Ariel Atkins: It’s only a matter of time before that’s a household name. And that time is coming soon.
Over the past two years, the Washington Mystics’ youngest starter has skyrocketed up the ranks, bursting onto the scene as a first-time WNBA All-Star who’s quickly earning the respect and admiration of her peers, the fans, league executives, and just about everyone else she crosses paths with.
There’s a reason she was named the “most underrated” player in the league in the 2021 WNBA GM Survey. And there’s a reason Mystics veteran Natasha Cloud dubbed her the “best two-guard (in the WNBA), period, on both ends of the floor.”
Ariel is also a WNBA champion, a three-time All-Defensive Team selection, a member of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team, and an activist. Oh, and did we mention that she’s only 25 years old?
Yeah. She’s that special. And she’s only getting started. So today, we’ll take a deep dive into the evolution of the WNBA’s newest rising star and utmost professional. We explore her basketball growth — from high school up until today — as well as her highlights, her strengths, her areas of opportunity, her off-court work, and much more.
Ariel’s talent has always been there. But her meteoric rise from small-town hooper to WNBA All-Star hasn’t happened by accident. She’s put in the work, day in and day out, to become the player she is today. And you can bet on her continuing to do the same until she reaches her nonexistent ceiling.
“She’s a hard worker,” Natasha said of Ariel.
“She works her (expletive) off for everything that she gets. I think her confidence comes from her preparation.”
That preparation is paying dividends – something Ariel hopes can provide inspiration to the next generation of girls just like her.
“This isn’t just about me. It’s so, so, so much bigger than me; so much bigger than my face; so much bigger than my name,” Ariel said after earning a spot on Team USA for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“… There are kids out there that know me, that have seen me. I’m from Duncanville, Texas, (a) small town in the Dallas area, and I just want them to know that you can do it, too. The only difference in between me and you is time and work, and I’m just blessed, man. I’m super thankful.”
It’s not hyperbole to say that Ariel was one of the most successful high school basketball players of all-time.
During her tenure at Texas’ Duncanville High School, the standout guard helped propel her team to a 105-game winning streak and a combined record of 148-10. She won two Texas UIL Class 5A state titles (2012, 2013), was ranked as the No. 4 overall recruit and No. 1 guard in the class of 2014, and was named the 2014 Morgan Wootten Player of the Year — an award given annually to the best male and female McDonald’s All-American players who exemplify outstanding character, exhibit leadership, and embody the values of being a student-athlete in the classroom and the community.
Combine her accolades, leadership, and statistics — she averaged 17.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 steals, and 3.9 assists as a senior — and it was clear that Ariel had the potential to turn into a star.
“She’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached,” Duncanville coach Cathy Self-Morgan said. “She knows the game.”
Ariel committed to play at the University of Texas, about 200 miles south of Duncanville. Much of her high school success quickly transferred over to the collegiate level, where she was slotted in as a starter from Day 1. But that’s not to say there weren’t some bumps along the way.
As evidenced by the fact that the Pantherettes won 93.6% of their games during Ariel’s high school career, it’s safe to say that she wasn’t prone to losing. But once she became a Longhorn, the losing started. Not right away — Ariel and her teammates started out the 2014-15 season with a 7-0 record.
But then Ariel stepped on a teammate’s foot in practice and injured her right ankle. Ariel missed the next eight games, and shortly before she returned, the Longhorns began to skid. The nation’s No.3-ranked team quickly plummeted down the rankings, losing back-to-back games twice before dropping four in a row. Once the season concluded, they found themselves at 22-10 — a far cry from the national championship hopefuls they were a few months prior.
“That was extremely tough,” Ariel said. “I don’t lose. It made me start to question my game. I put things on myself, like ‘We’re losing because of me.’”
In fact, Ariel recently revealed that there were multiple times she thought about quitting basketball altogether during her time at UT.
“My whole junior year, I was completely over (basketball). … Not a lot of people probably know that.” Ariel continued. “I was away from my family, I wasn’t enjoying the game. I got burned out from doing it so much.”
