When rookie Ariel Atkins arrived at Washington Mystics training camp in May, the quiet University of Texas guard tried to stay out of everyone’s way. In particular, she avoided bothering Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA Most Valuable Player, and All-Star veteran point guard Kristi Toliver. Atkins had heard rumors that in the WNBA, the best player aren’t always the nicest.
But Delle Donne and Toliver weren’t having it. They repeatedly struck up conversations with Atkins, who the Mystics selected seventh overall in the 2018 WNBA draft.
“They kept saying, ‘Hey, how are you? What’s going on?’ or ‘Good morning!’” Atkins told City Paper last Saturday, the day before the Mystics beat the Atlanta Dream, 87-84, in the first game of the WNBA semifinals. “And I’d [have to remind myself] like, ‘Oh snap. All right. Talk back.’”
It didn’t take long for Atkins to get comfortable, both in the locker room and on the court. The 5’11” guard has had a phenomenal rookie campaign. She started 24 regular-season games for the Mystics, and was the team’s third leading scorer, with an average of 11.3 points per game. She was ninth in the league in steals per game, and third in steal percentage. She’s been even better during the playoffs; so far, in two playoff games, she’s averaging 14.5 points, and is shooting a staggering 64.7 percent from the field and 71.4 percent from outside.
Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault shocked most of the WNBA community when he selected Atkins with the seventh pick, despite the fact that higher-profile players like Victoria Vivians and Kia Nurse were still available. Atkins wasn’t even one of the 10 players invited by the league to attend the WNBA draft live in New York.
At the time, he liked her defensive prowess, her perimeter shooting, athleticism, and speed, and expected her to add a boost off the bench. But even he didn’t expect her to develop into a star this quickly.
“She just makes things happen,” Thibault said in July. “She gets loose balls, she tips the ball, she has a knack for that, and it just energizes the team.”
Atkins’ performance this year has fallen under-the-radar, primarily due to the play of rookies like first overall pick A’ja Wilson with the Las Vegas Aces and third overall pick Diamond DeShields with the Chicago Sky. But now, she’s the lone rookie with a starting job on one of the four semifinal teams.
Imani McGee-Stafford, a current Atlanta Dream center who played with Atkins for two years at Texas, is one of a handful of people in the league who isn’t shocked by Atkins’ phenomenal season.
“There are two types of players in college. I was the headache, Ariel was the workhorse,” McGee-Stafford says. “She’s the epitome of the coach’s favorite player. She’s going to work hard, going to do everything the coach says. She’s just awesome.”
Her Mystics teammates have been similarly impressed by her work ethic and complete commitment to the game.
“She’s a great player. And her mindset is so mature. It’s beyond her years,” says Delle Donne. “After every practice, some of us will have showered, and I’ll be out the door and hear the ball dribbling, and she’s out there getting extra work in. She’s out there, and she has an awesome mentality. You know she’s always going to take the right shot, and plays excellent defense. She just does so much for us on both ends of the floor.”
Defense is the rookie’s bread and butter. She has an extremely low center of gravity, and often prances around the court almost at eye-level to the ball. She wants to make a difference in games by getting down, and getting a steal, and by being disruptive. She finds a way to get her hands on the ball. When she was younger and smaller, this was how she would stay on the court, how she would make her presence know.
But at the urging of Thibault and her teammates, she’s been much more assertive on offense, as well. Toliver and Delle Donne get so much attention from defenses, that Atkins has learned to take pride in making them pay if they leave her open.
So far, she’s embraced the increased pace and intensity of the playoffs, and is especially pumped about playing in the first playoff series of her career, against the Dream. The Mystics have a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series, which will continue in Atlanta on Tuesday night and will return to Washington D.C. for Game 3 on Friday. The Dream’s fast-paced, defense-heavy style of play challenges Atkins to be better on both ends of the floor, and, like a true basketball junkie, the 22-year-old is excited about the opportunity to make adjustments after every game and keep learning. She scored 15 points in the Game 1 against the Dream, which was the second highest on the team behind Delle Donne’s 32 points.
Even though it’s hard to tell by watching her play, Atkins insists there are moments she still feels like a rookie.
“I would definitely say I’m still young in the sense that there are moments I’m either overthinking or not thinking,” she says.
But thankfully, in those moments, she has some pretty solid teammates to rely on for assistance.
“They’ve been like the sweetest, most kindest people,” Atkins says. “I have the best team.”
Photo by Lorie Shaull on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.