Washington Mystics General Manager and Coach Mike Thibault wasn’t looking for a player to change the makeup of his team heading into Thursday’s WNBA draft. Thanks to offseason moves made last year, Thibault already has a core to build around. He believed he needed only to fill a few gaps.
Thibault selected Texas guard Ariel Atkins with the No. 7 pick in the first round to fill one of them.
The Dallas native is a speedy, versatile 5-foot-11 shooting guard who can do what the Mystics need most — score. She led the Longhorns with 14.9 points per game and shot 53 percent from the field, including 42 percent from three, qualities that will be key while last year’s second-leading scorer, Emma Meesseman, sits out the 2018 season and point guard Tayler Hill completes her rehab from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
With their second-round pick, the Mystics fortified their post presence with Louisville’s Myisha Hines-Allen, a 6-2 forward who helped lead the Cardinals to the Final Four with averages of 14.0 points and 9.6 rebounds. The team selected 6-1 guard Rebecca Greenwell out of Duke with its third-round pick. She averaged 12.0 points for Duke last season.
South Carolina power forward A’ja Wilson went No. 1 overall, as expected, to the Las Vegas Aces, who relocated from San Antonio at the end of last season. The consensus national player of the year averaged 22.6 points and 11.8 rebounds under Coach Dawn Staley.
The Indiana Fever selected Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell, this year’s Dawn Staley Award winner for the nation’s best guard, with the No. 2 overall pick. Diamond DeShields, who spent two seasons at Tennessee before playing in Turkey this season, went to the Chicago Sky as the No. 3 pick.
Locally, George Mason’s Natalie Butler was selected in the third round by the Dallas Wings.
Atkins had been projected as the No. 10 pick or lower in most mock drafts; she said in a phone call Thursday from her home in Duncanville, Tex., that she was surprised to be selected so high.
Thibault stressed that there would be no pressure on Atkins to come in as a rookie and replace Meesseman. But as with the Belgian, it was Atkins’s skill on both ends of the court that made her stand out to the Mystics.
“The overall offensive, defensive speed, ability to pick up things and do them quickly I thought was really important,” Thibault said Thursday. “. . . Her length on defense is huge for us, and we thought she was one of maybe the best post passers in the draft. And when you have a player like Elena Delle Donne on the team, people around her have to be able to do multiple things.
“It was a hard call, but we felt like she answered all of the boxes we were trying to check at that position.”
Thibault added that he thought Atkins might be the fastest player in this year’s draft.
“He definitely liked that I was able to get up and down the floor quickly,” Atkins said, “but he wanted me to extend my range from the three-point line.”
Improving perimeter scoring will be a focus for Washington this year, especially since the team won’t have Hill, its third-leading scorer despite playing only 18 games before her injury, for at least a month to start the season. Washington shot the most three-pointers in the league last year but was third worst in three-point percentage, and Thibault has challenged Atkins to work on her long-distance shooting between now and training camp.
Atkins became Texas’s fifth first-round pick in program history. One of her close mentors is Longhorns associate head coach and WNBA legend Tina Thompson, whom Thibault knows from his time as an assistant coach with USA Basketball.
Thompson was emotional on ESPNU’s broadcast. “I kind of feel like I got drafted, too,” she said.
Thompson compared Atkins with WNBA legend Tamika Catchings, who attended the same high school as Atkins and whom Atkins calls her favorite player.
“Two of her assistant coaches I’ve coached before,” Thibault said, “they couldn’t have recommended her higher with the character stuff, the learning stuff, how quickly she picks things up, her overall dedication. One of Tina’s comments to me was . . . she has the same mentality that Tamika Catchings did throughout her career. She’s that kind of personality where you just aren’t going to get outworked, ever.”
Atkins leaned on Thompson during her senior year in Austin, both during the season and after when she was preparing to head to the pros. When she heard her name called Thursday, one piece of advice stuck out.
“She told me, ‘You have to be efficient, and you can’t waste movement in the WNBA,’ ” Atkins said. “. . . I’m just excited to see the next level.”
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