September 19, 2023 

The many faces of Ariel Atkins

How the Washington Mystics mainstay got fitted for her mask

WASHINGTON — When Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne first heard that teammate Ariel Atkins would have to play with a protective face mask for the rest of the season, her mind flashed back to 2019. That year, Delle Donne broke her nose in an early July game and led the Mystics to their first WNBA title while wearing a clear face mask.

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“The last time we had a mask in playoffs, it was great luck for us,” Delle Donne told Atkins.

Atkins broke her nose on Aug. 31 in a road game against the Las Vegas Aces, when Aces star A’ja Wilson reached up for a rebound and caught the bottom of Atkins’ nose with her elbow. It was a “once-in-a-million” accident, Mystics head physical therapist Kala Flagg told The Next.

Atkins crumpled to the court and eventually went to the locker room for testing. She escaped without a concussion, but she was in a lot of pain. “When it first happened, everything hurt,” Flagg said. “And then all the pain just kind of centralized towards her nose.” Atkins iced her nose almost constantly for the next 24 hours, and she and the Mystics just had to wait for the swelling to go down and allow her to breathe normally again.

“It was frustrating,” Atkins told reporters on Sept. 8, referencing how she was injured only six games into her return from an ankle sprain. “But it’s also one of those things you can’t rehab, you can’t tape it, so it was kind of one of those things [where] I just gotta be patient.”

The Mystics, in the first game of a three-game West Coast trip, didn’t have a mask on hand for Atkins, so Flagg and head athletic trainer Christina Kennedy ordered several. One was shipped to the Mystics’ final stop, Phoenix, and the others went to Washington. The first mask the team was able to get wasn’t a perfect fit, sometimes sliding down her face, but Atkins ended up sitting out the Phoenix game anyway as she recovered.

“It was a little too big. And it wasn’t necessarily too big in the size; it was just kind of a little overpowering,” Atkins told The Next during the WNBA playoffs. “But it was the quickest one that we could get.”

“When she first put it on, she had the straps super long,” longtime teammate Myisha Hines-Allen told reporters on Sunday. “It was just ugly, to be honest. She was running around and it was just flapping on both sides. But … it got better.”

When the team got back to Washington, Atkins tried on a few more masks, and the team got her an appointment at Orthotic Solutions, a company in nearby Northern Virginia. The staff there made a cast mold of Atkins’ face to create a custom mask, and she ended up with a few options that would work for her.

As she tried out each mask, the first thing Atkins was looking for was whether the mask was touching her nose or putting unwanted pressure elsewhere on her face. The straps were adjustable, so she could make the fit tighter or looser as needed. Then Atkins wanted to make sure the mask wasn’t moving around as she ran and that she could see well in all directions. She opted for a very minimalist design, with nose protection and not much else.

A close-up photo of a clear protective face mask. It has adjustable black straps and small holes in the mask to allow for ventilation.
Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins will wear a protective face mask for the rest of the season. (Photo credit: Jenn Hatfield; edits by Domenic Allegra)

“It doesn’t take up a big chunk of my face,” she said, explaining why she picked her current mask. “I like … the eye shape and then it has the ventilation holes. But … it literally just protects my nose.”

Like Delle Donne’s mask four years ago, Atkins’ mask is clear, but it appears to be smaller than Delle Donne’s. There is less coverage on the sides of Atkins’ face and cheeks and more coverage extending down to the tip of her nose. And the ventilation that Atkins mentioned is something Delle Donne likely wishes she’d had, because sweat pooling in her mask had been her biggest annoyance.

“I think she’d look cooler if she had a black mask or something,” Hines-Allen said of Atkins. “But it’s all right.”

Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, wearing a clear protective face mask, prepares to shoot the ball during warmups.
Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne warms up before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29, 2019. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Delle Donne advised Atkins to wear the mask even in non-contact situations to help her get used to it. Atkins took that advice, wearing it during warmups for her first game back on Sept. 8. She will wear it as long as the Mystics’ season lasts; Flagg said it typically takes six to eight weeks for a bone to heal, and Atkins is in no hurry to expose her nose to another hit. After the season ends, the Mystics will have Atkins visit a specialist to confirm everything has healed correctly and she is breathing optimally.

But, as of now, Atkins is pain-free, and her nose looks normal to everyone except herself. “I don’t really ice it as much, but I do rub it to try to get this knot down,” she said, massaging the bridge of her nose.

“The process has been a pretty straightforward one as far as her healing,” Flagg said. “… She hasn’t had any issues with tenderness or anything in her nose. She’s been able to do little things that we take for granted, like blow her nose without having any pain.”

Atkins has played in three games with the mask — two to end the regular season and Game 1 of a best-of-three playoff series against the New York Liberty. In her first game back, she shot 0-for-5 from the field, but she found her footing after that.

Asked before Game 1 of the playoffs whether she thought she’d found her rhythm, Atkins told reporters, “I definitely do. I think I’ve had time to kind of get my feet under me and … get used to the masks. I know I said that it didn’t matter. It does.”

A few days later, she told The Next, “[The mask] feels like it’s really just a piece of my face, almost … Just another piece of equipment, like another ankle brace. I think it’s more comfortable now.”

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In her last two games, Atkins is averaging 12.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 steals and 2.0 assists per game. All of those numbers except assists are equal to or better than her averages before breaking her nose, and the assists aren’t far off.

“I told her after [the regular-season finale that] I thought she looked like herself,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told reporters before Game 1. “… She’s such a key part of our offense. I mean, our defense, too, but our offense in terms of the space she creates … It really balances our offense. … This team is built with Ariel as a big piece. So obviously she’s gonna be a big key in the series.”

Though the Mystics lost Game 1, Atkins came through with 14 points, six rebounds, three steals and three assists.

“She’s a phenomenal player,” Delle Donne said on Monday. “So you know [in] playoff basketball, A’s gonna be there for you.”

On Tuesday, Atkins will aim to help the Mystics stave off elimination. Playing on the road for a second straight game against the No. 2 seed Liberty, the No. 7 seed Mystics will be the underdogs. But they’re confident they can send the series to a decisive Game 3 — especially if a familiar protective face mask is any indication.

“I’m hoping that it has the same magical powers” as 2019, Flagg said with a laugh. “… I think the odds are in our favor.”

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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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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