Ariel Atkins isn't the Washington Mystics’ biggest name, but she could be their most important player
Atkins bridges the gap between 2019, 2020 and the present like no one else
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Before WNBA free agency opened in January, the prevailing thought was that the Washington Mystics’ 2020 roster was an anomaly. Four players opted out of the 2020 season or were medically excused due to the COVID-19 pandemic and several others dealt with injuries, so the roster ended up featuring six new players and plenty of youth. But the idea was that the Mystics would get back the missing players in 2021 and return the core of the veteran-laden team that won the 2019 WNBA championship.
Instead, after the free agency dust settled, the Mystics were left with just five players on their 2021 roster who were on the championship team. Two of those players missed the 2020 season and two others are arriving late to training camp due to overseas commitments.
That leaves one player, fourth-year guard Ariel Atkins, as the only player in training camp who played on both the 2019 and 2020 teams. “It’s really weird—I kind of feel like my age gap is right in the middle,” she said at the team’s recent media day. “So [my role is] kind of being that bridge … getting to know people, meeting people where they're at and just figuring out what works for us.”
Luckily for the Mystics, Atkins is the perfect player for that “bridge” role based on her on-court contributions, demeanor, work ethic and leadership. She came off the bench in her first five WNBA games in 2018 and has been a starter ever since, averaging 11.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 37.2 percent from behind the arc. She has also made the WNBA’s All-Defensive Second Team in each of her three seasons and the All-Rookie Team in 2018.
Atkins plays with a calm demeanor and consistent, all-out effort regardless of what is happening on the court, which helps set the tone for the team and steady her teammates in tough moments. “She works so hard,” teammate Leilani Mitchell told the media this week. “She's always out here early watching film, working with [associate head] coach [Eric Thibault] to perfect her game a little bit more each and every day.”
“Little A,” as Atkins is known to many teammates who played with her and former Mystic Aerial Powers, stepped up in 2020 in the absence of veterans such as Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud. On the court, Atkins had to hunt her shot more, and she responded with career highs in points per game (14.8); field goals attempted per game (11.4); and field-goal, 3-point and free-throw shooting percentage (44, 41 and 89 percent, respectively). She also got to the free throw line a lot more—her 28 percent free-throw rate topped her previous career high by nearly 10 points—which was something head coach Mike Thibault had specifically wanted her to improve. As a result, the Mystics were nearly 19 points per 100 possessions better with her on the court than off.
Off the court, Atkins’ growth and leadership were perhaps even more pronounced. Despite being a naturally quiet player, she stepped in for Cloud as the team’s union representative, and she continually discussed social justice with other players and with the media. She was the one who spoke on national television when the Mystics decided to sit out a game after police shot Jacob Blake, and she proactively reached out to ESPN’s Holly Rowe to explain the team’s subsequent plan to take shot-clock violations to give television broadcasters time to highlight social justice.
“I was just so proud,” Delle Donne said recently about the 2020 team. “… For them to just come into their selves and to speak so much from the heart and so honestly—I mean, it brought me to tears watching Little A in her interview … after the game they decided to sit out.”
The 24-year-old Atkins followed up her breakout season by signing a two-year contract extension that will pay her a near-maximum salary starting in 2022. She would have been a restricted free agent after this season but decided not to test the waters. “DC's a place I want to be,” she told the media in March. “I think [the Mystics have] done everything in their power to help me grow, not only as a player, but also as a person. They're family to me.”
She also participated in two USA Basketball camps this offseason, one with the 5-on-5 national team in February and another with the 3-on-3 team in March. “You're playing with some of the best players in the world, so you have no choice but to get better,” Atkins said during the 5-on-5 camp.
Along with Mystics teammates Delle Donne and Tina Charles, Atkins is a candidate for this summer’s 5-on-5 Olympic team, and she hopes to make head coach and former WNBA legend Dawn Staley’s roster for reasons beyond basketball.