“But having a big support circle that I have was really important. And definitely my faith. I’m a big believer that God puts you in places for a certain reason, so I leaned on that.”
Still, Ariel’s on-court performance turned plenty of heads during her four-year stint. She graduated UT having significantly improved her per-game averages each season:
Ariel was named an honorable mention to the AP’s All-American Team as a senior. She was also a three-time All-Big 12 Team selection, a two-time All-Big 12 Defensive Team selection, and her career free-throw and 3-point percentages (83.1% and 37.3%) rank fourth and sixth all-time in UT history, respectively.
Being drafted seventh overall to a team with one of the best basketball players of the past decade in Elena Delle Donne comes with its fair share of expectations. Combine that with the fact that the Mystics’ second-leading scorer from the season before, Emma Meesseman, was slated to sit out all of 2018 (and did), and there’s no denying that expectations for Ariel were high from the start. Not to be a star, per se, but to make an impact on both ends of the floor on a consistent basis.
“The overall offensive, defensive speed, ability to pick up things and do them quickly I thought was really important,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said of Ariel after draft day. “… Her length on defense is huge for us, and we thought she was one of maybe the best post passers in the draft. And when you have a player like Elena Delle Donne on the team, people around her have to be able to do multiple things.”
As a rookie, Ariel did just that. It took her just five games to be inserted into the starting lineup, and from there, the rise began. She scored 21 points in her first game as a starter — and just the sixth game of her career — and the Mystics won, pushing their record to 5-1.
There were some growing pains, of course — the Mystics lost their next three and Ariel didn’t reach the 20-point mark until nearly two months later. But when she finally eclipsed that number again, she did it with authority. In a July 13 win, Ariel dropped a career-high 25 points on just 14 shots and grabbed a career-best seven rebounds. She also added three assists, a steal, and a block.
“She was great,” Mike Thibault said after the game. “She’s going to make some mistakes but she makes up for a lot of her mistakes with great effort and she’ll come back and get a steal, or she’ll get an offensive rebound, do those kinds of things. She’s pretty dialed in for a rookie.”
Two months and a few standout performances from Ariel later, the Mystics found themselves in the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. They were swept by the Seattle Storm, but Ariel’s postseason run was nothing to sneeze at.
She scored 23 points in 23 minutes in Game 1 of the Finals, passing DeWanna Bonner for the most points by a rookie in a Game 1 in WNBA history. That performance also pushed her postseason scoring total to 113 points through seven games, eclipsing Maya Moore for most points all-time by a rookie in a single postseason.
She finished her playoff debut with 137 total points through nine games — the sixth-highest scoring total of any player during that entire postseason. She also knocked down 14 of her 33 3-pointers (42.4%) — the highest percentage of any player who took at least 25 3s during that stretch.
Ariel started all 33 games of her second season, but she didn’t take as significant of a step forward as some may have expected. Statistically, her numbers stayed about the same, and her struggles in the Mystics’ semifinal playoff series against the Las Vegas Aces (she made just 5-21 shots and scored 18 total points in four games) showed all the signs of a sophomore slump.
Until the Finals started, that is.
Ariel bounced back in a big way in Game 1 against the Connecticut Sun, scoring 21 points in just 24 minutes. She was 6-7 from the field, 6-6 from the free-throw line, and added three steals and three 3-pointers. The Mystics won that game, 95-86, for the first Finals game win in franchise history.
After her stellar performance, the then-23-year-old was dubbed an “old soul” by her veteran teammate, Kristi Toliver.
“Her play shows that, her demeanor, her work ethic,” Kristi said after the game. ”That whole sophomore slump thing is a myth as far as she’s concerned.”
Ariel’s scoring tailed off for the rest of the series — she averaged just 6.8 points over the final four games. But she contributed in other ways, the Mystics won the series, and Ariel was crowned WNBA champion.
When her second WNBA season ended, Ariel was, by many accounts, the fourth “most important” member of the Mystics, playing fourth fiddle to the likes of Elena Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman, and Kristi Toliver.
But in 2020, when Elena, Natasha, LaToya Sanders, and Tina Charles opted to sit out, and Kristi signed with the Los Angeles Sparks, a massive window of opportunity opened for the third-year guard. She took it.
