June 19, 2021 

Another game, another career high for Ariel Atkins

But don’t call it a breakout season for the Washington Mystics All-Star candidate

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Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) shoots over Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones (42) in a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, on May 28, 2021. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

WASHINGTON, DC – Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud has plenty of experience managing a team, and she showed that on Thursday night with a 10-point, 9-rebound, 11-assist masterclass against the Atlanta Dream.

She is also an experienced “campaign manager,” the job title she gave herself when she successfully stumped for teammate Elena Delle Donne to be the WNBA MVP two seasons ago. And she showed that on Thursday, too, as she continued her season-long campaign for Ariel Atkins to get leaguewide recognition after Atkins scored a career-high 32 points.

“If Ariel Atkins is not an All-Star, y’all rigged it! Y’all rigged it!” Cloud shouted after the game, throwing her hands in the air. “She should be your first pick … The best two guard in this league. Period. Period. There is no discussion; there’s no debate … Ariel Atkins is an All-Star. She is a First-Team All-WNBA.”

Just like Delle Donne in 2019, Atkins has done little to undermine Cloud’s assessment. She is averaging 19.3 points per game this season on 47.6 percent shooting from the field and 46.5 percent from behind the arc, and she is adding 2.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks in 29.2 minutes per game. All of those are career highs except for steals and, remarkably, minutes. Thursday was the second time already this season that Atkins has set a new career high in scoring, and according to Mystics PR, her current nine-game streak of scoring at least 15 points is the longest active streak in the WNBA.

Atkins has always been known for her tenacious play on both ends of the court, as she earned All-Defensive Second Team honors as a rookie—and every season since. That tenacity spread through the entire team on Thursday, as the Mystics gutted out a 96-93 victory to give head coach Mike Thibault his 350th career win.

Atkins plays tight defense on Atlanta Dream (and former Washington Mystics) forward Tianna Hawkins in a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC, on Jun. 17, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

The win hadn’t seemed particularly likely entering the night: Sure, the Mystics were back in the friendly confines of the Entertainment and Sports Arena, but they were limping home, both figuratively and literally. On Sunday, they had lost in Atlanta by 23 points, and Cloud aggravated a hip flexor injury so severely that, according to Thibault, she “could barely walk” the next day.

As the week went on, the Mystics also lost leading scorer Tina Charles, who missed Thursday’s game to attend the premiere of her film “Game Changer” at the Tribeca Film Festival; reserve guard Kiara Leslie to a neck strain; and reserve forward Erica McCall to a right knee sprain.

The situation only worsened when starting forward Myisha Hines-Allen strained the patellar tendon in her left knee midway through the second quarter against the Dream. That left the Mystics with just seven healthy players and only one post player, Theresa Plaisance.

“We had everything going against us,” Thibault said postgame.

But the Mystics sprung their own brand of gritty small ball on the Dream, the team that has arguably had the most success playing small this season. The Mystics hit 13 of 31 3-pointers (41.9 percent), and they particularly relied on the long-range shot in the third quarter, when 13 of their 19 shot attempts (68.4 percent) came from distance.

Atkins contributed three of the team’s 13 3-pointers on five attempts, marking the fourth time in five games that she has made at least half of her threes. Atlanta interim head coach Mike Petersen was so concerned about Atkins’ shooting that he singled her out before Sunday’s game as the player the Dream had to prevent from taking set 3-pointers.

No matter: Atkins hit multiple threes off the dribble on Thursday, proving that she is more than the “3-and-D” player that she was known as in her first two seasons. She has worked tirelessly to improve both her shooting off the dribble and her driving, and the latter was a primary focus for her and Thibault last season.

“We believe in her,” said Plaisance, who added five 3-pointers of her own en route to a career-high 25 points. “She’s one of our go-to players, and we just want Ariel to do the best she can because when she’s at her best, we’re at our best.”

Atkins’ performance on Thursday was clearly one of her best, not only because of the gaudy point total but also because of the efficiency. She hit 10 of 15 shots and nine of 10 free throws. She also chipped in two rebounds, an assist and a steal in 34:30 and never seemed to tire against an extremely physical Atlanta defense.

Here are three pivotal moments that illustrate how Atkins’ elite play pushed the Mystics to new heights:

Second quarter, 2:03 remaining

Guard Shavonte Zellous fought tooth and nail for a rebound and passed it to Plaisance as she was falling down. Plaisance got it to Atkins, who didn’t have a numbers-up opportunity in transition but nevertheless hit a jump shot while being fouled. She made the free throw, capping a potential six-point swing from an Atlanta offensive rebound and basket to three points for the Mystics.

“My team gives me this energy; my team gives me belief,” Atkins said postgame. “I know that they trust me when the ball’s in my hand. I know that they trust me when we’re running certain plays and different things like that. So this was a fun game. This was a fun game to win because we came in kind of down and out. But we figured out how to put it together.”

