June 30, 2022
Ariel Atkins’ All-Star selection reflects how she has quietly continued to improve
Mystics react to Atkins’ All-Star nod, Delle Donne and Cloud’s snubs
“Honestly, if we being for real, it ain’t nothing. She’s a[n Olympic] gold medalist,” Hines-Allen told reporters, smiling broadly and leaning over to shake Atkins’ shoulders. “Like, All-Star? That’s like baby food. That’s like baby food to her. She’s a gold medalist. So it ain’t nothing.
“Proud of her, though. Great job. We knew it.”
Atkins smiled and shook her head as Hines-Allen spoke, and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, sitting on the other side of the player she nicknamed “Ariel The All-Star” or “ATA,” laughed.
Baby food or not, the Mystics agreed that the selection as an All-Star reserve was well deserved for Atkins, who is averaging 15.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 38.5% from 3-point range. The 25-year-old guard leads the league in minutes played yet has the tenth-lowest turnover percentage (9.3%), and her 2.7 win shares rank eighth in the league. Per Mystics PR, she has scored in double figures in a league-high 20 out of 22 games this season. Now, she is an All-Star for the second straight season after making both her All-Star and Olympic debuts in 2021.
However, Atkins’ All-Star prospects were in doubt this season after she was outside the top 30 in the first round of fan voting on June 10. “Somebody’s missing the boat,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said upon hearing that result. Atkins was not named a starter based on a combination of fan, media and player votes, but the league’s head coaches, who are solely responsible for selecting the 12 All-Star reserves, got on board.
Atkins had shrugged off the fan results, telling The Next on June 12 that voting “can be like that sometimes” and that she is “just trying to win games.” But on Tuesday, it was evident that the All-Star selection meant a lot to her.
“It’s kind of surreal, just kind of my way coming into the league and me not really understanding where my position would be or if I would even get into the league,” she told reporters. “And to now be an All-Star, it’s crazy. I can’t even put it into words.”
In some ways, Atkins flying under the radar for fans and media but catching the eye of WNBA coaches mirrors her WNBA Draft experience in 2018. She wasn’t invited to attend the draft and wasn’t expected to be a top pick, but Thibault knew what he was doing when he selected her seventh overall. Atkins helped the Mystics to two WNBA Finals appearances and one championship in her first two seasons and has made the WNBA All-Defensive Team in each of her four full seasons to date.
There are several reasons why Atkins’ game can go overlooked: She plays alongside two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and point guard Natasha Cloud, who is the team’s heartbeat and very vocal. (“‘Cloud’ rhymes with ‘loud,’” Thibault told the Minnesota Lynx broadcast in May.) Atkins is not the team’s leading scorer or assist leader; she doesn’t make flashy plays and isn’t overly demonstrative; and much of her value comes on the defensive end, which tends to get less recognition.
But Atkins consistently makes winning plays. For example, here are just a few of the ways she impacted a game against the Lynx on June 10:
- She made a perfect lob pass to wing Alysha Clark in the post for the game’s first basket.
- About three minutes into the game, Atkins got an offensive rebound in traffic, kicked it out to Cloud, and eventually made a shot as the shot clock expired.
- With the Mystics struggling in the second quarter and needing a momentum shift, she hustled to get in good offensive rebounding position, ripped the rebound away from the taller Bridget Carleton, and got the putback plus the foul.
- To start the third quarter, Atkins hit a driving layup, then took the ball from Lynx veteran Kayla McBride.
- She deflected an Aerial Powers pass late in the third quarter, then hit a 3-pointer on the Mystics’ next possession.
- With the Mystics up 16 points in the fourth quarter, Atkins tied up 6’5 Minnesota center Elissa Cunane in the post to get a jump ball.
“There’s a lot to like about Ariel,” Lynx head coach and Team USA assistant Cheryl Reeve said before that game. “… Anything you give her, she does, and she just keeps getting better … She just keeps taking on more and more and more and she’s persistent. She plays both ends. So that’s a heck of a player.”
