USA Wish Granted For Ariel Atkins
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Playing for USA Basketball grew from a dream into a goal for Ariel Atkins (Duncanville H.S./Duncanville, Texas) sometime during her sophomore year of high school, when she heard about open tryouts for the 2013 USA Basketball Women’s U16 National Team.
“When you are little, well not so little, probably when I was a sophomore, I heard USA Basketball was having open try outs,” Atkins said. “I was like, ‘Well, why don’t I go?’ I asked my mom, and she said, ‘You’re not going to Colorado.’ So, I was like, okay, I have to get invited. I had to find a way to get out there.”
Step one of Atkin’s plan was accomplished this past spring, when she earned an invitation to trials for the 2014 USA Basketball Women’s U18 National Team.
The invitation came on the heels of a senior season at Duncanville High School that had seen Atkins help lead her team to a 35-1 record and the Texas Class 5A state championship game, while averaging 17.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 4.8 steals per game. She was the 2014 Morgan Wooten Player of the Year and a WBCA and Parade Magazine All-American, to highlight just a few of the many postseason honors she collected.
The dream to play for her country came true on May 26, when out of 29 players, Atkins was one of 12 athletes selected to the USA U18 National Team.
“I got the opportunity, and I was really excited,” Atkins said of making the team. “I had to fight through the fatigue with the altitude and travel, but I am super excited to be here. Playing for USA Basketball means a lot to me.”
The opportunity to play on a USA Basketball team is not the only exciting experience Atkins is enjoying this summer. Already, she has begun school at the University of Texas and has started working out with the basketball team.
“I think participating in trials for USA Basketball did help me get a jump start on being ready for college,” Atkins said. “Being out here, you feel like you are more in shape because of the altitude. But then when I got to college, I realized I wasn’t in that great of a shape, because of all of the conditioning you have to do. But, it did help me get ready.”
While the focus for Atkins at the University of Texas largely is about all of the learning that comes with taking your game to the next level, her challenges with USA Basketball include playing under international rules, which are slightly different than the American game, and learning to play multiple guard positions.
“Basketball is basketball,” Atkins said when asked about FIBA rules. “That is kind of what you have to keep in perspective. I’ve been at college for about a month and a half, and then I came here. It’s similar. It’s basketball. You have to keep that in mind, because if not, I will freak myself out.”
Everything is hard and challenging, but you feel yourself growing every day.”
And Atkins says she can look back and say she has grown as a basketball player already over the past few weeks at Texas and this past week with USA Basketball
“I do think I have grown, especially mentally. You have to dig deep. Most of the drills that you do, you’ve done them before in some type of way. But as you get older, it is really mental. Because out here, I really don’t feel like I can breath half of the time, but you have to find a way to get through it.”
Atkins and her USA teammates are playing under the guidance of USA head coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley, as well as USA assistant coaches Kim Barnes Arico (University of Michigan) and Jeff Walz (University of Louisville).
“I love defense,” Atkins said. “I love to lock people down. The coaches have shown me different ways, footwork and little things. It’s been really neat. And then basically just being aggressive the whole time.
“What was really amazing was the boxing out drill. People focus on rebounding, but they don’t really break it down. And they broke down the rebounding technique step-by-step for us. And then the shell drill, when she (Staley) explains things, she explains things from the bottom. She doesn’t just throw it at you. She explains it piece by piece.”
Step-by-step instruction is one of the things you would expect a ‘student of the game,’ as Atkins describes herself, to appreciate.
“Tamika Catchings and Kevin Durant, who are my favorite players, watching them has taught me how to be humble in every aspect of the game,” Atkins said. “You can be that beast on the court that doesn’t like anybody when they are playing, but even if somebody falls on a deadball, help them up. Different things like that. And then Michael Jordan, I watch anything on him, because his mentality was crazy. He was basically like, ‘Nobody can stop me.’ You kind of have to have that mentality out here, or your won’t get very far.”
For Atkins, all the hard work she puts in is fueled by her love of the game, which is a passion she does not expect to fade.
“For me personally, why I love basketball, is because you can never truly master the game. There is so much to it, that you can always push yourself. Even when you retire, you will be like, ‘Oh, dang, I need to learn this move.’ You probably won’t even be playing any more, but you still will want to learn it. It is something that you always have to do. It never gets old, and it is never going to go out of style, in my opinion.”
Certainly motivation will not be a problem for Atkins this week, as the USA opens play in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship against Mexico on Aug. 6.
“I get really nervous before games, but it is not really pressure,” Atkins said. “You can’t put that on yourself, or you will go crazy. When I think of pressure, I think of other people’s expectations for you. If your expectation for yourself is high, you don’t have to worry about anybody else
Every game, no matter if it was when I was little, or if it is a game now, and before these games, I will probably go crazy; I will be so nervous.
Luckily, she will be surrounded by teammates she trusts.
“I think we get along very well,” Atkins said of the USA squad. “At first, we weren’t exactly shy with each other, but you could tell we weren’t totally comfortable. Now, we are all hanging out in each other’s rooms, and on the court, we can encourage each other. On a new team, it can be hard to communicate with each other, but we don’t’ have that problem. We are able to challenge and support each other.”
See the results for yourself as all of the USA’s games are available live online at fibaamericas.com.