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‘Betting on Myself Was a Great Decision’: Shakira Austin’s Journey to the WNBA Draft

When the Ole Miss center transferred from powerhouse Maryland two years ago, many questioned if it was the right decision. Now she’s projected as a top-three pick in this year’s draft.

As she slowly walked toward the Baylor logo on the court inside the Ferrell Center, Shakira Austin was overcome with emotion. Players from South Dakota, the first-round opponent for Ole Miss in the recent NCAA women’s basketball tournament, had begun to celebrate nearby behind the Rebels’ senior center. The final seconds trickled off the scoreboard in the Coyotes’ 75–61 victory. Austin bent over as heartbreaking tears rolled from her eyes.

Her college basketball career, one that had been filled with valiant risks and change, had come to an end. In the teary eyes of the 6'5" star, who had been one of the nation’s most dynamic players this season, it showed that this was not how she wanted to end her Ole Miss career.

Filled with overwhelming disappointment, a trio of Austin’s teammates—Madison Scott, Mimi Reid and Lashonda Monk—came to console her. Rebels assistant Shay Robinson, Austin’s positional coach, struggled to watch her exit the court. “Her teammates pretty much carried her back to the locker room,” Robinson says. The Fredericksburg, Va., native was a fierce competitor and despised losing. She was built with a win-at-all-cost mentality and that mindset had been injected into the Ole Miss women’s basketball program.

Ole miss basketball coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin with Ole Miss center Shakira Austin (0) during the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament game against South Carolina in Nashville, Tenn. on Saturday, March 5, 2022. Sec Ole Miss South Carolina

Though her college career ended on a bittersweet note, Austin’s work is soon to be rewarded. She will join 11 other prospects Monday night who will wait to hear their names called in the 2022 WNBA draft at Spring Studios in New York City. Austin joins talented players like Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith, Florida Gulf Coast’s Kierstan Bell and others in the league’s first in-person draft since ’19. She will become the sixth Rebel drafted—the first since ’10—and could tie Armintie Price-Herrington (selected No. 3 in the ’07 draft) as the highest draft pick in program history.

When her name is called, Austin will also join a group of players that includes Natasha Cloud, Kiara Leslie and Destiny Slocum, who all played at Maryland before transferring to play at other schools and landing in the WNBA.

“I felt like I made the right decision but not one I was making for myself going to Maryland,” Austin says. “I was a little pup just trying to win a championship.”

When Austin stood on that court in the heart-rending loss, she had won the war and her fearless efforts and leadership in an Ole Miss uniform outweighed the postseason defeat. Coming off a WNIT runner-up finish in the 2020–21 season, the Rebels earned their first NCAA tournament appearance since ‘07, secured a 20-win season, posted their highest finish (fourth) in SEC play since 1994, their first SEC tourney appearance since ’93 and their longest winning streak (13 games) in program history this season.

“I don’t think we have the success as quickly had Shakira not come here,” says Rebels head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, who took over the program ahead of the 2018–19 campaign. In her first three seasons, McPhee-McCuin posted a 31–57 record overall and a dismal 7–39 mark in conference action that included the coronavirus pandemic and a winless conference record in ‘19.

Austin took a risk and stepped out on faith when she transferred from blueblood Big Ten powerhouse Maryland, coached by the legendary Brenda Frese, to Ole Miss ahead of the 2020–21 season. Many considered Austin’s move a questionable one. She not only witnessed a lack of support from people afar, but also those close to her, including her father, David, who introduced her to the game. He wanted Austin to pick a program in a big market that could provide her with maximum exposure to get to the WNBA. “To this day, I’ll never understand her decision,” David says. “Oxford was in the middle of nowhere … but it was something she had to go through.”

The star center helped Maryland to a second-round NCAA tourney appearance and broke the program’s single-season blocks record as a freshman. She also played a pivotal role in the Terrapins’ two Big Ten regular-season titles and conference tournament titles in 2019 and ‘20.

