January 20, 2023
Inside Ariel Atkins’ coaching stint at the NBA Academy Women’s Camp Latin America
For Atkins, it was a chance to try out coaching — and give back to her sport
Although Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins isn’t playing overseas this offseason, she says she has spent it “all over the place.” She is one of 10 WNBA players who have signed offseason marketing agreements with the league. Since the Mystics’ season ended in August, Atkins has trained and done community service in Washington, D.C.; helped run a basketball clinic in Raleigh, North Carolina; and most recently, coached at the NBA Academy Women’s Camp Latin America in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
The camp, which ran from Jan. 16-19, was Atkins’ first-ever trip to Mexico, but when she spoke with The Next on Jan. 18, she hadn’t had much time for sightseeing. “It’s beautiful out here,” she said just after noon local time, when temperatures were in the mid-70s. “… [But] our schedule’s pretty sewed up throughout the day.”
Atkins helped coach 29 of the top high-school-age girls’ basketball players from Latin America and the Caribbean. Six girls were from Mexico, and 12 other countries and U.S. territories were also represented. This was the fourth in-person Latin America camp since the NBA Academy Women’s Program began in 2018 to help top international female players develop their games. Since then, 10 players from those camps have played or committed to play Division I college basketball in the United States.
The 2023 camp offered both basketball instruction and off-the-court workshops on leadership and life skills. Along with Atkins, the staff included local coaches, current WNBA players Jordin Canada and Danielle Robinson, former WNBA players Carla Cortijo and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, current Phoenix Mercury assistant coach Cinnamon Lister, and FIBA Americas president Carol Callan.
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Atkins learned about the opportunity through McWilliams-Franklin, who currently serves as the WNBA’s player relations and development director and had coached at previous NBA Academy Women’s Camps. Atkins accepted the invitation and soon found herself running stations and coaching a team of seven players in Mexico.
The message that Atkins most wanted to get across on the court was to bring energy. “I think that’s the biggest thing, especially when you come to a camp and you don’t know too many people,” she said. “… Just bring energy and have a good time. I think that kind of eases the stress of it all.”
Though many of the players understood English, some were nervous to speak it, Atkins said, and she sometimes asked players to translate for their teammates who were less comfortable with English. She compared the experience to how U.S. players often have to adapt when they play overseas:
“Playing overseas, you obviously get a little dose — well, a big dose — of inserting yourself into a culture in a different country and trying to not only learn the customs, but be able to communicate. I think that’s been the coolest piece is just finding how the kids are helping me [communicate with them].”
Atkins also participated in the life skills sessions, including a panel where players could ask the staff questions. Throughout her WNBA career, when Atkins has talked to young players, she has often tried to explain how similar they are to her. They can achieve the same things, she tells them, if they put in the work consistently over time.
Atkins enjoyed seeing the players at the Latin America camp learn more about who they are and what they want in these off-the-court sessions. She contrasted how inquisitive they were with how quiet she was growing up: “I wasn’t shy. I just didn’t know what questions to ask.”
She continued, “So to kind of see the progression of the young female athlete and how they’re just taking their career into their own hands, I think it’s really cool.”
In some ways, Atkins took similar ownership of her own future in Mexico. She rose early to get in workouts, sometimes with other staff members and sometimes alone. She also talked with staff members such as McWilliams-Franklin, Lister and Cortijo about their experiences with the NBA Academy and their coaching journeys. Atkins isn’t sure whether she wants to coach one day, but she conceded that she might end up being one of the many players who say they don’t want to coach but find their way there eventually.
“You kind of [just] have to do it,” other staff members told her about coaching. “You don’t know what you’re good at or not good at until you try it.”
The camp didn’t definitively answer those questions for Atkins, but she enjoyed how coaching was “a very direct way” to give back to the sport of basketball. And in all her offseason activities, she has valued being able to give girls the same opportunities that she had — or even ones that she wishes she had.
In November, Atkins headed to North Carolina for a “Her Time to Play” clinic for girls, which is part of a larger initiative by the WNBA and Jr. NBA to engage girls in sports. Like the Mexico camp, there was a panel discussion in addition to the basketball component.
In December, Atkins worked with the WNBA and DICK’S Sporting Goods to host a surprise shopping event for 10 children from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, D.C., which is an organization that Atkins had partnered with previously. This month, she returned to the Boys and Girls Club for the first in a series of seminars for teenagers about self-awareness, empowerment, confidence and handling adversity.
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Atkins’ calendar for the rest of the offseason is still being determined, but she plans to release more of her merchandise line on Feb. 7, following up on a successful first launch in August. She will also keep training in Washington when she can with several teammates, including point guard Natasha Cloud and forward/guard Elena Delle Donne. Those workouts have been fun, she said, especially with most of the returners healthy for the first time in several seasons.
“We feel connected right now,” she said. “Obviously, [the front office is] trying to build our team through free agency as well … but it feels good to be a part of a core in D.C.”
It makes sense that Atkins’ offseason isn’t fully mapped out: Before this year, the WNBA hadn’t done player marketing agreements with this many players, so everyone is learning as the offseason progresses. And Atkins previously spent her offseasons playing overseas, so being home is a novelty in itself.
“I’m just kind of taking life as it comes,” she said. “… It’s been really interesting, just kind of being home, honestly …
“I’m definitely getting the itch to play. But I guess I’ll have to wait.”
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.