Darion Atkins once showed off his wingspan by swimming to the bottom of the 9-foot deep end of his high school pool, making sure his feet touched the floor before reaching his hand straight up. Sure enough, his fingers peeked above the water.
“He was reaching over nine feet high,” said Andy Luther, Atkins’s basketball coach at Landon School in Bethesda. “It was pretty impressive.”
Atkins’s physical tools make it no surprise he has blocked 28 shots this season, his senior year at Virginia. His 6-foot-8 frame combined with a 7-2 wingspan allowed Atkins to average 7.3 blocks per game as a high school senior. But it took timing and patience for Atkins to match his career best for blocks in a college season with four regular season games left to play, the next of which is at Wake Forest on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“Guys try to get buckets, and I feel like I’m a defensive stopper,” Atkins said. “I’m natural at blocking shots.”
In high school, Atkins could block anything — he had five games with at least 10 blocks in his senior season alone.
But at Virginia under Coach Tony Bennett’s defensive system, Atkins learned to be more disciplined, not wanting to foul trying for a block or leave his team vulnerable to offensive rebounds because he went for a block and missed.
Transitioning from high school, when Atkins was bigger than most players, to college was a challenge initially. He said the biggest adjustment was learning to get a hand on the ball before the player even leaves the ground.
“It’s all about timing for me,” Atkins said. “I feel like if I could time it perfectly and anticipate it really well, then the rest of it is going to take care of itself because I have really long arms and I don’t really need to jump as high. That doesn’t really matter because if you can time it up really well, then you can always get the ball.”
Though the Cavaliers are known for stifling defense, with the third-lowest opponents’ scoring average in the shot-clock era (50.4 points per game), they don’t rely on flashy defensive plays like steals or blocks. Atkins, the team’s top shot blocker, isn’t in the ACC’s top 10, and as a team Virginia is seventh in the league in blocks.
Atkins had a season-high four blocks against Pittsburgh on Feb. 16. He had just one block in a 51-41 win against Florida State on Sunday, but it came against 7-1 forward Michael Ojo. A photo of the block shows a flat-footed Atkins reaching from behind Ojo to get his hand on the ball.
Atkins said a block feels as good as making a basket. And the experience of being a senior has helped him understand when it’s a good time to try for one.
“It’s kind of like taking a risk because sometimes you might get an early foul and have to come out,” Atkins said. “It’s all about picking and choosing.”
Bennett said Atkins’s presence might make some guards second-guess dribbling into the paint, and if there’s a defensive breakdown, then an Atkins block has sometimes remedied that.
“He’s good,” point guard London Perrantes said. “It’s good to have that sitting in that paint when you’re out there playing defense.”
Atkins doesn’t practice blocks, relying instead on instinct. With Virginia’s success founded on its defense, Atkins’s shot blocking is a bonus.
“That’s like making a play on offense, going and getting your own,” Bennett said. “He has that ability and that timing, and he’s always had that, to be an eraser-type guy at the end and come up with a big play.”