Ariel Atkins rises to the top
When Ariel Atkins was in the seventh grade, her coach at Reed Middle School (Duncanville, Texas) told her she'd never be good enough to make the high school varsity team.
A little more than four years later, Atkins is the state's reigning Gatorade Player of the Year and has a scholarship to the University of Texas. She's a two-time state champ with designs on a third title.
After not being ranked among the top 60 prospects in her class a year ago, Atkins is now the No. 4 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2014 class.
Despite all the honors, she still remembers the sting of her former coach's words.
"I was a little upset -- it made me sad," Atkins said. "I had gone to all [Duncanville High School's basketball] camps. Making the varsity was what I'd been looking forward to for a long time.
"When she said that, I was like, 'Really?' I just tuned her out after that."
Atkins said she doesn't know why her coach voiced that sentiment.
"I'm not sure if she said it out of frustration," said Atkins, now a 5-11 shooting guard. "Sometimes coaches, working with young kids, can get frustrated."
Atkins said the coach never apologized or retracted her statement.
And even though the two haven't spoken in years, the coach's words live on in Atkins' psyche.
"Every now and then," Atkins said, "I still think about it -- even now."
Working on shortcomings
One coach who has nothing but praise for Atkins is Duncanville's Cathy Self-Morgan.
Atkins, who is left-handed, made Self-Morgan's varsity roster as a freshman, proving her old coach wrong rather quickly.
Self-Morgan said Atkins has been compared to two prominent lefties: former Duke star Alana Beard, who now plays for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, and former UConn guard Tiffany Hayes, now with the Atlanta Dream.
"Ariel is the hardest-working child I've had in 34 years of coaching," said Self-Morgan, whose team, led by Atkins, has won 70 games in a row. "She rarely takes a day off, which makes me mad.
"I'm always telling her she needs to give her body rest. But she just says, "I got a good night's sleep. I'm rested.' "
Atkins said she finally heeded her coach's advice and took a week off in early August. But that was after she played the entire AAU season with partially torn ligaments in her left thumb.
"I hurt [my thumb] in April, when I fell on it," said Atkins, who rates the pain level at a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. "The trainer told me I had a collateral 'something.' I just taped it up.
"It hurts the most when I deflect a pass or someone runs into me. [When that happens,] I just grab my shorts really tight. I don't want my opponents to know. … Show no weakness."
Self-Morgan said weaknesses are hard to find in her star player's game. Atkins averaged 16.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 5.7 steals last season, leading Duncanville to a 42-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking.
Atkins also put up some phenomenal shooting numbers: 65.8 percent from the floor; 52 percent on 3-pointers and 79.5 from the free throw line.
The thumb injury may have actually helped eliminate one of Atkins' weaknesses from last season. Forced to use her right hand more over the summer, Atkins now is much more comfortable with the ball on either side.
Another shortcoming was Atkins' tendency to get into foul trouble. She can only remember fouling out once or twice, but there were "a lot" of games in which her minutes were limited due to foul trouble.
"She has to pull back on her intensity sometimes," Self-Morgan said of Atkins, who led the team with 89 fouls. "She's overaggressive at times.
Atkins said one of her goals is have a better sense of what the referees are calling each game and adjust her game accordingly.
When it comes to goals, Atkins means what she says.
Atkins writes her short- and long-term goals on a sheet of paper and posts it over her bed to serve as a constant reminder.
As a freshman, she made one of her long-term goals to win three state titles, and she is now just a few months away from possibly putting a check mark next to that objective.
Atkins won't stop there, though. She continues to set high goals such as making straight A's -- she had a 3.51 GPA last year and was foiled by two B's in U.S. history.
On the court, she wants to shoot 80 percent from the floor for the season. When told that was ridiculous, Atkins laughed and said: "I know. But I wish I could shoot 100."
Whether it's her goals or her journal, writing stuff down has become a way of life for Atkins, who used one of her sheets of paper to figure out where to attend college.
She did an old-fashioned "pros and cons" list for each school she was interested in, which included Texas, Baylor, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
But when the "cons" side of the ledger for Texas had zero entries, she knew she had her answer.
"The campus is about three hours away," Atkins said. "It's far enough for me to be independent, but it's close enough that if I need my family, they can come."
Life off the court
Atkins is the first big-time athlete to emerge from her family, although her younger brother, B.J., 14, is an aspiring boxer.
Her older sister, Jessica, is a student at Texas Tech, their mother, LaShonda, is a hairstylist, and their father, Byron, owns the Wings and Rings restaurant near Duncanville High.
All of them, naturally, take great pride in the success of Atkins, who is mild mannered in her regular life but -- as she puts it -- "loud and intense" on the court.
Away from basketball, Atkins is committed to her church, Concord Missionary Baptist. Self-Morgan has even sent some of her "troubled" girls to church with Atkins.
"I feel my sole purpose in life is to help people," Atkins said. "I feel that is the purpose for all of us."
Tasia Foman, Duncanville's senior point guard who also has committed to Texas, has known Atkins since they were 7 years old.
"Off the court, she is kind of a plain Jane. On the court, she's in her zone," Foman said. "Nothing can break her. I can be calling her name, and she won't answer until I call her five times.
"She just has that fire in her eyes."