Third quarter, 2:23 remaining

Plaisance went to the bench with her fourth foul—and she and Delle Donne, who is still recovering from offseason back surgery, quickly noticed something funny on the court.

“I leaned over and I said, ‘Is Tash [Cloud] our five player right now?’” Plaisance said. “She looked around and then we realized that Tash was not only our biggest player, but she was our five player who’s also technically our point guard.”

It’s safe to say that playing the 6’ Cloud at center was not the Mystics’ ideal option, but the five-guard lineup got outscored by just two points, in part because Atkins had four points and a rebound during that stretch.

“We have never practiced it,” Atkins confirmed after the game. “It’s one of those things where you’ve just got to figure [it] out; you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Cloud added that Atkins and Plaisance “gave us an answer” every time the Mystics needed one on Thursday. “They were our composure; they were our poise.” When Plaisance subbed out, that left Atkins, and she did not shrink from the moment.

Fourth quarter, time winding down

With 2:24 left in the game and the Mystics leading by a point, Atkins buried a crucial 3-pointer. That not only gave the Mystics a two-possession lead, but also noticeably fired up the crowd, which responded with reinvigorated chants of “Defense!” on the ensuing Atlanta possession.

The Mystics didn’t score again until 1:04 remained, when Atkins drew another foul while shooting a jump shot and hit both free throws to maintain the four-point lead. Her aggressive play in the last few minutes was that of a superstar showing her team, “I got this.”

“That’s the mindset she has now. She looks at herself as a primetime player in this league,” Thibault said. “She’s an All-Star in this league now. And she was always recognized for her defense and kind of given credit for some of her offense, but she’s turned into one of the best players at both ends of the floor, and it showed up [tonight].”

Atkins hit three more critical free throws with less than 20 seconds remaining to help seal the win. She got more potent as the game went on: 24 of her 32 points came in the second half, and 13 came in the final quarter. In fact, she did not miss a shot from the field (3-for-3) or the free-throw line (5-for-5) in the fourth quarter, and the Mystics outscored the Dream by nine points in the eight minutes she played.

No other Mystics player scored more than six points in the fourth quarter. Atkins was simply the difference.

“Man, she had some swag to her tonight!” Cloud said. “A’s not usually a talker; she’s going to always let her game speak for herself, and she did that tonight, but she had a little extra swagger to her. So to see that confidence in her, to see her lead us to this win, it was just a beautiful thing.”

Atkins cheers on her teammates in a game against the Minnesota Lynx at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC, on Jun. 8, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

The Mystics have gotten standout performances all season from Atkins, and opponents have taken note. After scoring 23 points against the Los Angeles Sparks on Jun. 10, Atkins said that she had noticed that teams were consistently assigning their top defender to guard her.

“It’s out of respect, and I appreciate that and I’m thankful for that, thankful to be a focal point on the scout,” Atkins said. “… So it definitely feels good to be able to do this for my team. And at the end of the day, it’s really about finding those open looks and then making sure I stay aggressive.”

Just don’t call this a breakout season for Atkins. She has been steadily building toward this throughout her career, seizing a starting spot six games into her rookie season and never looking back. Her growth was already obvious last season, when she averaged 14.8 points per game, made 41.1 percent of her threes and set then-career highs in nearly every category—the same thing she is doing this season.

“I feel like people are disrespectful in the sense of, they think that this is … a breakout season,” Cloud said on Thursday. “No, this is who she’s been, and she’s just owning it.”

That ownership comes in the form of quiet confidence, not braggadocio. She is so all-business on the court that, when her name is announced in the starting lineup, she simply high-fives whoever is in front of her rather than choreographing elaborate dance moves or high-flying “run and bumps.” And after taking a particularly hard hit on Thursday that was not upgraded to a flagrant foul, Atkins bottled up her frustration and was literally shaking on the court instead of talking back to the official.

That quietness has always been Atkins’ way, but she has grown in that respect, too, from a rookie who shied away from talking to the team’s veteran stars, to a player who found her voice off the court last season, to a leader who now encourages her teammates to communicate more.

“I need us to talk more,” Atkins said earlier this week. “… I think communication is one of our biggest downfalls on this team so far. And so learning how to talk early, talk loud and just talk. Just open your mouth [and] say something. You got the ball? Say you got the ball. Don’t just sit there.”

Perhaps the scariest thing about Atkins’ meteoric rise from precocious rookie to potential All-Star is that she is just 24 years old and oozing with both potential and drive to improve.

“What Ariel [did] tonight doesn’t surprise me because what you don’t see behind the scenes is how much work Ariel puts in: in the weight room, on the court, treatment,” Plaisance said on Thursday. “… So when Ariel goes off, and when you see her find that second bit of energy, that grit, that determination, that’s who Ariel Atkins is.

“She comes up for us big in big moments, especially when odds are stacked against us … Ariel Atkins is a really great player, and this is something that is just within her repertoire.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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