The Washington Mystics are finally having a good week. After over a month of battling injuries and suffering hard-fought losses, the team saw Shakira Austin return from a scary hip injury, got a crucial victory over the Chicago Sky to solidify their place in the playoffs, and received positive news on the injury front. Head Coach Eric Thibault revealed on Wednesday that Ariel Atkins and Elena Delle Donne were full participants in practice and will travel to Indiana for Friday’s game.
The good news also extends to the Mystics’ future. The team announced that Atkins agreed to a multi-year extension on Tuesday. Howard Megdal of the Next reported the terms of the agreement: 2 years, $400k, $200k in each season. In spite of the torrid history of star extensions in D.C. basketball lore (*stares wistfully in Bradley Beal’s direction*), this deal feels as good and low-risk as they come.
Atkins extension is a no-brainer
For the Mystics, this is somewhat of an easy decision. Atkins went from a “reach” in the 2018 draft to one of the WNBA’s elite guards just a few years later. She played a crucial role in the Mystics’ 2019 championship run and has earned All-Defensive honors in each of her first five seasons, including her inaugural First Team appearance last season. While her offensive statistics have fluctuated from year to year, she has added something new to her game and taken more ownership on offense every season.
Atkins is not just the type of player to build a franchise around but also the type of person to hitch your wagon to. Everyone in the organization has praised her professionalism since she arrived six years ago. Borrowing a phrase from Gregg Popovich, Thibault explained that Atkins “has gotten over herself.”
“Ariel is everything we want to be about. She says what she does and does what she says ... she sees herself very clearly,” explained the first-year head coach. “We need to do right by her in building the franchise around her.”
The extension means that Atkins will not hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent this winter. The Mystics could have offered Atkins the supermax of $241,984 in an extension or contract offer in free agency while other teams could have offered $208,219 in free agency.
While a supermax offer was unlikely due to the Mystics' cap situation (more on that below), she almost certainly would have received a max contract offer from another team in free agency. Atkins gave up the opportunity for the extra $9k to get security in a place where she is valued, mirroring the decision she made in signing an extension in 2021 after her rookie contract expired.
“I’m a pretty simple person when it comes to making decisions. I like to make the decision on my own,” explained Atkins when I asked her why she hasn’t explored free agency in her career. “I feel like the best situation for me was to stay in DC. This organization does a great job of allocating their resources to their players in a multitude of ways ... I don’t believe what I’m supposed to do here is [done] yet.”
(You should listen to Atkins speak about her decision for yourself. It’s hard to find people who are as smart, direct, and honest as her in basketball or really any walk of life. She’s just a great role model in my opinion.)
Kicking off a crucial offseason
Atkins’s extension gives the Mystics a headstart on what could be a pivotal offseason for the franchise. Stars Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud will both hit the free agency market after this year along with much of the roster. In fact, Brittney Sykes, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, and Myisha Hines-Allen are the only veterans under contract for 2024. Shakira Austin and Queen Egbo still have two years remaining on their rookie contracts, including a team option for 2025.
Locking in Atkins clears up the picture for Washington. They can enter the offseason focused on EDD, Cloud, and roster improvements. Thibault mentioned the possibility of using the core designation to prevent the two stars from leaving for nothing. Presumably, the core would only come into play for EDD due to the massive financial commitment. Both players are ingrained into the fabric of the Mystics and seeing them leave would be truly stunning.
However, the franchise also needs to assess its championship chances and window. Delle Donne’s injury history and Cloud’s struggles to find her shooting stroke should give the organization some pause in contract negotiations. Paying EDD the supermax of $241k and matching Cloud’s 2023 salary of $190k would effectively take away any cap flexibility from DC. Walker-Kimbrough’s unprotected contract would have to be waived and it’d be very difficult to sign Tianna Hawkins (or Kristi Toliver) to even minimum contracts without trading Hines-Allen’s inflated deal.
With so much time before decisions are actually made in February, there is no need for the Mystics (or me!) to figure it out now. Perhaps the team gets healthy in the upcoming weeks and makes a deep playoff run proving their championship upside. Regardless of what happens this year, Atkins and Austin are the future of the franchise. Locking in Atkins shows that the franchise is preparing for that eventuality.