Tina Charles has become the face of the Washington Mystics this season, but quietly Ariel Atkins is blossoming into one of the team's top stars.
Atkins is posting career-highs in every offensive category. She is the second-leading scorer on a team led by a former MVP. Her confidence and aggressiveness with the basketball have been elevated to heights not previously seen in her career.
The fourth-year guard has consistently been the Mystics No. 2 option. Without Elena Delle Donne and several guards going through shooting droughts to start the season, it has been Atkins who has stepped up. Much of it, though, is hidden behind Charles pacing for 30 points in nearly every contest.
Atkins is averaging 18.3 points per game this year with four 20+ outings. She had five 20+ games in all of 2020. By all accounts, she is just getting started.
"The best two-guard in this league," Natasha Cloud said cutting off a reporter at the mention of Atkins. "She is the best two-guard in this league, period, on both ends of the floor. I don't want to hear any- there's not a debate. She's an All-Star. She is an All-Star, period."
That's not just a teammate backing up a teammate. Cloud's declaration is backed by the numbers. Atkins currently sits 11th in the WNBA's scoring race, just behind several MVPs. When looking at just the guard position, she ranks 6th-best.
When looking at those six guards, Atkins is fourth in field goal percentage (46.3%) and her astounding 3-point mark (45.0%) is the best of the bunch.
This isn't just an All-Star stat line, that's a starting All-Star's stat line.
What's also helping Atkins stand out is that she is only one of two of the top 11 scorers in the WNBA that is performing behind another talented scorer. Dallas' Marina Mabrey is the No. 2 option behind Arike Ogunbowale. Everyone else is essentially the go-to player.
Oh, and don't forget her defensive abilities too, averaging a steal and a block a game. After all, that's how she made her bread and butter when she entered the league, starting on a championship-caliber roster.
"We always knew she was a great defender so that's always been there," Shavonte Zellous said. "But I think her overall offensive game has surprised a lot of people, especially me because she developed in so many areas, and in order to be great in his league, you have to do that and I think she's taking the right shots and doing that and it's a great thing to watch."
Growing into this role has taken some time. In her first two seasons, she was the quiet young role player in the midst of some great veterans. Defense was her calling card and being efficient from behind the arc is exactly what Washington needed from their fifth starter.
The Mystics now need their former first-round draft pick to do more and she's delivering. In their high-scoring clash against the Aces earlier this year, Atkins set a new career-high of 29 points against a team many consider the favorites to win it all.
"Part of it is trying to have kind of an aggressive mentality as a scorer," head coach Mike Thibault said. "I think, to take yourself from being like a role player, scored 12-14 points a game to now, understanding that on a lot of nights you can score 20. To be aggressive, not to be selfish, but to seek out shots, know that the ball has to be in her hands a fair number of times for us to be effective."
"I think that there's just an innate understanding by her that she's now one of our go-to players. And then we've tried to run a few more things for her, involve her," Thibault added later.
Much of the burden has fallen on Atkins this season. With Sydney Wiese out with an ankle sprain, no one in the backcourt or wing position is shooting above a 40% clip. From the 3-point range, it's even worse, Cloud is second to Atkins at 26.5%.
But the years of Atkins playing alongside other stars and slowly developing her game readied her for this role. Each year it's progressed and been added to. The confidence that the team had in her as a young rookie is now being reciprocated by Atkins on the floor.
"I think this is a team where I have the opportunity to do [have confidence and be aggressive] and I need to do that," Atkins said. "I'm put in the position to have to do that and then again, like this team just gives you so much confidence. My coach has given me confidence, my teammates give me confidence. The other night I was open for a shot, I didn't realize and you got the whole bench yelling at me like 'shoot the ball.' So it was really good when you got your teammates and your coaches that believe in what you do. But even if it is off night, they're still taking you 10 times out of 10, and I think that's the beauty of what we have here, and we don't just have that confidence in that belief in me, we have everybody across the board."
And as a result, the Mystics have begun to focus some of their offense around the 24-year-old. The aggressive mentality and scoring prowess that is on display have the Mystics with a dangerous 1-2-3 punch when factoring in Myisha Hines-Allen.
But when Delle Donne and potentially Emma Meesseman come back this year, don't expect Atkins to fall back to a secondary role. Ariel Atkins is playing at an All-Star level and will no longer be regarded as 'the fifth starter' on a team full of stars.
"We're really giving her the keys to the team in the sense and she's taken it and she's doing a phenomenal job," Cloud said.