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Hoops Happening: WNBA Finals thrust sensational rookies into the spotlight

Ariel Atkins and Jordin Canada have thrilled basketball fans this playoffs with lightening-quick speed, gritty defense and exciting offensive execution. This is today in women’s basketball for Friday, Sept. 7, 2018!

Unsung rookie Ariel Atkins has come up big for the Washington Mystics in the 2018 WNBA Playoffs.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

From the ranks of a rookie class that already has demonstrated the kind of moxie and polish associated with more seasoned basketball players, two sensational first-year hoopsters are about to step into the spotlight of the WNBA Finals: Ariel Atkins (Washington Mystics) and Jordin Canada (Seattle Storm). From the looks of their gutsy performances in the WNBA Playoffs so far, both players not only seem ready for the big stage but poised to put on a thrilling show.

Meet the spirited rookies of the 2018 WNBA Finals!

Awesome Ariel Atkins

Atkins, a first-year guard out of the University of Texas, rose to the Washington Mystics’ starting lineup fairly quickly, and she did it with all eyes on No. 1 WNBA Draft pick A’ja Wilson. Atkins was picked seventh overall, behind #6 Azura Stevens (Dallas Wings), #5 Jordin Canada (Seattle Storm), #4 Gabby Williams and #3 Diamond DeShields (Chicago Sky), and #2 Kelsey Mitchell (Indiana Fever).

Wilson, the likely winner of the Rookie of the Year award, has exceeded all expectations, DeShields and Mitchell had big moments this season and showed lots of potential for bright futures, Williams and Stevens didn’t fully live up to the hype, and Atkins mostly went overlooked — keeping her head down, working in the background, earning a starting role on the Mystics’ roster, elevating her game when called upon to do so, and now making her first trip to the WNBA Finals, which also happens to be the Mystics’ first appearance in the Finals in that franchise’s history.

Atkins averaged 11.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per game during the regular season. When it counted the most, during the coveted postseason, Atkins stepped up her production to average 15.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game during the playoffs. In the all-important winner-take-all Game 5 of the semifinals against the Atlanta Dream, Atkins scored a game-high 20 points and grabbed 7 rebounds.

This kind of high-execution production under pressure is great for any player. But for a rookie who has played professional basketball a little over three months? Impressive.

And it’s not just the way Atkins fills in the box score that impacts the Mystics; it’s her gritty, drop-to-the-floor, by-any-means-necessary approach that keeps possessions alive for Washington, breaks down possessions for opposing teams and gives her team a chance to win. With seemingly no space in the opposing defense, Atkins finds a way to slither to the basket for a put-back, refusing to let a single scoring opportunity pass her by.

Against a Seattle team filled with hot shooters, Atkins’ ability to break up plays will be crucial to the Mystics’ success, and she’ll have to find a way to do it without picking up fouls. With Delle Donne still not 100% after suffering a hyperextended knee, Atkins will have to perform double duty on defense and continue to create second-chance scoring opportunities on offense. The good news for the Washington Mystics is that Atkins has demonstrated a capacity to do so and, excitingly, seems to relish the challenge.

Jaw-dropping Jordin Canada

Canada is a first-year guard out of UCLA, picked fifth overall in the 2018 WNBA Draft. Her box score numbers for her rookie season could be considered moderate, in not mild: She averaged 5.7 points and 3.3 assists per game in the regular season. But what else could be expected of a player coming off the bench for a team that counts as its other guards basketball legend Sue Bird and All-Star Jewell Loyd? And then there are big play-makers Natasha Howard, the 2018 WNBA Most Improved Player, and Breanna Stewart, the 2018 WNBA Most Valuable Player.

Given only 16 minutes per game in the regular season, Canada made the most of her time on the court — doing more when called upon to do so, but also making exciting, change-the-momentum plays no matter which players were on the court. The good news for the Storm is that Canada has held true to her opportunistic style of point guarding in the playoffs.

So far this postseason, Canada has averaged 8.2 points and 2.6 assists per game. In Game 2 against the Phoenix Mercury in the semifinals, Canada scored a playoff career-high 12 points. When Sue Bird went out of Game 4 with a broken nose, Canada scored 9 points and dished 4 assists.