Despite continually taking on more responsibility, Atkins has consistently been efficient and effective. For example, she sought to diversify her scoring in 2021 by mixing in more drives to complement her jump shot, but her effective field goal percentages by season are 51.3%, 50.2%, 52.6%, 49.0% and 50.5%. This season, her most noticeable statistical improvements include a career-high 0.165 win shares per 40 minutes, her career-low turnover percentage, and career bests in defensive rating and net rating. In addition, she has scored much more efficiently from close range: She is shooting 78.3% from that distance this season, whereas her previous career best was 68.8% in 2018 on a similar volume of shots.
“ATA. She puts in the work,” Walker-Kimbrough said on Tuesday. “… To me, she’s one of the best guards in our league, and she goes out [and] she proves it consistently.”
“She’s improving every single season, game, week,” former teammate and fellow 2022 All-Star Emma Meesseman told The Next on June 8. “She’s a great player, and for me, it’s so fun to see how she’s growing. Like, quietly, but she has big games … She has definitely grown in a lot of ways, in terms of speaking, in terms of being a leader, in terms of being a basketball player, everything.”
Atkins was the Mystics’ lone All-Star selection even though the team entered Tuesday fifth in the WNBA standings with a 12-9 record. Delle Donne (fifth), center Shakira Austin (29th) and Cloud (30th) all made the top 30 in first-round fan voting, and Thibault expressed disappointment on Tuesday that Delle Donne and Cloud weren’t selected.
Though Delle Donne has missed eight games as part of the medical plan for her surgically repaired back, she has played at essentially the same level as she did for Washington before the injury. She is averaging 15.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 blocks per game on 46.2% shooting from the field and 37.7% from behind the arc.
“Elena has played almost as many games as a few other teams have played,” Thibault pointed out. “And … her stats are winning stats. I mean, we win when she plays a lot, and she’s been efficient. But every coach has their reasons for doing things, I guess.”
Cloud, meanwhile, leads the WNBA in assists at 7.3 per game, and until Tuesday, she had recorded at least five assists in a Mystics-record 23 straight games dating back to the 2021 season. She had only three assists on Tuesday but scored 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
“I was a little bit pissed off today. I’m an All-Star,” Cloud told ESPN’s Ros Gold-Onwude after the game. When Gold-Onwude asked her to state her case, she said, “I play both ends of the floor. Teams have to prepare for me every single night. I lead this league in assists. So if y’all needed to see that I can score, I can score, too.”
Asked about Cloud’s play postgame, Atkins said, “Regardless of how y’all see her or what people are thinking, you have to game plan for her. … We’re a team that you have to pick your poison, and … if you want to choose her, you’re going to pay for it. So I think she rightfully deserves her spot. I think she deserves her recognition.”
According to Cloud and Thibault, this was not the first time Cloud has been snubbed for league honors. Cloud thought she deserved to win Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, but she wasn’t even named one of the 10 players on the WNBA’s All-Defensive Teams.
“I thought she got disrespected as a defensive player at the end of last season,” Thibault said on Tuesday. “So the chip [on her shoulder] gets a little bigger.”
Walker-Kimbrough added, “She always plays with that chip on her shoulder, and that’s what makes her her. She’s the engine of our team. She’s the energy, and we kind of go as she goes.”
Cloud and Atkins, along with Clark, comprise a starting backcourt for the Mystics that gives at least one opposing head coach — Connecticut’s Curt Miller — “nightmares” with their size, physicality and defensive prowess. For Cloud, the All-Star snub was another push for her to prove herself in a career built on always being the underdog and rising to the occasion. And for Atkins, the selection — though not an Olympic gold medal — validated the work that she has put in year after year to improve.
“That is my goal, to get better every year,” Atkins said on Tuesday before proceeding to critique her game. She closed with a thought that might further disrupt Miller and other WNBA coaches’ sleep: “I do think I’m getting better defensively and better offensively.”
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 and FanSided.