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Ariel Atkins’ sophomore success: The understated effectiveness of Washington’s steady star

Ariel Atkins may not be the WNBA’s flashiest player — or its loudest — but with a game like hers, there’s no need for frills.

WNBA Finals Portraits
Ariel Atkins added a WNBA championship to her already-impressive resume in just her second pro season.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

When Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault used his 2018 first-round draft pick on Texas wing Ariel Atkins, a few people were left scratching their heads.

Atkins, a 5-foot-8 guard from Duncanville, entered the WNBA through one of the strongest draft classes in league history. A’ja Wilson, Diamond DeShields, Kelsey Mitchell, Gabby Williams and Victoria Vivians were just a few of the big names, each player bursting with pro potential and getting plenty of love from national television broadcasts whenever their respective college teams were featured.

That kind of allure just didn’t seem to surround Atkins. While her skill was never in doubt — she had plenty of international experience with USA Basketball to go along with the high school and collegiate honors you’d expect from a first-round pick — there wasn’t nearly as much excitement about her professional prospects as many of her peers.

Two WNBA seasons later, it’s safe to say critics of the selection have been silenced.

Atkins settled right in as a Mystic, starting 24 games and averaging double figures in scoring while comfortably earning a spot on the 2018 All-Rookie Team. Atkins outperformed the vast majority of her 2018 classmates in a humble, workmanlike manner, and played a key role in the Mystics’ Finals run that season.

Washington Mystics v Seattle Storm
Atkins has quickly become one of the WNBA’s deadliest spot-up scorers, putting her right at home in a Mystics offense that emphasizes extra passes and three-point shooting.
Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

Atkins quickly proved that her solid rookie campaign was no fluke. Steadiness has become a trademark of hers. Surrounded by star talent like Kristi Toliver and Elena Delle Donne, Atkins has thrived as a tertiary offensive option, her off-ball prowess and hustle an important — if not somewhat understated — piece of the Mystics jigsaw puzzle.

The consistency is almost eerie: Per 100 possessions, Atkins averaged the same number of steals (3.0) in her sophomore season as she did as a rookie. She was a 35.7 percent shooter from three-point range in both seasons. From the free throw line, she’s been both consistent and reliable, shooting 82.4 percent in 2018 and 81.1 percent in 2019.

It’s figures like these that put into perspective just how valuable Atkins is to the Mystics. The same reasons she may have been overlooked as a draft prospect — no championship pedigree, not assertive enough on offense, lack of big-play capability — don’t matter one iota to Thibault and his staff. They simply need Atkins to make smart plays and shoot the ball.

Atkins has excelled in those areas. On a team that preaches ball movement, she’s been terrific as a play finisher, scoring 1.13 points per possession on spot-up opportunities, per Synergy Sports. In fact, Atkins led the entire WNBA in total points scored spotting up, which accounted for 39.1 percent of her offensive possessions — two sure signs of a player who is plenty comfortable in her role as an off-ball presence.

Don’t get it twisted, though. Just because Atkins isn’t Washington’s primary scorer doesn’t mean she isn’t important to the team. In particular, the Mystics rely on her to check the opposing team’s No. 1 option, and they miss her presence when she isn’t on the court. In 2019, Washington allowed just 91.6 points per 100 possessions with Atkins on the floor, which ballooned to 103.0 with her on the bench. She’s also one of the WNBA’s premier ball hawks; per Basketball-Reference, Atkins ranked in the league’s top ten in steal percentage both her rookie and sophomore seasons.

Such “3-and-D” players tend to be underrated when it comes to highlight reels and All-Star votes, but coaches can’t get enough of them. In hindsight, Atkins was the ideal prospect for a mold like this: a WNBA body, sure, but also intelligent and hard-working, knowing what she needs to accomplish to best suit the needs of her team.

Atkins’ ability to hit open shots and defend at a high level is what makes her a starter on the league’s best team. The work she’s put in to get to that point is what makes her a WNBA champion.