Ariel Atkins signs two-year extension with the Washington Mystics
Atkins has been an impact player ever since she entered the WNBA in 2018
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Three years ago, Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault surprised many people by selecting Ariel Atkins with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft. One championship and countless big plays from Atkins later, Friday’s announcement that the Mystics had signed the versatile guard to a contract extension came as little surprise.
The 24-year-old Atkins has played an important role for the Mystics ever since she entered the league, scoring 15 points in 22 minutes in just her second game. She started for the first time in her sixth game and has remained a starter ever since, making the league’s All-Rookie Team in 2018. In 85 career regular-season games, she has averaged 11.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 37.2% from behind the arc.
“Ariel has been a great contributor to our success from the time she stepped on the court her rookie year,” Thibault said in the team’s announcement. “Her growth as a player and a leader over her first three seasons has been important to our growth as a team. Her leadership on and off the court during last summer’s trying season was impressive and we are excited to watch her continued improvement as a player over the next several years.”
In Atkins’ first two seasons, she played a supporting role on offense next to stars such as Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver, knocking down open shots and providing consistent energy and hustle. In 2020, after several Mystics players opted out of the season, Atkins carried a greater offensive load, averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game and increasing her minutes per game and usage rate from 2019. Despite being one of the top priorities on opponents’ scouting reports, Atkins also increased her effective field goal percentage from 50.2% in 2019 to 52.6% in 2020.
“[Ariel] stepped it up,” teammate Emma Meesseman said on September 13, when Atkins poured in 26 points to help the Mystics make the playoffs. “In the right moments that we needed her to be aggressive, she was there and got us some points. … In the huddles, she was a vocal player that was keeping us together and motivating us, bringing us energy. She's not the loudest player, but she really stepped that up, too.”
As good as Atkins has been on the offensive end in her career, defense is arguably where she has shined most. She has been named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive Second Team in each of her three seasons and has never ranked worse than tenth in the league in steals per game and steal rate. This season, she is expected to team up with fellow All-Defensive players Natasha Cloud and Alysha Clark to form arguably the league’s staunchest perimeter defense.
Off the court, Atkins served as the Mystics’ union representative in 2020, continually raised awareness of the Say Her Name campaign in interviews and on social media, and became the Mystics’ spokesperson on national television when they decided to sit out a game in response to police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting Jacob Blake. She did all of that despite being a naturally quiet player who, two seasons earlier, had shied away from talking to Delle Donne and Toliver because she was worried she would bother them.
Before signing the contract extension, Atkins was set to become a restricted free agent in 2022. She said in the announcement that she bypassed that process because “I believe in what we do here.” She also cited “the most passionate and electrifying fans in the WNBA” and the ability to develop her game under the Mystics staff as reasons why she wanted to stay in DC. According to Winsidr’s Rachel Galligan, the two-year, fully protected deal will pay Atkins $170,000 in 2022 and $175,000 in 2023. Both figures are about $25,000 shy of the maximum salary for that season under the league’s collective bargaining agreement and a significant raise from the $70,040 that Atkins will earn in 2021.
“Love it. Feels like AA has been a part of our group a lot longer than 3 years [because] she’s become so integral to it!” associate head coach Eric Thibault wrote on Twitter. Mystics owner Ted Leonsis agreed, calling Atkins a “Great teammate, leader and talent.”
Atkins spent part of her offseason honing her game at a USA Basketball minicamp in February, which was the second time in her career that she has trained with the senior national team. “You're playing with some of the best players in the world, so you have no choice but to get better,” she told the media during the minicamp.
One takeaway she had was how disciplined and detailed the national team is, whether they are running through plays or simply stretching. That is partly the standard that the team has set as winners of the last six Olympic gold medals, but some of that also comes from head coach and former WNBA star Dawn Staley. In response to a question from The Next’s Pepper Persley, Atkins said the biggest thing she had learned from Staley was “how to stay calm, cool and collected but also be really focused on detail.”
After learning so much during the 2020 season as well as with USA Basketball, Atkins seems poised for even bigger things in 2021. The Mystics expect to have their full roster around her, including Delle Donne and new addition Tina Charles, so she will not have to carry the team as much as she did in 2020. But regardless of her usage rate or shooting percentages, Atkins will be a critical part of the Mystics’ core in 2021 and for years to come, and this near-maximum extension reflects her importance to the team’s championship aspirations.