Waiting for her name to be called on the night of the WNBA draft back in April, Ariel Atkins felt her phone buzz. Her hometown team, the Dallas Wings, had just passed on her with the sixth pick, disappointing her mother, when Atkins looked at the text message from Tina Thompson, who was her college coach at Texas.
“Stay patient,” the message read. “You got this.”
Then, with the very next selection, the Washington Mystics picked Atkins seventh overall.
“I was like, ‘What?’ ” Atkins said. “Coach [Mike Thibault] didn’t even call me before. He just let it happen and then called me after. I was not expecting that at all. It was insane. It was one of those moments where hard praying comes through because somebody is believing in you and knows what you are capable of. They see what kind of impact you can have on the program and on the court.”
Atkins figured she could have an impact defensively, but Thibault projected that she wouldn’t make an immediate impact at all. Her rookie season would be spent learning the system, not being a “savior” or a “high-volume player.”
Seventeen games into her season, Atkins has exceeded everyone’s expectations. The guard has made 12 starts and is averaging 11.1 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
“She’s pretty good,” Thibault said. “She’s a quick study; she picks up things quickly. Obviously shoots the ball pretty well, but I think her defense is continuing to get better. And as she learned the different players in the league, that will help her, too. I mean, some of these players she probably never heard of until she got here. She’s learned on the fly pretty well.”
Atkins knows she can put up big numbers but, as Thibault said, she wants to be known for her defense. For her, getting a pivotal stop provides a bigger sense of accomplishment than hitting an important shot.
Defense “can create plays for the team,” she said. “I think defense is taken for granted a lot of the time. You hear it all the time, but defense creates offense. If you can lock somebody down, get a stop, it creates a different dynamic for your team. Being that person for your team, who can come in and bring some energy and just give a little help, get a small steal here or there — it may be only one or two per game, but it can be a game-changer.”
Atkins said her teammates have helped during her quick adjustment — teaching her plays, walking her through areas she doesn’t understand and aiding her on the details of the game.
“It’s hard,” said Myisha Hines-Allen, a fellow rookie out of Louisville. “In college, you play four years under one coach, and then you come to the league and you’re back to being a freshman: lost, don’t really know what’s going on. You’re just trying to keep up.”
The hardest adjustment Atkins has had to make, she said, has been mental.
“It’s about knowing when you can or can’t go for that steal. Maybe you can get the rebound but, if I go towards the basket, I might get beat backdoor — a lot of those really small mental things that really make the difference,” Atkins said. “I would definitely say that I could make better decisions. Kind of have more of a point guard’s mentality when I get the ball at the top of the key. I know I can score, but I want to be able to see the court. It’s that mental aspect of the game.”
Such adjustments may require the patience that her former coach preached on draft night but, as Atkins has shown, sometimes players arrive ahead of schedule.