Ariel Atkins is hungry

by Howard Megdal

Comparisons between past players and current ones are always inherently unfair to the newcomer.

Careers grow and change in different ways, pushed and pulled via different coaches, teammates, injuries and circumstances. But they help, too: allowing teams and fans alike to project what is reasonable to expect from players as long-term plans are made, rosters constructed.

And yet, there may not be a more unfair tag than the one virtually everyone who sees her puts on Ariel Atkins, standout guard for the Washington Mystics: Tamika Catchings.

Atkins, however, doesn’t seem to mind. She saw Catchings speak during her sophomore year of high school, and made a conscious effort to pattern her game, her work off the court, her interactions with teammates after those of Catchings. At this point, Atkins doesn’t know which parts of her basketball identity came from this decision, and which are a result of pre-existing similarities that drew her to Catchings in the first place.

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“I just watched how hard she played the game,” Atkins said after shootaround, prior to Friday night’s Game 3 of Washington’s WNBA semifinals series against the Atlanta Dream. “Her passion just exuded from her, just by watching her play the game on both ends of the floor. She had passion for the entire game, not just a piece of it.

The superficial reasons for comparing Atkins to Catchings are obvious. The two played at the same high school in Duncanville, TX, though about 15 years apart. Though Atkins is a bit more “guardy”, as her former University of Texas teammate Imani McGee-Stafford puts it, the two are of similar stature,  Atkins 5-foot-11, Catchings 6-foot, and both are max effort players on both ends.

Mike Thibault, Mystics head coach and general manager, began scouting Atikins during her junior year at University of Texas, and Texas assistant Tina Thompson, who knows a little something about WNBA stardom, made the Catchings connection for him.

“Tina had played with Catchings in every USA Basketball situation, and she said there’s nobody that works like Catchings until she coached Ariel,” Thibault said Friday. “She’s a guard, but I think she can be sensational. And she’ll be the first to tell you, she has so much to learn. And she is a note-taker, film-watcher, and you can’t watch enough film with her, she’ll ask for more. She’s just a sponge when it comes to learning the game.”

Atkins is just 22, but she’s advancing more quickly than anyone could have hoped in Washington. Thibault planned to bring her off the bench “for quite a while”, but inserted her into the starting lineup once he saw that she was one of his most effective two-way players.

It was no different at Texas, where head coach Karen Aston described her as a recruit who came to define what Aston was building in Austin, a player Aston knew was WNBA-bound before she even arrived on campus.

“She’s a very insightful kid, she’s an inquisitive kid, that wants to know everything,” Aston said in a phone interview. “She wants to know what you’re thinking, what you expect, she is a very unique individual, and we knew that in the recruiting process.” Aston uses her as an object lesson still, sending DC-area recruits to go watch Atkins play for the Mystics.

Despite playing in one of the deepest draft classes in league history, Atkins finished second among 2018 rookies in Win Shares, player efficiency rating (both trailing A’ja Wilson), 3-point field goal percentage (behind Victoria Vivians) and steal percentage (behind only Gabby Williams and top-five in the league overall). The broad base of skills reflects a mental component to her game that’s noticeable both to her teammates and simply by watching her.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Atkins simply doesn’t waste steps, or energy, or time — a necessary approach to playing the game all-out the way she does. When the Dream missed Friday night, Atkins flashed to the rim to grab rebounds a second or two before anybody else. Her help defending has evolved ahead of her on-ball work, another example of seeing the larger picture within the game, and was evident as Atlanta’s Alex Bentley drove baseline, Atkins racing directly to the spot necessary to cut Bentley off, mouth open, beads of sweat along her arms, a vision of exertion.

Yet there’s nothing frantic to her game, either. The Mystics trailed, 48-38, swung the ball around the perimeter, finding Atkins open. The rookie didn’t hesitate, draining a 3 with a quick release that ignited a Washington run. She did the same during Washington’s last gasp, cutting the Dream lead to five with another 3, elevating to the moment, understanding what her team needs.

She’s certainly made a fan of the most important Mystic, Elena Delle Donne, commenting on Atkins status as a beloved teammate everywhere she’s gone.

“She’s been so surprising, mentally,” Delle Donne said prior to Friday’s game. “Obviously, the physical side, she’s been unbelievable. But she’s got it going on up here, and it’s really impressive. I had heard the comparison when we drafted her, that a lot of people said she’s Tamika Catchings-like — really serious about getting better at her craft. And that’s her. Long road trips, long games when she’s played ton of minutes, and you still see her getting in the extra work. She’s a workhorse, and mentally she’s so far ahead of the game of any rookie I’ve ever seen.”

McGee-Stafford, too, is unsurprised by what Atkins has accomplished already. And she pointed out the joy in how both Atkins and Catchings approach other people as a parallel between the two players.

“She’s obviously more guarded, but just in terms of the way Tamika works, the impact that she leaves on people, regardless of just the basketball part,” McGee-Stafford said. “I always joke with Ariel, you know how you hear reputations about players, like ‘So-and-so is mean’? And she’s always like, “‘I’ve never had a problem, she’s cool with me”, and I’m like ‘Ariel, if someone doesn’t like you, it’s their problem.’ That’s just how Ariel is. She’s never gonna really rub you the wrong way.” It’s why, when the Longhorns gathered at Aston’s house on WNBA draft night, her college teammates cheered as if they themselves had been drafted when Atkins’ name was called.

Atkins finished with 17 points and eight rebounds Friday night in a Mystics loss. As the final seconds ticked down, Atkins battled for an offensive rebound among the trees, once, then again, sinking that final basket, playing to the buzzer, before turning away, clearly disappointed.

Still, the new Catchings is quite a tall order. Atkins’ promising rookie season was worth two win shares. Catchings, in her rookie year, was worth 9.2 Win Shares, en route to a career total mark of 93.6, easily the highest in WNBA history. That’s why comparisons are unfair.

Regardless of how Washington’s season turns out, or how close Atkins comes to reaching Catchings’ celebrated career, Thibault’s decision to bypass some more-celebrated college players — Aston pointed out that Atkins wasn’t given All-American honors, and the WNBA neglected to invite Atkins to the WNBA Draft — looks better with each passing game.

“For such a young age, being a true player — she just is a good pro already, at the age of 22 years old,” Thibault said. “That’s hard to do.”

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