- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2018

April 12, Capital One Arena: The Washington Capitals played their first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Though it turned out to be an overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, it was the beginning of the Capitals’ two-month postseason journey to hoist the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

April 12, Capital One Arena: Elsewhere in the bowels of the same building, Washington Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault pulled the trigger and selected Texas guard Ariel Atkins with the seventh pick in the WNBA Draft.

“Our goal was to find a wing player that could be a scorer and a defender,” Thibault said that night. “I think that her basketball IQ and energy level are off the charts, and I think that she proved over the course of her time at Texas that she is a very dynamic and efficient player.”

Considering how Atkins has taken control in her rookie season — earning a starting job and coming through in increasingly clutch moments throughout the WNBA playoffs — it may turn out that more than one Washington franchise took a step toward its first championship that fateful night.

Atkins pushed the Mystics to a Game 5 win over the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday, securing their spot in the WNBA Finals, which begin Friday night on the West Coast against the Seattle Storm. She led Washington in Game 5 with 20 points and added seven rebounds.

“My goodness, did Ariel Atkins step up for us,” Elena Delle Donne said after the game on ESPN’s telecast. “She’s not a rookie.”

That is high praise from one of the game’s pre-eminent stars, especially one who has experience playing the same position.

Delle Donne played the three for the Mystics in 2017, but moved inside to her more natural fit at the four this season when forward Emma Meesseman chose to take the WNBA season off to focus on world championships. Atkins was not a starter to begin the year, with Kristi Toliver and Natasha Cloud ahead of her at guard, but she has taken over the small forward spot.

Thibault found the perimeter defender he was looking for. Atkins averaged 1.3 steals per game in the regular season and is still grabbing a steal a game during the playoffs. She was named to the WNBA All-Defensive Team second team and is likely a lock for the All-Rookie Team.

Atkins also has averaged 15 points per game throughout the playoffs, the first rookie to do so while playing in at least six playoff games since Candace Parker in 2008.

Her outside shot makes her a threat anywhere on the floor — and her speed ensures she really can be found anywhere on the floor. She rattled off eight straight points in Game 4 of the Atlanta series; in Game 5, she sank a falling-away jumper over two Dream defenders.

It’s rare to find Atkins talking about herself, but her teammates clearly love her. Cloud wrote that Atkins is “extraordinarily special as a player and a person” and tweeted a picture of the other four Mystics starters giving Atkins a hand to stand up after she took a charge.

“When your rookie is dead tired from carrying y’all all game… least we could do is help her up,” Cloud wrote.

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