The former McDonald’s All-American and one of Virginia’s top players out of Riverdale Baptist was following the prototypical route of Terrapin players who had come before her and are now playing in the WNBA. Some include Kaila Charles and Tianna Hawkins, both of whom also played at Riverdale Baptist, Brionna Jones (WNBA’s Most Improved Player), Crystal Langhorne (two-time WNBA champion), Alyssa Thomas (two-time WNBA All-Star), Kristi Tolliver (three-time All-Star) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

With her lengthy wingspan, she knew she could protect the rim, block shots and knock down baby hook shots near the basket. In her freshman season alone, she finished in the top 20 nationally in total rebounds and blocks per 40 minutes, ranked in the top 15 in her freshman and sophomore seasons in defensive win shares per 40 minutes and defensive player rating, according to HerHoopStats. But Austin, in her mind, was destined for more. “She felt like there was a ceiling at Maryland and she wanted to remove herself from that,” David says.


Austin went from being a convenient 70 minutes away from her parents at College Park to nearly 14 hours away in Oxford, Miss., one of the most popular college towns in the country with a population of nearly 30,000. It was different from what others wanted for Austin, but it was the perfect situation for her future goals.

“It was like letting me off a leash to showcase what I could do,” she says. “Being able to bring that championship-caliber look and feel to this program was legendary. Betting on myself was a great decision.”

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Before arriving at Ole Miss, Austin had never actually seen the Rebels’ campus due to the health and safety measures in place at the height of the pandemic. Even more, when she informed a thrilled Coach Yo of her decision to transfer to Ole Miss after an in-depth, two-hour Zoom presentation, Austin soon found out that her journey South would not solely be on her own. Robinson, who was previously an assistant at Maryland under Frese, also joined the Rebels’ coaching staff ahead of the 2020–21 season. Robinson’s knowledge and player development skills presented an ideal level of reassurance and confidence to David knowing his daughter would be in good hands.

“He understood Shakira’s shortcomings as a young high school kid and young college player,” David says.

Austin has waited to break into the WNBA her entire life. But as she prepares to elevate her talents to the highest level, the very spirited and fearless woman—rocking a fierce version of dark red, orange or blonde hair—playing inside the Pavilion arose from her resilience during her childhood. Her challenges gave rise to a woman filled with confidence both on and off the court.

As a kid, Austin grew up participating in basketball, football, gymnastics and track and field. But her first love came with dribbling a basketball. Her initial introduction to the game, however, was cut short. “My dad says I didn’t really have love for the sport, but I don’t know how he could tell,” Austin says. When she was 5, Austin stole the ball from her defender and dribbled to the wrong side of the basketball court in a game and notched the first points of her basketball career. She stopped playing until she went to middle school, when she took the sport more seriously, hit a major growth spurt and stood at 6'3".

She would often feel out of place as she towered over her peers. But her confidence rose when she started seeing taller girls in sports and spent two-hour car rides talking with her father en route to AAU games in middle school. Beyond every basketball drill or critique, Austin says her father’s guidance went beyond the hardwood. “He never wanted basketball to define me but to let it be an opportunity to create success,” she says.

Three days before the draft, Austin’s mother, Jessica King, is sitting at her desk in her gray-colored office space inside her home in Social Circle, Ga., making “Curly Head Hoops” T-shirts and cups, her daughter’s branded gear. Despite King constantly being on the go as the owner of a small business and an assistant general manager at McDonald’s, she pauses her schedule to take care of the needs of the one she will always see as her baby. “I told her I am your mother, not your assistant,” King says jokingly.

Austin, 21, is the oldest of four children on King’s side of the family and three more on her father’s side. As King sifts through the designs for her daughter’s products, her excitement for Austin’s moment is something she always knew would come to pass, even with her daughter’s upbringing and circumstances as a child.

“She’s always thought she was the mother to her siblings, even me,” King says. “It wasn’t her responsibility to help out with her siblings but she wanted to help. She’s always had that nurturing side.”

To understand Austin’s fiery, say-how-it-is personality is to first understand the woman who raised the soon-to-be WNBA player. King, who was then a single parent while working and going to school at the same time, says she knew from birth that Austin was going to be special. By the time she was 1 year old, Austin already stood taller than the knee of her mother, who stood at 5' 7". King recalled the moment she knew Austin’s personality—one filled with dance moves and continuous laughter—was a representation of her.

“She was trying to walk in my high-heeled boots with her Pampers on,” King says. “She had a little halter-top shirt in her hand, swinging it in her hand while dancing. … She’s been my baby. … She was a God-given gift to us.”

King was also raised by a single mother, which she credits as guiding her to raise Austin during those early years. King and her brother were adopted before they turned 5. King, however, was the youngest of 10 children in her adopted family.

