The Washington Mystics surprised many on April 12, 2018 when they announced that Texas guard Ariel Atkins was the seventh pick in the WNBA Draft. Though the decision to draft a wing wasn’t a surprise, selecting Atkins was to many who follow women’s basketball. After all, Atkins wasn’t invited to the draft. And two invitees, namely Mississippi State guard Victoria Vivians and Connecticut guard Kia Nurse were available when it was the Mystics’ turn to pick.
But to Mystics General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault, there was no doubt in his mind that Atkins was the best fit for the Mystics’ system.
“I didn’t know that she was a surprise to most of the people in the league,” Thibault said to media in Capital One Arena after selecting Atkins. “I think it was just to the outside world. Originally we thought she was going to be invited to the draft.”
Thibault went on to say that Atkins was one of the most efficient wing players in the draft as a shooter, where her effective shooting (60.2 percent in 2017-18) and true shooting (63.4 percent in 2017-18) were in the Top five percentile of the draft class. Atkins averaged 14.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.2 assists for the Longhorns in the 2017-18 season.
The Mystics also liked Atkins’ athleticism and length, since they were looking for a shooting guard/small forward who could play that position long term.
Thibault concluded that Atkins ”answered all the boxes that we were trying to check at that position. I know there are some other good, more big name players on the draft board. But I’ve never made draft picks based on what other people think you should do. It should be what you think fits your own team.”
Though she wasn’t invited to New York, Atkins was happy to be at her home in Texas where she watched the draft on television with her family and friends. When asked about her reaction to getting drafted in the first round, Atkins said “my reaction was priceless, so hopefully they caught it on video.”
In the phone interview with Atkins, she stated that Longhorns Associate Head Coach Tina Thompson is one person she reaches out to for advice on the WNBA. Thompson, a long-time WNBA player and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer told Atkins that “you have to be efficient, you can’t waste movement.” Efficiency was also one of the major things that Thibault and the Mystics were specifically looking for with their first round draft pick.
While doing his research on draft prospects, Thibault reached out extensively to Thompson and Jamie Carey, another Longhorns assistant coach. Thompson played for Thibault on the 2008 Team USA Olympic team, where he was an assistant. Carey played for Thibault as a member of the Connecticut Sun from 2005-08. Their recommendations to him regarding her character played a considerable part in his decision. “Tina said [Atkins] has the same mentality that Tamika Catchings did throughout her career.”
Coincidentally, Atkins shares a connection with the recently retired WNBA star because they went to the same high school. According to a USA Basketball release in 2014, Catchings is Atkins’ favorite WNBA player.
Between now and Mystics training camp which starts on April 30, Atkins said that Thibault “wanted me to extend my range on the three point line.” Thibault also stressed that though Atkins was efficient from the college three point line, adjusting to the WNBA three point line is more challenging. Three point shooting is also something he stressed to Mystics players who stayed in the United States during the winter.
The Mystics didn’t wow the public with their first round draft pick and even Thibault acknowledged that. But if a player already scores efficiently, has great length to defend multiple positions, has the mentality of a future Hall of Famer like Catchings, and is held in high regard by another Hall of Famer, then drafting Atkins may not be a reach at all.
It’s easy to declare draft “winners” and “losers” right after the picks are made. But the best way to evaluate these classes is to see how the players pan out over the course of their career. If Atkins can hit the ground running and doesn’t waver on her work ethic, then there will be no doubt that the Mystics made the right call when the historians look at the 2018 Draft Class years from now.