“Specifically with the climate of our country today, it would mean a whole lot to me,” she said in February. “Not only because [Staley] would be the first Black woman to represent USA in that position, but because of who Dawn Staley is to me and what she means for my career as a young Black woman in pro sports. … She's done [so much] not only for the WNBA but for the Olympics and the game of girls' basketball as a whole.”
Atkins is not in consideration for the 3-on-3 Olympic team, but she was excited to participate in camp because of the “challenge” that the format presents. “The game is constantly, constantly moving, and it's something that I think would also help me in my 5-on-5 game as far as transitioning from one play to the next,” she said. “And also it's fun … Once the ball goes through the net, you have to take it back out and then you're moving. So it really just makes you kind of feel like a kid again in the instance of just playing basketball outside with your friends.”
Now, Atkins is bringing everything that she learned in those camps back to the Mystics and looking to build on her 2020 season. This week, Eric Thibault has been working with her on reads out of pick-and-rolls and when to shoot versus pass.
“Obviously her scoring went up last year and she shot the ball really well, but she's trying to take the next step,” he said. “… The way we talked about it together was, if the ball is in your hands with the shot clock running down or the end of the quarter, can we just say you're going to get us a good shot, whether it's for you or a teammate? … I think that's the final piece to her puzzle.”
With players such as Delle Donne and Cloud returning and the addition of Charles, there will be less pressure on Atkins to produce than in 2020. However, after wing Alysha Clark suffered a season-ending injury overseas, Mike Thibault said that Atkins will have to step up at that position. “She's going to have to become one of those great two-way players in the league, and we've seen that both already last year,” he said.
He is also counting on her beyond points and steals. While the Mystics do not have official captains, Thibault regularly consults with her, Delle Donne, and Cloud about topics such as how to plan travel or shootarounds. And in a training camp where 10 players on the roster have never played a game for the team, Atkins’ leadership is essential. Rookie guard Pre Stanley and forward/center Jillian Alleyne both named Atkins as one of the veterans who has been most helpful in camp.
“She's been really good at talking to the young ones here, trying to help Sug [Sutton] or Ace [Konig] or somebody through the process,” Thibault said. “She's not a loud, boisterous person, but she thinks through things and so I've been very pleased with her kind of being that connector.”
Atkins said at the team’s media day that she won’t force anything when it comes to leadership, even though she had such a large role last season. “I'm definitely the type of person that lets things happen naturally,” she said. “But I don't think that's me taking a step back whatsoever. I think if anything, it amplifies our voice as a team and as an organization.”
Atkins and the Mystics will continue to advocate for social justice this season, though it may look different than it did in the “wubble,” or WNBA bubble, where the league played in 2020. That is both for practical reasons—the 12 teams will no longer be in the same place—and because of an intentional shift in focus.
“For me, it's what I can do on the ground here in DC and finding different organizations that we can actually help as an organization,” Atkins said. “… Finding a way to use our resources to help others is my biggest thing, and that's not to say that I won't be vocal. You guys know me; I'm not a super vocal person. But definitely I want to take more action this year.”
Though she’ll continue to take action off the court, Atkins feels increasingly comfortable guiding others on the court, and that is a major reason why the Mystics are championship contenders again in 2021. “She's a great pro,” Mitchell said. “She's going to be around for a long time, and I'm excited for her future.”
In the present, Atkins could be the Mystics’ most important player, not just in training camp but throughout the season. Even after the arrival of latecomers Myisha Hines-Allen and Kiara Leslie, who were both on the 2019 and 2020 teams, Atkins will remain the only player who earned regular minutes in each of those seasons. Her experience will be vital in helping the 2021 team learn the Mystics’ system and develop chemistry in the short term and then weather the ups and downs of a full season and prepare for another championship run.
Perhaps it was Delle Donne who summed up Atkins’ growth best, from a rookie three short years ago to the all-important bridge this season between the past two rosters. “I probably shouldn't keep calling her Little A,” Delle Donne said, reflecting on the leadership Atkins displayed in 2020.
“But she's Little A to me. She always will be.”