June 21, 2024 

Defenses are throwing everything at Ariel Atkins. Here’s how the Mystics star hit her stride

Atkins: ‘If I see an opening, I'm gonna take a shot’

After Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins scored 29 points in a win over the Chicago Sky on June 14, she and forward Aaliyah Edwards spoke to reporters in the postgame press conference. Atkins answered a question about her mindset entering the game, and then Edwards wanted to add something about Atkins’ point total.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

“I think we should round that up to 30,” Edwards said.

Atkins has only hit the 30-point mark once in her career, back in 2021, but she got close against the Sky and again on Wednesday, when she had 27 in a loss to the Indiana Fever. It’s the first time in Atkins’ seven-year WNBA career that she has had back-to-back games with at least 25 points.

In the two games combined, she shot 19-for-30 from the field (63.3%) and 14-for-16 from the free-throw line (87.5%). She also added five assists and four rebounds.

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

Those games are part of a recent stretch of hot shooting for Atkins after she started the season slowly. Through her first 11 games, she averaged 13.2 points and shot just 35.3% from the field and 30.0% from 3-point range. That included a career-worst 0-for-12 outing against the Seattle Storm on May 25, even as eight or nine of those shots were “probably pretty good looks,” by head coach Eric Thibault’s estimation.

Atkins also struggled in the Mystics’ first game against Indiana this season, a two-point loss on June 7. She scored 16 points but shot 7-for-21, and she couldn’t get a potential tying shot off in the waning seconds. Afterward, she spoke about missing multiple shots late in the game and said she could’ve been more aggressive getting to the rim in those moments.

Atkins has been asked to do a lot for the Mystics because two starters, point guard Brittney Sykes and center/forward Shakira Austin, have been injured for most of the season. Sykes has played just 50 total minutes in three games, while Austin has appeared in six games. The trio of Sykes, Austin and Atkins was expected to lead the Mystics this season both offensively and defensively.

Without Sykes and Austin, opposing defenses can focus more on Atkins. “When you don’t have [Sykes], you don’t have Kira, teams don’t tend to mess up and forget Ariel,” Thibault told reporters on June 9, before the Mystics’ 12th game of the season. “… She’s kind of No. 1 on opponents’ scouting reports. She just gets all that attention. … So it’s more load, it’s more pressure.”

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins shoots a jump shot. The ball has barely left Atkins' hand, visible just above the outstretched left arm of Chicago Sky center/forward Elizabeth Williams.
Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) shoots over Chicago Sky center/forward Elizabeth Williams during a game at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

To make matters worse, the Mystics lost each of their first 11 games, eight of them by single digits. And Atkins found out shortly after the loss to Indiana on June 7 that she didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team this summer, even though she won a gold medal with Team USA in 2021 and has regularly attended training camps since then. She told The Washington Post that she was disappointed but not angry: “It just didn’t work out this time. Obviously, I wanted to make the team. I had a hard time. It sucks. It just sucks.”

“Obviously, we were disappointed for her,” Thibault told reporters on June 13. “Nobody deserves that more. The way she carries herself is like an Olympian every day. So I just try to tell her she knows who she is and we know who she is. And we just need her to keep being a great leader for us, as she has been.”

Since that loss to Indiana and the Olympic disappointment, though, Atkins’ shooting has dramatically improved. In her past four games, she is averaging 21.8 points on 60.0% shooting from the field and 43.5% from 3-point range. Her production has helped the Mystics to a 2-2 record in that span.

Against Chicago on June 14, Atkins made her first three shots, all in the first quarter. She missed a long jumper late in the second quarter, then hit four straight shots — a layup, a 3-pointer and two midrange shots — in the second and third quarters. The 3-pointer came with just two seconds left in the second quarter and pushed the Mystics’ lead to double digits.

Want even more women’s sports in your inbox?

Subscribe now to our sister publication The IX and receive our independent women’s sports newsletter six days a week. Learn more about your favorite athletes and teams around the world competing in soccer, tennis, basketball, golf, hockey and gymnastics from our incredible team of writers.

Readers of The Next now save 50% on their subscription to The IX.

But Chicago mounted a comeback in the third quarter, so the Mystics sorely needed Atkins’ 9-foot floater to break a tie with under three minutes left in the period. They also needed the contested pullup she hit with 14 seconds left in the quarter that gave them some breathing room again.

“I think I probably put her about everywhere,” Thibault said postgame. “… I emptied the playbook of Ariel plays down the stretch.”

The Mystics needed her again in the fourth quarter, after Chicago went on a 14-5 run to cut a 15-point Mystics lead to six with 2:12 remaining. Atkins responded by driving from near halfcourt into the lane for a floater. A minute later, she drove, got fouled and hit two free throws, which ended up being the game-winning points in the two-point win. It was one of three shooting fouls she drew on the night.

“When we needed some big plays, she was able to attack and get in the paint,” Thibault said. “She’s always good in games like that, where it gets a little chaotic and you got to be strong with the ball and you just got to do the basic stuff really well. She just has an innate toughness to her. She’s not loud and showy about it, but she’s got some toughness where it counts.”