While the Mystics finished just 9-13 in the shortened season and fell to Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs, Ariel accelerated her ascent.
Ariel set career highs in points (14.8), rebounds (2.9), assists (2.4), and steals (1.8) per game, while also notching highs in field goal percentage (43.8%) and 3-point percentage (41.1%). But her biggest contributions came off the court, where she continually took a stand against social injustice.
“I feel obligated because I do have a platform,” Ariel said.
“I’m not a very vocal person all the time, but when I do have a chance to speak, I like to make sure what comes out of my mouth does good to the world and gives justice to those who deserve justice.”
Through the first 18 games of the 2021 season, Ariel is averaging career highs in points (16.8 per game), assists (3.5), rebounds (3.0), 3-pointers made (2.3), minutes (31.2), player efficiency rating (19.7), and has eclipsed the 20-point threshold five times, including a career-high 32-point outburst in a win over Atlanta on June 17th. And the league is taking notice.
Take this quote from Sparks coach Derek Fisher, for example: “Ariel has continued to round her game out,” he said. “Just a few years ago she was … complementary to some of the other stars that Washington had. She’s developed her game into being a star for this team and a player that her team can rely on consistently. … Just an all-around player.”
Or this quote from Mike: “She looks at herself as a prime-time player in this league,” he said. “She’s an all-star in this league now…She was always recognized for her defense and kind of given credit for some of her offense, but she’s turned into one of the best players at both ends of the floor.”
Or this quote from teammate Shavonte Zellous: “We always knew she was a great defender so that’s always been there,” said Shavonte. “But I think her overall offensive game has surprised a lot of people, especially me because she developed in so many areas, and in order to be great in this league, you have to do that and I think she’s taking the right shots and doing that and it’s a great thing to watch.”
In other words? There’s no limit to how good Ariel can become, and she’s proving it on a daily basis.
Of all of Ariel’s strengths on the court, her tenacity on the defensive end may top the list. An All-Defensive Team selection in each of her three full WNBA seasons, Ariel is so often tasked with facing the opposing team’s best offensive player — a challenge she doesn’t take lightly.
“Defense is the reason I am starting in the league,” Ariel said. “Everyone works on scoring, but if you are the person to stop them it gets people thinking. It separates you.”
Since Ariel came into the league, she has 153 steals — second among all players during that span behind only 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard (156). She also ranks fourth in the league in steal percentage during that span (2.9%) and third among all guards in total blocks (44).
Ariel has knocked down 181 3-pointers since coming into the league — fifth among all players during that span. She also makes her 3-pointers at a 37.8% clip, which puts her fourth among all players with at least 150 makes during that period.
While there are limited advanced statistics to support this key skill, it only takes a brief glance at Ariel’s on-court effort — or a quick chat with any of her teammates — to grasp just how hard of a worker she truly is.
“What you don’t see behind the scenes is how much work Ariel puts in: in the weight room, on the court, treatment,” teammate Theresa Plaisance said. “ … So when Ariel goes off, and when you see her find that second bit of energy, that grit, that determination, that’s who Ariel Atkins is.”
Being such a threat on the perimeter certainly makes up for it, but Ariel still has room to grow as an off-the-dribble threat. In fact, in her three full seasons since joining the league, Ariel hasn’t ranked higher than No. 56 in the league for points in the paint per game and has never cracked the top 50 for shot attempts within five feet of the basket per game. Increasing her aggressiveness and the frequency at which she attacks the rim will make her that much more difficult to guard.
While she’s not a traditional combo guard who can run an offense with ease on a nightly basis, and she has just the 42nd-best assist percentage since entering the league, Ariel has taken steps forward as a passer since being drafted. In fact, she ranks second on the Mystics in assists per game so far this season (3.5) and has upped that number in each of the past two seasons. If she can continue to improve her facilitating and get her teammates more involved, Ariel has more than enough to be an elite, all-around offensive player.
Ariel has often been described as the quiet type — especially early on in her career. The type of player who lets her game do the talking. The type of player who may appear more comfortable doing rather than saying.
