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Comparing the small forwards of the 2019 WNBA Finals: Ariel Atkins (Mystics) vs. Shekinna Stricklen (Sun)

Both the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics rely on the steadiness of their starting small forward. But can Shekinna Stricklen or Ariel Atkins expand her game if called upon to do so? Or will off-the-bench sparks Bria Holmes and Aerial Powers instead serve as their squad’s difference-maker?

WNBA: JUN 26 Connecticut Sun at Washington Mystics
Will Shekinna Stricklen or Ariel Atkins exceed her expected role and power her team to the 2019 WNBA title?
Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Both the Connecticut Sun’s and Washington Mystics’ starting small forwards — Shekinna Stricklen and Ariel Atkins — are the offensive barometers for their respective teams.

When Stricklen is swishing from long range, it is a sign that the Sun offense is rolling, creating wide-open trail threes for the 2019 WNBA Three-Point Shootout champion. Similarly, Atkins often finds an offensive rhythm when the Mystics offense is humming already, driving to the basket and draining threes. In short, neither player is likely to kick-start her squad’s offense. Rather, she will give it an extra boost, with her buckets helping her team win by an even wider margin.

In the Finals, Stricklen’s and Atkins’ ability to be an offensive booster could be valuable, helping Connecticut or Washington secure a dominating victory. However, the series may swing on whether Stricklen or Atkins successfully can exceed her established offensive role, providing an offensive spark when her teammates are struggling to score.

During Washington’s semifinals series against Las Vegas, Atkins was uneven offensively, lacking the assertiveness that she demonstrated during the Mystics’ 2018 playoff run. Her previous performance indicates that Atkins possesses a skill set that could allow her to temporarily captain the Washington offense, balancing scoring with facilitating. Stricklen, in contrast, is almost solely a shooting specialist. Although she sometimes can take the ball to the basket, this option is unlikely to bear fruit consistently for Connecticut. As such, Atkins holds the offensive advantage in this matchup. Yet, the sophomore must rediscover the confidence and composure she showed as a rookie.

On the other end of the floor, Atkins also has the edge. While Stricklen is a solid defender, Atkins can shape the game with her D, confirmed by her again securing a spot on the All-Defensive Second Team. Because she is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, head coach Mike Thibault may call on Atkins to stifle the Sun guards. She also can use her defense to spur her offense. As a help defender, Atkins can dig down on Jonquel Jones’ post-ups or swipe in on Alyssa Thomas’ drives, turning steals into scores.

Off the bench, both Connecticut and Washington can replace their rather steady starting small forwards with a pair of spark plugs. Neither the Sun’s Bria Holmes nor the Mystics’ Aerial Powers overthinks her role. Instead, they both bring perpetual motion to the court.

On offense, Holmes and Powers play with a decisiveness that demands the defense’s attention. Their infectious energy also overcomes their sometimes imperfect positioning on defense. Over the course of the Mystics’ semifinals series, Mike Thibault increasingly gave Powers more playing time, making it more than possible that she will be a critical contributor in the Finals. Holmes played comparatively less in the Sun’s semifinals series. However, Connecticut head coach Curt Miller trusts her more than his other reserves, suggesting that she will have the opportunity to make an impact.