Atkins isn’t exactly the most boisterous voice in the locker room. When Della Donne, Kristi Toliver and Cloud were in the building, there wasn’t much a young player on a championship roster full of veterans needed to say. But what happens when all of those accomplished stars are gone, leaving an introspective 24-year-old with more leadership responsibility than ever on a suddenly inexperienced team?
“The game just asks things of you,” Atkins 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.”
The abbreviated 2020 season is all about growth for the Mystics with the absences of Delle Donne, Cloud, Tina Charles and LaToya Sanders. Toliver signed a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Sparks during the offseason. That left Atkins and Aerial Powers as the lone returning starters on a team that would need new leaders to step up on and off the court. Cloud was the previous players’ rep, so Atkins would take over that role, but something else was happening in the country. Cloud decided to opt out to focus on social justice causes in the wake of George Floyd being killed while in the custody of police in Minneapolis. The WNBA always has been heavily involved in social justice causes, and Atkins wanted to do her part. The league created a Social Justice Council that meets before addressing representatives from each team. Atkins snatched that role also as she increased her role as an activist.
“I feel obligated because I do have a platform,” Atkins 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.
“I want you to see what happened to this human being. Because we’re freaking humans, man. Like, you don’t just get to throw us around and act like we don’t matter."
Atkins has been all in since the season started. She peppers her interview responses with reminders that the season is dedicated to Breonna Taylor, the “Say Her Name” campaign and the fight against systemic racism. Before each game she posts a picture and caption on social media detailing a woman unjustly killed by police. She was recently attacked by commenters who confused her for the Chicago Black Lives Matter activist also named Ariel Atkins.
This 2020 season is turning out to be a breakout for Atkins both off and on the court. Her 14.3 points (No. 15 in the league) and 46 percent three-point shooting (No. 8) are career highs. Additionally, she seems to have found her voice and has actively taken a role in assisting newly signed rookie Sug Sutton.
None of this is a surprise to Hall of Famer Tina Thompson, who has followed Atkins’s career since high school.
“I think it’s more just an introduction versus the evolution [of Atkins] because this is always who she’s been,” Thompson said. “It’s just that when you come into the professional ranks, like there is such a thing as veteranship and people that have done it before. And it’s not likely that a rookie steps right into leadership, but it’s something that she’s always had.
“She is not a person that comes into the room and not only do you see her, you hear her. 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.”
Thompson was an assistant coach at the University of Texas when Atkins was a player and now describes herself as a mentor/coach/big sister. The current Virginia head coach nicknamed Atkins “Money” when the two were at Texas, a nod to her dependability. The moniker holds a special place for Thompson. The only other people she has dubbed “Money” are future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi and the already-inducted Janeth Arcain. This is from a woman who won four WNBA championships and two Olympic gold medals and was teammates with Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and other all-time greats.
“It’s their attitude and their approach,” Thompson said. “There’s this certain thing that they have that is recognizable, and you don’t have to talk about it. It’s a look. It’s a presence.
“It's just that thing, I never, ever, ever, ever had to worry about whether they were going to show up or not. And those are the type of people that I always want to go to battle with.”
It’s those future battles that Coach Mike Thibault is concerned with and why he has pushed Atkins to expand her game by attacking the rim off the dribble more. This is a roster that just broke a seven-game losing streak, matching the longest of Thibault’s time in Washington. He wants to see development so the team is truly ready to chase titles when Delle Donne, Sanders and Cloud return.
Plus, Atkins has yet to hit her prime and has the chance to grow into the team’s top offensive option down the road. She’s already a knockdown shooter and staunch defender, but improved ballhandling, drives to the basket and passing will make life even more difficult for defenders.
Cloud and Delle Donne knew exactly what they were doing when they approached Atkins about taking on more responsibility. Cloud is quick to point out that she helped lead the team to the Finals as a rookie starter, helped win the title in her second year and called her one of the best third-year guards in the league.
There’s simply more expected from the woman the team calls “Little A,” both now and in the future. Both on and off the court.
“Not enough respect is put on her name,” Cloud said. “Elena and I asked her to be a player rep because she is the blueprint of what and who a leader should be. She has worked her (expletive) off, majority of the time being when no one is watching.”
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