin in the league finals. Walker-Kimbrough was also named to the all-Israeli League first team and was tabbed guard of the year.
"It was fun to watch, but it wasn't fun being on the other side," Walker-Kimbrough said.
Mystics guard Jazmine Jones, who also played in the Israeli League, added, "Kira was hooping this year. She was hoop-ing!"
The plan is for Austin to keep hoop-ing for the Mystics in 2023 as the team intends to give her more freedom.
Offense was an afterthought in 2022 as she averaged 8.7 points as a rookie. The team didn't run any sets for her, but she still scored in double digits in 14 of 36 games, including a season-high 20 points in just her fifth game of the season. Coach Eric Thibault has already said she will get a lot more offensive opportunities this season.
"She should take a leap … she's expanded her game," Thibault said. "Year two, we're going to let her try some things and roll with a couple of mistakes along the way. I think we've challenged her to be great and that's what she wants to be and that's what excited us about drafting her in the first place - we felt that drive from her."
A big part of that development was making the World Cup team and playing alongside WNBA MVPs A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart as well as Jewell Loyd, Chelsea Gray, Sabrina Ionescu, Kelsey Plum, Kahleah Copper and Mystics teammate Ariel Atkins. The group won gold in Australia and Austin went straight to Israel to start that season.
"It was crazy," Austin said about leaving the States less than a week after the WNBA season ended and not returning until Sunday when the Mystics opened training camp. "It sounds insane."
Two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne added, "She went overseas and absolutely crushed it. She looks great. She looks strong. She even looks taller to me."
The team is easing Austin into camp with the understanding that she played a lot of basketball in the last 12 months. Associate head coach LaToya Sanders envisions Austin as more of a playmaker in 2023 - bringing the ball up at times and utilizing her passing abilities. She'll also get the chance to exploit one-on-one matchups as teams won't be able to send multiple defenders with the other talent the Mystics have on the floor. Austin will even get the chance to take defenders off the dribble instead of being glued to the block like some other 6-foot-5 centers. Sanders said she can see the growth from Austin's rookie year and noted that she has been particularly vocal and engaged in camp.
The Mystics open the season at home against the New York Liberty on May 19.
"She kind of went back to Ole Miss Kira, which is not a bad thing," Sanders said. "We saw some things (from Israel) that were like, oh, OK, we can't tell her not to do that when she gets here. We need that from her."