She doesn’t necessarily agree.
“The game just asks things of you,” Ariel said. “A lot of people see me as soft-spoken, but I’ll be honest, a lot of people don’t know me very well. I do speak. I do talk. When I talk, nine times out of 10 it’s because I have something to say. I’m not just talking to hear myself talk.”
“It might not come off as aggressive, but I’m very observant. … I understand kind of how this culture rocks. It’s important to say those things out loud because sometimes people see it, but sometimes we need to hear it. And that’s something I’m still working on, continuously being vocal and saying very important things and not just cheering.”
Hall of Famer Tina Thompson, who was an assistant coach at UT when Ariel played there, expressed similar sentiments when talking about Ariel’s off-court demeanor.
“She is not a person that comes into the room and not only do you see her, you hear her,” Tina Thompson said. “That is not her personality at all. But if you strike up a conversation with her, you would know that she has quite a bit of substance. She is very aware and articulates well and has a strong presence, although initially you might view it as being quiet.”
Part of that comes with the territory of being a young player on a team full of veterans. But for those who don’t know Ariel or haven’t taken the time to listen to what she has to say, her self-written essay published in The Players Tribune titled Why These Olympics Hit Different For Me is the perfect place to start.
She touched on a lot in the essay — from her first-ever encounter with Elena to getting the call that she was chosen to be on Team USA’s Olympic roster. But overshadowing all of that is what she said about the stand she and the Mystics took during the 2020 season
. following the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black people in America.
“We kept getting told we had to play,” Ariel wrote. “Honestly, we really didn’t want to play. Some people thought it would do nothing. Other people thought we were just being followers. In the end, we stood in solidarity with every other athlete who decided to take a stand. And a lot of people were like, ‘Well you didn’t accomplish anything.’ And to that I’ll say this: We can’t erase hate and racism overnight. This country was built on it. But our purpose — the Mystics specifically — was to get people to see what was happening, and to let our community know that we are here.”
“It felt like no one was listening, until everyone was. … I just couldn’t take it anymore. They were giving us the opportunity to take the microphone, so we took it.”
The Mystics were scheduled to play the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA bubble that night, but the game was postponed due to protests around the sports world following the Blake shooting. Instead of simply deciding to “shut up and dribble,” Ariel and her teammates decided to take a stand.
The Mystics arrived at the arena wearing T-shirts that spelled out Blake’s name on the front and had fake bullet holes on the back. They went out to the court, took a knee, and participated in an on-court interview with ESPN.
“Yes, the shirts were graphic, but not even close to the actual deaths of these Black men and women at the hands of police,” Ariel wrote. “There was no point in softening our voices to make others feel comfortable when those same people never try to make Black people comfortable.
“When I grabbed the microphone, it was one of those God moments for me when I was up there talking, because everything I said was just how I really felt. The WNBA is over 70% Black. We’re going to use our voices because this is so real for us. We have Black fathers, brothers, and sons that could’ve had the same fate as Jacob Blake.”
On the court, with her all-around talent, top-tier work ethic, and current trajectory, the sky truly is the limit for the fourth-year Mystics star. Currently in Tokyo with Team USA for the Olympics, Ariel and the 8-10 Mystics play their next game on August 15th against Las Vegas. But there’s still a lot of work to be done if they have hopes of making a postseason push. The Mystics currently sit in fourth place in the East, five games behind the conference-leading Connecticut Sun.
As for her off-the-court efforts, Ariel knows that the work has only just begun.
“We all know that there is still a long way to go to see the change we want to see, but that’s why I’m grateful to be on (Team USA), Ariel wrote. “That’s why I’m grateful to wear this uniform. We know that we have a certain spotlight, and we know what to do with it. “
“This is a special moment for me. It’s not just about being around some of the most talented athletes in the world who can get a bucket at any time. It’s not just about being coached by a LEGEND in Coach (Dawn) Staley. It’s the fact that I get to again be a part of something bigger than myself. Something bigger than basketball.”
Up next, learn more about WNBA trading cards: their history and future.
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