Ariel Atkins was on her way to Nordstrom to make a return when she got the phone call from Team USA director Carol Callan informing her of the news that the Washington Mystics guard was going to Tokyo.
She was shocked and didn’t have much to say. All she could do, Atkins said, was take some deep breaths.
But that surprise turned into an outpouring of support as Atkins will represent her country next month when Team USA goes for its eighth straight gold medal in Olympic women’s basketball. On Monday, Atkins and center Tina Charles were the two Mystics selected to the 12-woman roster.
Atkins and Charles joins Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jewell Loyd, Chelsea Gray, Napheesa Collier, Breanna Stewart, Sylvia Fowles, A’Ja Wilson and Brittney Griner on the team.
The women’s basketball competition for the Tokyo Games are scheduled to begin July 26 and last until Aug. 8. As to not overlap with the Olympics, the WNBA will take that period off — with the Mystics, for instance, not scheduled for any game between July 10 and Aug. 15.
“I looked up to so many of these players for so long,” Atkins said. “I’ve had posters in my room for however long I can remember and now they’re my teammates. It’s an unreal moment and it’s something I’ll never take for granted.”
“Nah,” Atkins said with a smile. “I can’t tell that. Maybe once they all retire.”
Atkins may not be willing to give away that information — she is just in her fourth year and they are now normally her competitors, after all — but there’s plenty of experience on the roster. Bird and Taurasi, for instance, are both going for their fifth gold medal, which would tie Teresa Edwards for the record among Team USA’s women’s players.
Team USA last failed to win gold in 1992 when the women’s team earned bronze in Barcelona. But Atkins, 24, is also one of six newcomers to the roster under a new head coach in Dawn Staley.
Staley, a Virginia native and current coach at South Carolina, takes over for UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who stepped down after winning gold in Rio in 2016. Staley, who has also won three gold medals as a player, was previously an assistant under Auriemma for Team USA.
Of the players not named to the roster, the most notable was also another Mystics star in Elena Della Donne.
Delle Donne, 31, represented her country in 2016, but has not suited up in a WNBA game since October 2019. She is currently rehabbing from a back injury and has yet to make an appearance this season. Coach Mike Thibault said Delle Donne is progressing, though is still limited to individual work.
Still, Thibault was happy for Atkins and Charles. Atkins, the seventh overall pick in 2018, is averaging a career-high 19 points per game this season to go with 3 rebounds and 2.7 assists. She is the Mystics’ second-leading scorer — behind only Charles, who leads with 24 points per game.
After opting out of the 2020 campaign because of the pandemic, Charles has been a force in her return to the Mystics and leads the league in scoring. The seven-time All-Star and 2012 MVP is nearly averaging a double-double with nine rebounds per contest.
This is Charles’ third selection to Team USA, though the 32-year-old said the nomination isn’t any less rewarding.
“In 1996, I was able to watch that gold medal game, I remember it vividly,” Charles said. “I remember my eyes being wide open and sitting down and watching that game and just thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I’m starting to love basketball and seeing women who look like me on this big stage, I aspire to be there.’”
Charles said she was glad Atkins got more of the attention for making the roster. Without Delle Donne, Atkins has been a crucial part of the Mystics’ success. Beyond her sharpshooting — she shoots 45.2% from beyond the arc — Atkins is an excellent defender who has already earned All-Defensive Team honors over each of her last three years.
Atkins said her phone was still “kind of going crazy” over the news.
“It’s like your birthday,” she said. “Everybody is just hitting you up.”