Her name is alliterative and her game is adept. The league may describe her as quiet, fastidious, and serious, but they may also describe her as fearless, a leader, and the quintessential pro. Ariel Atkins may be the best player you’ve never heard of. Her game isn’t flashy, but her assiduous commitment to her craft makes her one of the best players in the WNBA.
The 26-year-old guard for the Washington Mystics has been on the rise for some time. The fifth-year vet lives in the shadow of Elena Delle Donne’s greatness and in the silence of point guard Natasha Cloud’s resounding leadership. And it’s in those shadows and silences that the 5’8” Atkins has thrived. Last season, Atkins finished 18th in the league in scoring and eighth in minutes, according to Basketball Reference. She also finished sixth in defensive win shares while being nominated to the All-Defensive Team last year, an honor she has earned each year she’s been in the league.
This is a player so easily overlooked yet too deadly to be forgotten. Atkins scored 0.987 points per possession (PPP) last season, which ranked in the 83rd percentile in the league. What makes her so treacherous is that even though she’s a lefty, meaning defenders move to their dominant right in guarding her, she’ll still beat you.
Sure, you can try to slow her down in transition—unlikely. She torched her opponents on the fast break last season to the tune of 1.145 PPP, within the 75th percentile. Even if you manage to slow her in transition, her half-court game is fire. On all possessions in the half-court, Atkins scored in the 82nd percentile with 0.967 PPP. She has one of the best midrange games in the league. And don’t think man defense will slow her down; Atkins scored 0.979 PPP against man defense last season, within the 83rd percentile. What if you tried to press her? In the few possessions she saw against a press last season, she rated out as “excellent.” Long story short, more often than not, you’re going to fail at stopping Atkins.
What hope does the league have?
Force Her Right, Especially in the PnR
The graphics above—especially the first one—should profile the obvious: Atkins is a lefty who loves to go to her strong side. Common sense would say force Atkins to drive to the right (a task far easier said than done). Don’t just shut down her strong hand; force her right coming off screens as well. Last season, she was merely “average”—41st percentile on 0.695 PPP—as a pick-and-roll ball handler, and she scored only 0.391 PPP going to the right in the pick-and-roll. It isn’t often that a defender can dictate the terms with Atkins, but if there’s a set where your lengthy defender can make Atkins uncomfortable, it’s here. Get Atkins to shoot from the right side, even corner threes will do, and live to fight another day.
ISO Her and Force Late Decisions
Atkins has thrived in her career because of the aforementioned savvy vets who work cohesively with and around her. When you can get Atkins to operate on an island, you stand a better chance. On 22 isolated possessions last season (an admittedly small sample size), Atkins scored 0.727 PPP, below average and in the 25th percentile. It may not be a defining theme, but take what you can get when guarding Atkins. Additionally, Atkins only scored 0.486 PPP on 35 possessions in the last four seconds of the shot clock, rated in the 18th percentile. Again, this is a small sample size, but there is potential for bigger gains here. Force Atkins to work in isolation late into the shot clock, and take your chances.
I’m still bewildered at the lack of zone defense seen in the WNBA. In the 17 possessions last season where Atkins saw a zone defense, she scored 0.647 PPP, a “below average” distinction in the 28th percentile. A defense would be wise to work the half-court and corner traps. Alternatively, simply body her with a physical big and her primary defender. Using more zone schemes may just be the key.
Box Her Out
Last season, Atkins was in the 98th percentile on putbacks. Her athleticism and strength make her a tough opponent. But this is all about slowing her down, and any level of physicality you can introduce—in addition to keeping her off the offensive glass—sounds like a victory to me.
Get Her To Shoot in the Low Block (Not at the Rim)
Other than from Caitlin Clark distance, there aren’t too many places on the court where Atkins can’t score from. The one interesting area is in the low block, four to seven feet or so away from the rim. This is a surprisingly weak area for Atkins, and if you can cut off her dribble penetration enough to force these shots, you stand a far greater chance against her.
In watching Atkins play, we see a rising superstar in the league. She lets her game speak for her, and her game does plenty of that. As is always the case in these exercises, we’re simply looking for the slimmest of advantages. But sometimes when facing a competitor as fierce as Atkins is, the greater the challenge, the higher the rise.
All stats as of 4/19. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of Synergy Sports.