A year after a league semifinal appearance, the Washington Mystics want more. Last season marked an impressive return to the postseason, making the next step towards the ultimate goal of bringing a WNBA title to D.C.
While most of the core of that team returns to try to build on last year’s succes, one piece is just getting her first taste of the WNBA. Rookie guard Ariel Atkins arrived in the District this offseason by way of the seventh pick in the annual WNBA Draft, and she’s already making an impression on the veteran-heavy squad.
Billed as a complete player on the defensive end with a scoring knack from all over the floor, Atkins fits perfectly in coach Mike Thibault’s experienced squad. She also boasts a high basketball I.Q. to help her with the inevitable learning curve that comes with turning pro. Still, just two days into Mystics camp, the Texas product admits she’s working on getting up to the speed of the WNBA.
“It’s challenging,” said Atkins. “Basketball-wise, it’s the physicality and pace. Other than that, it’s maturity and being aware. Those are the things I need to pay attention to.”
As for more specific adjustments, Atkins says she’s soaking it all in and leaning on the likes of veteran guards Natasha Cloud, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and others. Moreover, she appreciates their honesty in assessing where the rookie can improve and contribute.
“You have to be able to think and move at the same time,” said Atkins. “You have to pay attention to the vets. They’re always ready to answer our questions.
“They’re honest, they say what they need to say. They’ve been really helpful as far as not only understanding the game but learning how to move through practice.”
From defensive principles to offensive sets and more, the opening of any training camp is full of new installations and fast-paced learning. From Coach Thibault’s perspective, the veteran leadership has made it easy to keep the team’s agenda moving forward efficiently while making sure the rookies are keeping up.
“Between Mo (Currie), TRP, Cloud and (Allie) Hightower, they’ve been great at helping the rookies and getting them up to speed,” said Thibault. “You’re not having to repeat things, the (rookies) are quick learners and the veterans have helped them get through it so we can move on quickly without getting stagnated.”
Atkins is learning on the fly early in camp, but as the workload ramps up with preseason approaching and beyond, she’ll be able to focus on her growing role in the team. Coach Thibault noted on Day 3 that he’s pleased with his squad’s progress early as the team continues to take shape.
“I’m really happy with it,” Thibault said of the Mystics’ early progress in camp. “There’s a maturity level to this team that I don’t think existed at the start of last year. The focus is getting back to basics defensively and with communication. Offensively, we’re trying to create a better flow and a better pace. We’ve spent a lot of time extending everybody’s range and spreading the floor.”
Atkins has heard that message since draft night, and as she gets more comfortable with the day-to-day of being a professional, she knows what she has to work on in her game. One of Atkins’ focuses early in camp reflects Thibault’s vision for the offense this season. She’s put in extra work on her 3-point shot after practices, an area of her game she’s been fine-tuning since being drafted.
“That’s something I’ve been trying to improve over the past year,” Atkins said of the 3-point shot. “Personally, I also have to learn how to use my body in different ways and understand that a lot of it right now is mental, so getting reps in and watching the vets.
“I think (the veterans) do a really good job of not only bringing energy but communicating well. So it’s listening to them, taking it in.”
High expectations are part of the territory as a first-round pick, and Thibault is pleased with Atkins’ early progress. And when it comes to improvements, both player and coach recognize that adjusting to the physicality of the WNBA is high on the list.
“I told her on draft night to extend her range, get closer to the NBA line shooting the three, and she’s come in and knocked them down,” said Thibault. “She’s a more mature player in the full-court game and in transition, she’s in terrific shape and comfortable with the pace of the game.
“Some of the nuances of the half-court game is what she’ll need to learn most. It’s a lot more physical. That’s the hardest thing for players to get used to.”
For now, Atkins is embracing veteran leadership and putting in the requisite work to get acquainted with the team. It’s the start that the veteran Mystics need from her with the bulk of preseason still ahead. And while her exact fit in the rotation as the season will come later, she’s well on her way to contributing to Washington’s quest for another deep playoff run.