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins dribbles past Atlanta Dream guard Allisha Gray with her right hand.
Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) attacks with the ball during a game against the Atlanta Dream at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 29, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Atkins got off to an even quicker start against Indiana on Wednesday, scoring the Mystics’ first four points with a transition layup and then a cut to the rim on an inbounds play. She took seven shots overall in the first quarter — double her average this season — and had 10 points in the period.

“She got some stuff going downhill. Her right hand’s gotten a lot better,” Thibault said postgame. “… I think it’s just the ability to make some plays off the bounce and get downhill that has kind of been the evolution of her game [during her WNBA career].”

She kept attacking from there, and six of her 10 total field goals came from within 8 feet. Seven of her points came in the fourth quarter as the Mystics tried to reverse a nine-point deficit. About two minutes in, she hit an off-balance floater over Indiana center Aliyah Boston that cut the deficit to five. She also hit just her second 3-pointer of the game — after missing five of her first six attempts from behind the arc — with 4:10 remaining.

Atkins followed that up by crossing over Indiana guard Kelsey Mitchell on the perimeter and driving with her dominant left hand past forward NaLyssa Smith. She put up a floater as she neared the baseline, making it through contact from Smith. Before Atkins walked to the free-throw line, she calmly turned and high-fived the Mystics bench right behind her.

“With [Sykes] being out, we need somebody to attack … so [I’m] just trying to put pressure on the rim and … open up stuff for us,” Atkins told reporters postgame. “And if I see an opening, I’m gonna take a shot.”

Get 24/7 soccer coverage with The Equalizer

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribers to The Next receive 50% off their subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

That aggressiveness has shown up statistically, too, over the past four games, especially right out of the gates. In first quarters, she is taking one full shot attempt more per game than she had earlier in the season. Combine that with shooting 64.7% in first quarters now, compared with 36.1% earlier in the season, and her first-quarter scoring has more than doubled, from 2.9 in her first 11 games to 6.8 in her last four.

Then, in the second and third quarters, Atkins is getting to the free-throw line significantly more lately. In her past four games, she is averaging 3.8 free throw attempts in the middle quarters, up from 1.1 in her first 11 games. (Her attempts in the first and fourth quarters are essentially unchanged.) In total, she has shot 20 free throws in her past four games, compared with 27 in the first 11.

Atkins’ aggressiveness may be helping her shot fall, or perhaps seeing her shot fall is helping her be more aggressive. Or it might be both. Regardless, she is shooting better from everywhere on the court lately:

First 11 GamesLast Four Games
Restricted Area and Paint42.6%93.8%
3-Point Range30.5%43.5%
Source: WNBA Stats

Asked what’s made the difference for her in the past four games, Atkins said on Wednesday that she feels more settled in the role the Mystics are asking her to play. She’s not forcing things, just trying to create offense based on what the defense gives her. Playing with new teammates such as wing Karlie Samuelson and center Stefanie Dolson, she is starting to recognize how teams are defending them, too, and anticipating where she can drive and be met with less help.

“I’ve learned my teammates more, and it’s helped me figure out kind of my spots,” she said.

Her teammates are learning their spots around her, too. On Wednesday, Samuelson finished with 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting and five assists, including setting up Atkins’ first 3-pointer. And Dolson had 14 points on 4-for-7 3-point shooting, plus three assists.

Atkins has also gotten more comfortable handling the ball in Sykes’ absence. She isn’t a full-time point guard but often pitches in. Her assists are up slightly in her last four games, from 3.2 to 3.8 per game, and her turnovers have similarly fallen. She’s particularly cut down on fourth-quarter turnovers, from 0.9 per game in her first 11 games to 0.3 in her last four.

On June 11, after the second game of her hot streak, Atkins said she is focusing on getting in the paint and being balanced on two feet, so she can pass if she doesn’t have a shot. That adjustment can help her in multiple ways: making her more balanced on her shots, reducing turnovers and increasing assists.

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins shoots an open jump shot in the paint as a Chicago Sky defender arrives too late to contest it.
Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) shoots during a game against the Chicago Sky at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The Mystics are certainly happy to see Atkins shoot the ball well lately. But the way they see it, she’s been leading them all season, regardless of how efficient she’s been. Even though she had a tough start to the season, she’s been their top scorer, averaging more than six points more than any other player who’s appeared in at least eight games. She also recorded her 450th regular-season assist on Wednesday, the fourth-most in Mystics history.

In addition, Atkins has been an important leader in the locker room. The veteran hadn’t always been vocal, but coaching at Michigan this offseason helped her prepare for how this year’s team would look to her for that. And Thibault believes that some rough patches with the Wolverines — such as losing five of seven games in January and February — gave Atkins experience she could draw on when the Mystics lost 12 straight to start the season.

“Whether she’s played well or played not as well, she’s been a very steadying presence,” Thibault said on June 11.

“She’s put our team on her back, kind of emotionally [and] mentally as much as anything,” he added three days later.

Lately, Atkins has put her team on her back with her scoring, too, showing the All-Star-level form she’s had in years past. And in her last two games, she put the team’s 0-12 start, her early shooting struggles and her Olympic disappointment behind her to score unlike she ever had before.

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

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.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.