But Canada’s talents belie the numbers and her contributions to the Seattle Storm go beyond making the most of her minutes. Canada has consistently come up with big plays in big moments against the best players in the world. So, it’s not just what she does, it’s when she does it that counts most, such as in a close game with seven minutes left the fourth quarter.

Canada can slither to the basket with the best of them (especially around larger defenders seeking to avoid foul trouble), she can seize on an errant pass and use her speed to get out on the fast break for a layup, and she can clean up the glass, too. Against the Mercury in Game 4, Canada grabbed 4 rebounds to go with her 9 points and 4 assists.

For the Storm, the roster almost seems like an embarrassment of riches — so deep, with so many shooters who can turn it on any given night to give the team a chance to win. For the Storm in the WNBA Finals, it seems the primary task will be for Head Coach Dan Hughes to position players in winning matchups against the Mystics. And then it will be on the players to just feed the hot hand, whomever she may be. For the Storm, there are many possibilities — including Jordin Canada.

Why these rookies are worth watching

Canada and Atkins are neither intimidated by nor afraid of basketball’s biggest stage: the WNBA Finals. Instead of withering beneath the heat of the spotlight of the WNBA Playoffs, Jordin Canada and Ariel Atkins used the heat to fuel their performances — finishing hot game after hot game and redefining the rookie experience.

Next up in the WNBA

Game 1 of the WNBA Finals tips off tonight, Friday, Sept. 7 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNews!

Follow along on our GameThread, and enjoy the game!

Team USA

The USA Women’s National Team (WNT) came together for practice on Sept. 3 and have since embarked upon a series of exhibition games, including an intrasquad matchup on Sept. 5 in Columbia, South Carolina. Elizabeth Williams (Atlanta Dream), who saw her WNBA season end in a Game 5 semifinals’ loss to the Washington Mystics on Sept. 4, has been added to the WNT talent pool, joining the following 14 players heading into the next exhibition game: Tina Charles (New York Liberty), Nneka Ogwumike and Odyssey Sims (Los Angeles Sparks), Layshia Clarendon and Morgan Tuck (Connecticut Sun), Napheesa Collier (University of Connecticut), Diamond DeShields and Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky), Allisha Gray (Dallas Wings), Sabrina Ionescu (University of Oregon), Kelsey Mitchell and Tiffany Mitchell (Indiana Fever), Kelsey Plum and A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces).

In the Sept. 5 Red versus White scrimmage, A’ja Wilson led the White team to a 100-75 victory, with 16 points and 7 rebounds.

How to watch the exhibitions

If you require basketball between your WNBA Finals, the remaining two friendlies will be broadcast live on NBA TV:

Team USA vs. Canada

  • When: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. ET
  • Where: Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport, CT | TICKETS
  • How to watch: NBA TV, with Ed Cohen on the call

Team USA vs. Japan

  • When: Monday, Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. ET
  • Where: Charles E. Smith Center, Washington, DC | TICKETS
  • How to watch: NBA TV, with Debbie Antonelli on the call

Drink up, link lush!

WNBA veteran Tina Charles was honored in a ceremony last night celebrating her individual community service efforts and achievements made through her Hopey’s Heart Foundation. Through her activism, Charles has lived up to her goal of “be[ing] a servant unto others,” raising and donating many thousands of dollars and improving many lives. In gratitude of her philanthropy, Charles was awarded the Mannie Jackson Basketball’s Human Spirit Award.

Tina Charles of the New York Liberty is shown with J.J. Barea (Dallas Mavericks), Mannie Jackson, and Boris Diaw (Utah Jazz) at the Bunn-Gowdy Awards Dinner as part of the 2018 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on Sept. 6, 2018 at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

  • Elizabeth Williams has a great way to soothe her disappointed following the Atlanta Dream being eliminated from the playoffs — compete for Team USA.
  • Kia Nurse of the New York Liberty made the cut for Team Canada.
  • Connecticut Head Coach Curt Miller shared a heartfelt letter of appreciation with Sun fans, touting the “bright future” of the team. If the team’s 2018 postseason showing is any indication, fans should feel confident in the Sun’s ability to sizzle.
  • The season may be over for some WNBA players, but that doesn’t mean they’re sitting around doing nothing. Chelsea Gray of the LA Sparks, for example, just hosted a second-annual shoe drive.

How to #WatchThemWork during the 2018 WNBA Playoffs

Shine brighter. * flicker flicker *