July 15, 2023
‘It’s automatic’: How Ariel Atkins became the top 3-point shooter in Mystics history
Atkins shot past Ivory Latta on Tuesday in the Washington record books
WASHINGTON — “It’s showtime,” one of the Washington Mystics’ pregame hype videos declares. Partway through the video, a clip of guard Ariel Atkins shooting a 3-pointer flashes across the videoboard to the lyrics, “Shooters always hit the bullseye.”
Early in the second quarter on Tuesday, the shooter hit the bullseye from 3-point range for the 309th time in her Mystics career, passing Ivory Latta for the franchise’s regular-season record. Atkins took a handoff from forward Tianna Hawkins, kicked the ball to point guard Natasha Cloud on the far side, and got it back near the top of the key. She didn’t hesitate, launching a 26-foot 3-pointer over Seattle Storm center Ezi Magbegor.
Atkins was drafted seventh overall in 2018 out of Texas and is in her sixth WNBA season, all with Washington. She honed her 3-point shooting in college, improving from a sub-30% shooter as a freshman to a 42% shooter on 3.4 attempts per game as a senior. In that final season, she also shot 59% from 2-point range, averaged 14.9 points per game, and was named an AP Honorable Mention All-America.
After Mystics general manager and then-head coach Mike Thibault drafted Atkins, he and his staff asked her to practice WNBA-range 3-pointers before preseason training camp started. (The college and WNBA 3-point lines are currently the same distance from the basket, but in 2018, the WNBA line was about 17 inches farther.) Those shots were so important in the Mystics’ offense that Atkins recently recalled a practice from her rookie year when it felt like the team only shot threes.
“She just came in Day 1 and just was letting them fly,” former Mystics assistant and current head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on Tuesday, “and it’s been the same ever since.”
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Atkins started as a rookie on a team that ultimately made the WNBA Finals, averaging 11.3 points per game and earning her first WNBA All-Defensive Team selection. She was mature and competitive from the start, her teammates and coaches recalled, and she was never afraid to take pressure-packed shots.
“She has, I think, pretty unwavering confidence in her ability to shoot the ball,” Thibault said on June 30. “… Ball comes out from a double [team] from [two-time WNBA MVP] Elena Delle Donne and there’s a certain amount of pressure on having to make those shots, and it just doesn’t faze her.”
Atkins hit 45 3-pointers in the regular season as a rookie, shooting 35.7%, and was even more efficient in the playoffs at 42.4%. She hasn’t stopped shooting since. Just five and a half seasons into her career, she already ranks 53rd in WNBA history in 3-pointers made in the regular season, and she’s been remarkably consistent from year to year.
In every full season of Atkins’ career, she has made at least 44 3-pointers, and the 44 came in 2020, when there were only 22 regular-season games. She has also hit at least 35% of her 3-pointers and taken 42% to 48% of her shot attempts from behind the arc in every full season, per WNBA Stats.
“It’s automatic,” guard Kristi Toliver told The Next about Atkins’ jump shot. Toliver — who herself has made nearly 200 3-pointers for Washington and 650 in her WNBA career — pointed out how Atkins gets underneath the ball and follows through every time, producing a very consistent shot. Atkins also said earlier this season that she had worked on speeding up her release, which helps her get shots up before defenses can rotate.
This season, Atkins is shooting just 33.7% from behind the arc, but she is taking a career-high share of threes (51.0%). Early in the season, Thibault said, she was also taking especially difficult shots in the Mystics’ stagnant offense.
Like she did in college, Atkins is also excelling in the mid-range this season, helping her average 12.5 points per game. A career-low 20.3% of her shots are coming in the mid-range, but she is shooting a remarkable 61.5% from there.
“Mid-range isn’t dead,” Thibault said on July 9, “because there’s still some players that are really good at it. Ariel and Elena are two of the best in the business, and so any open shot is a good shot for them.”
