By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The entry pass came to UVa’s Darion Atkins in the post, and he didn’t hesitate. With his back to the basket, the 6-8 sophomore dribbled once to his right, then quickly pivoted left and put up a right-handed jump hook over 6-10 Jared Berggren of Wisconsin.
The basketball dropped softly through the net with 6:20 left, silencing the crowd at the Badgers’ Kohl Center and extending the Cavaliers’ lead to seven in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game they went on to win 60-54 last week.
“He’s got some touch,” Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford said. “His shot is soft.”
With each game this season, that’s becoming more apparent. But Atkins acknowledged Tuesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena that as a freshman he probably wouldn’t have attempted the shot he hit over Berggren.
In eight games, Atkins already has more field-goal attempts (47) than he did in 27 games last season, when he took 43 shots.
“I didn’t feel like that was my role last year,” Atkins said. “I was just more of a hustle guy, just get on the glass and get rebounds and blocks.”
That also describes his role at Landon School in Bethesda, Md., where guard Joe McDonald, now a freshman at George Washington, was the focal point of the offense during Atkins’ career there. Atkins blocked a lot of shots and grabbed a lot of rebounds for the Bears, but his scoring averages were modest for an ACC prospect: 10.2 ppg as a junior, 15.2 as a senior.
“He’s just an unselfish kid,” said Williford, who led Virginia’s recruitment of Atkins.
“You see it out here. He’s got touch, he’s a great athlete, but he’s always looking to make the extra pass. He’s always looking to get a guy who’s more of a scorer the ball, and that’s what he did in high school, and that’s what he’s done here thus far.”
Atkins leads the Wahoos in field-goal percentage (55.3) and blocked shots (14), and he’s second in rebounds (5.3 per game). None of that qualifies as a surprise. His offensive output is another matter.
When the ‘Hoos had 6-8 forward Mike Scott, an All-ACC selection in 2011-12, they didn’t need Atkins to score. But Scott is now playing pro ball, and junior swingman Joe Harris (16.5 ppg) can’t carry the team alone.
Junior forward Akil Mitchell (12.6 ppg) has raised his offensive output dramatically this season. So has Atkins, who has started UVa’s past three games, all victories.
“This is definitely fun,” Atkins said. “I’ve never really contributed in this way, and it’s really exciting.”
As a freshman, he averaged 2.3 points. He’s scored in double figures three times this season — Atkins finished with a career-high 14 points against Wisconsin — and is third on the team with a 7.8 average.
“I felt like it was a big opportunity when Mike left,” Atkins said. “I knew that when he left that I was really, really, really going to put in work on my offensive game in the offseason, and then I did.”
The Cavaliers liked Atkins’ potential at the offensive end, but they were not necessarily counting on significant contributions from him this early in his college career. “It’s a great surprise,” Williford said.
Atkins scored seven points in UVa’s season-opening loss at George Mason. Three nights later, however, he went scoreless in Virginia’s win over Fairfield in an NIT Season Tip-Off game at JPJ. A meeting with head coach Tony Bennett followed.
“He didn’t want me to get discouraged, so we sat down and had a talk,” Atkins recalled Tuesday. “He said that he believed in me, and he knows that I can do more offensively, because I’d been working on it all summer.”
Williford said: “Coach instilled some confidence in him, and sometimes that’s all it takes. Coach said, `We think you can score for us in the post,’ and ever since that conversation he’s sort of taken off.”
A sizable test awaits Atkins on Wednesday night at JPJ. At 7 p.m., UVa (6-2) hosts Tennessee (4-2), whose post players include Jarnell Stokes, a 6-8, 270-pound sophomore who wears size-20 shoes.
“The only thing I’m really worried about is being physical,” Atkins said. “I think that’s the main challenge for everyone, especially me and whoever else is checking Jarnell Stokes. I feel like he’s going to be the most physical guy, and I’ve talked to plenty of people who’ve played him.”
Those people include Georgetown sophomore Mikael Hopkins, who’s one of Atkins’ close friends, and UVa teammate Anthony Gill, who played last season at South Carolina, an SEC rival of Tennessee.
“I’ve talked to A.G.,” Atkins said. “I just have to meet [Stokes’] physicality and be smart.
“I’m not trying to do too much or, go outside of my game. I’m ready to crash the boards, get a bunch of rebounds, and block shots. And if I can clean up the glass and get my points that way, then I’ll do that.”
Atkins has always relied on his quickness and jumping ability in the low post, and, at 230 pounds, he won’t be able to outmuscle Stokes. But Atkins’ body is changing. He’s added nearly 20 pounds since enrolling at UVa in June 2011, and strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis hopes to get him up to 240 by next season.
“He’ll get bigger, he’ll get stronger, he’ll gain more confidence,” Williford said. “The sky’s the limit with him now.”