As she grew up, King copied what her adopted mother taught her. “Don’t let things hold you back…there isn’t a no in anything unless you want it to be,” she says. But it wasn’t always an easy lesson to follow. King knew who her biological mother was and when she would see her in different places, they would not speak. From the moment King was pregnant with Austin, she built a hatred for her birth mother.

But in the last five years, King has buried the grudge between her and her biological mother, who died in 2020. In a moment that King thought would not affect her, it was Austin who she leaned on to vent and share the complicated feelings surrounding her mother’s death.

King’s daily rearing of Austin was short-lived. Before she turned 5, Austin went to live with David full time based on court orders between the two. As David showed Austin the nuts and bolts of basketball, he made sure Austin visited her mother regularly.

But King wanted more. After an arduous, 13-year custody battle and a plethora of health issues, King decided she could no longer fight the courts. Austin visited her mom when she could and the two made the best of the moments in the kitchen with King’s adopted mother and sparking Austin’s love for cooking a variety of foods, which her teammates often benefit from. King, however, kept her food selection simple. “I cook what Grandma and Mama taught me,” she says.

Elsewhere within Virginia and the DMV area, David spent countless hours in the gym working on Austin’s footwork and rim protection. Long before his daughter’s freshman season at James Monroe and her sophomore and junior campaigns at Colonial Forge High School, David, who had never played basketball at a competitive level, was Austin’s first coach. He had help in preparing Austin for her basketball journey.

David’s brother, Waverly, a 6'11" center who played at South Florida before transferring to Oregon, currently plays for Wiha Panthers Schwenningen, a Pro-A tier team based in Germany. Waverly offered a major blueprint for Austin’s mindset on the business of basketball, how to defend properly and the art of being able to block opposing defenders’ shots in the craftiest ways.

The silver lining in Austin’s transfer sat in the fact that David witnessed his brother make similar decisions in his transfer process. Despite the foreshadowing, David remained rooted in the fact that Austin needed to be in a top-tier program. But two years later, he says his relationship with his daughter grew and the things he instilled in her have come to fruition. “She still showed the nation more than what she was going to be at Maryland,” he says. “God had a plan and although Shakira rebelled, sometimes you just have to sit back and watch His plan unfold.”

Mar 18, 2022; Waco, Texas, USA; Ole Miss Rebels forward Shakira Austin (0) looks to score against South Dakota Coyotes guard Kyah Watson (32) during the first half at Ferrell Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Austin’s fateful journey could continue Monday. The Mystics traded their top pick to the Dream for the Nos. 3 and 14 picks, and Austin has been projected as the third pick throughout her senior season. While David will be thrilled by whichever team selects Austin, he feels that everything is aligning toward her being in Washington, back home. “It just makes sense for her to be back in the DMV,” he says. Regardless of what happens, the focus will still be on putting in the work. “She has to go earn some respect because no one is going to give her anything,” David says.

Austin has been primed for this moment. While some think she will be limited to only her defensive prowess in the league, McPhee-McCuin—the first Bahamian woman to sign a Division I letter of intent in 2002—says otherwise. Long before she became a head coach at Ole Miss, the Bahamas or Jacksonville, she was an assistant along several stops that included Clemson.

Known for her outstanding recruiting prowess, it was at Clemson where McPhee-McCuin landed the now reigning WNBA MVP, Jonquel Jones, a Bahamian native who played high school basketball in Riverdale Baptist before joining the Tigers’ program. While Jones spent one season at Clemson before transferring to mid-major George Washington, she knew Jones was a pro-style player. As such, she believes Austin could be just as good in the WNBA.

“There are things [Austin] can do that she hasn’t even shown yet,” McPhee-McCuin says. “I’ve been telling WNBA coaches to get ready to be pleasantly surprised. She has the same skill set as Jonquel Jones. … Jones can shoot the three-ball better but around the basket, Shakira is more crafty.”

After Austin shakes hands with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, it will be the beginning of her professional endeavors. Beyond cooking on the court, she hopes to potentially start her own restaurant, create a clothing line for tall girls and build a TV network or segment that allows her to broaden her reach beyond basketball.

“It’s hard buying 37- or 38-inch inseams for girls. … I want girls with long legs to feel confident,” Austin says. “The league is skyrocketing and women deserve the moment to showcase what we can do. I haven’t achieved anything yet, but I am ready for the moment that God has blessed me with.”

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