As Atkins approached the franchise’s 3-point record, she told reporters on June 30, “It’s pretty cool. … It feels really good to know that I can contribute to my team in that way. But it’s also a testament to my teammates because I say it all the time: Them finding me on the backside my early years in my career has been huge.”
About four minutes into Tuesday’s game, Atkins missed her first 3-point attempt. The fans seemed to anticipate her milestone, humming with excitement as she released the ball and being audibly disappointed when it bounced off the back rim. But the fans got what they came for — besides the free socks featuring Atkins’ face that were given out upon entry — when Atkins drained her record-setting 3-pointer with 7:30 left in the second quarter.
When the public address announcer noted Atkins’ accomplishment during a timeout later in the quarter, guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said, Atkins was trying to focus on tactics in the team’s huddle. But Walker-Kimbrough patted her in acknowledgment, Thibault extended his hand for a high five, and tactics became an afterthought.
“I reached my hand out and then she was yanked away from me,” he said postgame.
That was courtesy of Cloud, who grabbed Atkins from behind and wrapped her in a headlock with her left arm. Cloud used her right arm to encourage the fans to cheer louder, and Walker-Kimbrough also egged them on. Cloud and forward Myisha Hines-Allen then pulled Atkins toward the baseline, Cloud pointing to the crowd and prodding Atkins to wave to the fans. Guard Brittney Sykes put an exclamation on the celebration with a chest bump as Atkins walked back to the bench.
“A’s not one to really celebrate herself,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “… She was so focused on the game, but it was great to celebrate that for her — not just with her, but for her as well.”
That reaction from Atkins’ teammates was largely impromptu, as several of them only learned about her accomplishment from the public address announcer. “We’re like never aware of anything, honestly,” Walker-Kimbrough said with a laugh postgame.
“Oh, it was the franchise record?” Sykes asked postgame. “… I just saw 309. And I was like [nodding vigorously]. That’s tough!”
The celebration even carried over to the other side of the court, where Atkins’ longtime friend Joyner Holmes stood in the Storm’s huddle. Holmes and Atkins played together growing up in the Dallas suburbs, at Texas, and overseas, and they spent all day Monday together in Washington before facing off on Tuesday.
“It was surreal. I mean, obviously, we’re on two different teams, but I’m just so happy,” Holmes told The Next postgame. “… To see her reach these goals and do things she wants to do, coming in the gym today seeing people have socks with her face on it, it’s crazy … These are things that we’ve dreamed of, we’ve talked about, and so for her to be flourishing like this is amazing.”
The record had formerly belonged to Latta, a 5’6 point guard who spent her final five WNBA seasons in Washington after signing with the team in 2013. Latta led the league in 3-pointers in each of her first three seasons with the Mystics and made 308 triples in 158 regular-season games — slightly faster than the 168 games Atkins needed to tie her. (However, Atkins began her chase as a rookie, whereas Latta already had six seasons of WNBA experience when her clock started in Washington.)
“For Ivory, there wasn’t a shot she didn’t like,” said Toliver, who played with Latta in 2017. “She was gonna fill it up. She was … more flamboyant than A, certainly.”
Thibault recalled how Latta had an uncanny knack for hitting shots after she’d bobbled the ball, to the point that they had an ongoing joke about it. “When she bobbled the ball, she shot like 90%,” he said. “… So she would always turn and point and laugh at the bench when she’d do it.”
“Ivory played with more of a fire, in a sense,” Hawkins, who was Latta’s teammate for three seasons, told reporters. “I just remember playing with Ivory and she was like, ‘TT, run the floor, run the floor!’ And, ‘You’re not running hard enough!’”
Atkins’ fire is mostly internal, but it fuels a similar work ethic and competitiveness as Latta had. She and Latta are also similar in other ways, starting with their near-identical 3-point shooting percentages in Washington: 36.3% for Atkins, 36.9% for Latta.
“The similarity between those two is their confidence,” Toliver said. “… Their ability to just feel like the ball is gonna go in every time and have no fear in letting it go, I think that’s those two’s biggest common denominator.”
