Atkins returned to Team USA with an increased role originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
WASHINGTON — Playing for Team USA and representing your country is an honor only a few athletes get to experience throughout their competitive careers. That is partly why Ariel Atkins holds her roster spot with such reverence and couldn’t even put it into words when she first made the team for the Olympics in 2021.
But this time when she made the team, Atkins wasn’t the rookie jumping on board to play with esteemed Team USA. This time, Atkins knew the ropes and was one of the players the United States relied upon in FIBA World Cup Qualification the second week of February.
She also knew the ropes because the tournament was hosted in her home WNBA venue, the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C.
As Team USA qualified for their 16th straight World Cup, Atkins’ role was completely different than her first time around on the national team.
“The first thing we said to her when we walked into the gym is ‘you’re a vet now. You’re a vet,’ and she looked and she’s like, ‘okay, I can do that,’ Team USA head coach Cheryl Reeve said during the tournament. “And what I’ve seen from her is she’s got a maturity now, she’s played on a very good team, very well-coached team. It shows when she plays and we’ve just really count(ed) on her and we put her in a key role defensively tonight.”
Where Atkins was shuffled down to one of the last reserves in the Tokyo Olympics, she was one of the four holdovers to participate in this qualifying tournament. That meant far more playing time than the six minutes she averaged in Japan.
Atkins was named a starter against both Belgium and Puerto Rico for the D.C. contests. And while this wasn’t her first rodeo with Team USA, a lot was still different.
“It’s a lot of different people. There’s not one person on that roster that I played with during the W’s season, so is definitely different,” Atkins said who played with then-teammate Tina Charles in Tokyo. “It’s a little crazy. Definitely, I think the biggest difference that I noticed was I’m able to take in more information because I’ve been here before so being able to kind of catch on quicker has been super helpful. But I got to use my voice more. I mean, since I have been here before.”
Her role was similar to that on the hometown Washington Mystics; an off-ball scorer that is stout on the defensive end. As a starter, she posted 10.5 ppg with eight-for-14 shooting from the field in two games for Team USA. She also added three steals on the American squad that dominated play on the defensive end.
Like she did in Washington, people have taken notice of the young guard when she was given the opportunity. Her basketball intellect is greater than her age, 25, and plays her role to the team’s needs.
“She’s just trustworthy. It’s probably one of the greatest things you can say about a player,” Reeve said. “Overall that’s a player that I trust. I put her in spots to make passes. I put her in spots to make shots, put her in spots defensively. So Mike (Thibault)’s very fortunate he made a hell of a pick when he drafted Ariel Atkins.”
This made two years in a row that Atkins has represented her country. She’ll likely be chosen again for the team when the FIBA World Cup is held in Australia later this year. Her team will be looking for their fourth straight World Cup title and Atkin’s first.
Based on how she has performed thus far, there are certainly many more national team call-ups on the horizon.
“Yeah for sure, (it) definitely (has settled in),” Atkins said. “I think with that comes great responsibility. So all the excitement is like yeah, you’re thankful for it, but you know it’s a big responsibility.”
This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.