“Ain’t gonna lie: I feel like every shot I take is going in,” Atkins said this season.
Atkins had struggled early in the season from behind the arc, shooting just 27.7% through her first 12 games. After she snapped that streak by making six of seven 3-pointers on June 25, she said, “I think I’ve gotten asked a question about me missing so many shots every media turn … It is what it is. I’m a shooter. I know what I’m capable of.”
During her slump, she said that her confidence grows from continuing to shoot when she’s struggling. “That’s where I build myself up,” she explained, “and I tell myself, at the end of the day, you still have to be who you are. … I gotta shoot the ball.”
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Beyond her confidence, Atkins’ demeanor, discipline and poise are major reasons why she now stands alone in Mystics history as a sharpshooter — and why she has earned many other accolades, including an Olympic gold medal in 2021 and five straight WNBA All-Defensive Team nods. Hines-Allen told reporters on July 5 that Atkins has carried herself like a professional since high school and that, when Atkins decides she needs to work on something, she always follows through. And Cloud lauded Atkins’ ability to recognize what her strengths are and commit to excelling at them every day.
Sykes often guarded Atkins before they became teammates this season, and she would try to irritate Atkins and throw her off her game, just as Sykes did with all opposing players. But Atkins was so unflappable that Sykes would get excited if she even got her to smile.
“I’m guarding her, I’m trying to bother her, [and she] never cracks,” Sykes said on July 6. “And then I’m her teammate and I’m still trying to mess with her and I’m like, ‘Dammit, she just doesn’t crack!’ So I admire A in how she carries herself. It’s professional, but at the same time, it’s like that old head.”
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Over the years, Atkins has evolved from a quiet rookie to a leader by example and then to a more vocal leader. She showed both types of leadership in spades on July 7, when she recorded her first career double-double against the Indiana Fever. She led by example by crashing the glass, helping out a depleted Mystics frontcourt, and by being strong with the ball against pressure. She was also the veteran presence pulling her teammates into huddles and talking to them down the stretch in an eventual eight-point win.
“She’s not one to waste a bunch of words,” Thibault said earlier that week. “… When she speaks up, the group listens. And that’s a really effective leader.”
Atkins also has a feel for what to say to teammates individually when they are struggling or need support. “I’ve been down on myself a little bit a few times this season,” Hawkins said on July 7, “and she’s been really big with being in my ear and using her voice just to get me going a little bit.”
However, shortly after Atkins hit her milestone 3-pointer on Tuesday, her voice disappeared from the Mystics’ huddles. Late in the second quarter, she sprained her left ankle as she fought around a Storm screen to defend All-Star guard Jewell Loyd. She hopped on her right foot a few times before dropping to her knees. She was eventually carried off the court and did not return to the bench in the second half.
But even the injury couldn’t dampen the significance of Atkins’ moment, and it wouldn’t halt the celebration of a player who prefers to fly under the radar but whose game deserves the spotlight.
Early in Atkins’ Mystics career, she and Cloud were roommates on road trips, where they got to know each other better. They talked about their goals and bonded over their shared underdog mentality. “She always used to say, ‘I know what God has in store for me. I know what I want to achieve in my career,’” Cloud said on Tuesday.
“And to see that come [to] fruition, a gold medalist, all the accolades that she’s had in her career, but this one especially … it’s a beautiful thing. It speaks to the player that she is and how much she’s continued to grow. … Her name is forever going to be etched into the books.”
At just 26 years old, Atkins could make this record hard to beat if she stays in Washington long-term. Her teammates insist she has plenty more potential left to tap. But with her confidence, competitiveness and poise, she has been one of the most consistent — and best — 3-point shooters since she entered the league.
“It just always seems like,” Toliver said, “when the ball’s whipping around … she just answers the call.”
The Next’s Natalie Heavren contributed reporting for this story.
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. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided and Power Plays.