Sept. 3, 2014
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Akil Mitchell averaged 25.7 minutes per game for the UVa men’s basketball team as a senior in 2013-14.
Darion Atkins wants to take a healthy percentage of those minutes this season.
“All of them,” Atkins said, smiling, in the players’ lounge at John Paul Jones Arena.
On a team stocked with veteran big men, the 6-8 Atkins played about 10 minutes per game and averaged 3.0 points and 2.2 rebounds last season. For his role to increase significantly this season, assistant coach Jason Williford said, Atkins needs to follow a simple directive on the court.
“Be a clone of Akil,” said Williford, who works closely with the team’s post players.
“If Darion can do that, he’ll play a ton,” said Williford, a former UVa forward. “He’s gotta be locked in mentally every defensive possession. He’s got to be continuous, be able to guard on the perimeter, guard in the post, rebound, slide his feet on ball screens, know what we’re doing defensively. Be very disciplined. If he can do that, he’s going to be very good for us this year.”
Atkins, a graduate of Landon School in Bethesda, Md., is the only senior among the scholarship players on the Cavaliers’ roster. (Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon are fourth-years academically, but each has two seasons of athletic eligibility left.)
Preseason workouts are under way at JPJ. Does Atkins, who turns 22 this month, feel old as he enters his final college season?
“Man, do I,” he said. “These last three years have gone by pretty fast, right? It’s been a journey, for sure.”
When he arrived at the University in June 2011, Atkins weighed 211 pounds. He’s now a chiseled 240 and better able to battle for position in the post. He has also changed jersey numbers for his final college season, switching from 32 to 5.
Atkins’ quickness and athleticism remain his primary assets, but he’s expanded his offensive repertoire, which at Landon consisted mostly of stickbacks and dunks.
He’s not as polished offensively as the 6-8 Gill or 6-11 junior Mike Tobey, but Atkins’ “skill set looks a little better than what Akil had,” Williford said. “Akil could be crude at times, more of a garbage guy, finisher. But Atkins has got a nice hook going either way.”
Atkins said: “I feel like my offensive game has jumped [forward]. Defensively, I’m still the same player. Still can rebound. Still can box out, do all that stuff. I just feel as a player in general I’ve gotten better, and I hope to be able to showcase that this year.”
Mitchell, who averaged 6.8 points and a team-high 7.0 rebounds last season, was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team. He’s headed to training camp with the Houston Rockets as a free agent late this month.
“Akil’s greatest asset was he thought he was very good,” Williford said. “If Darion can have that mentality — `I’m really good, no matter who we’re playing against, and I’m going to defend and slide my feet and just play with a motor’ — then he’s going to help this team, and we’re going to be pretty good.”
As a freshman, Atkins joined a UVa team that had finished 16-15 the previous season. In 2011-12, the Wahoos won 22 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
The `Hoos won 23 games in 2012-13, when they reached the NIT quarterfinals, and 30 games last season, when they were crowned ACC champions and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.
“To be able to be on those teams and experience that, it’s a blessing,” said Atkins, a sociology major who’s on track to graduate in May. “We’re building something special.”
Still, he wishes he had played a larger role in the program’s rise to national prominence.
“Personally, I feel like I don’t really have anything to show for my career individually,” Atkins said. “Team-wise, obviously, we’ve progressed as a team. But individually I’m kind of disappointed. I just feel like I haven’t really done much, I haven’t really contributed a lot over the years. People here say that I have done stuff, I’ve shown glimpses and whatever, but that’s not enough to me.”
He averaged 10.2 minutes as a freshman, when he appeared in 27 games, all off the bench. He averaged 15.7 minutes as a sophomore, but a stress reaction in his lower right leg sidelined him for eight games and noticeably hindered him in many others.
Atkins started 12 games in 2012-13 before the injury sidelined him in mid-January that season. At full strength, he totaled 14 points and seven rebounds in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge victory at Wisconsin and pulled down a career-best 11 boards three days later in a win over Green Bay.
“That what-if game kills me,” Atkins said. “Who knows what would have happened if I didn’t get hurt [that season] and I had just kept going and played the way I was?”
Williford, who led the Cavaliers’ recruitment of Atkins, can empathize with him.
“But I think the biggest thing for him is not getting down on himself or doubting himself or questioning himself or getting frustrated,” Williford said.
“If Darion can be consistent in his effort, and even if there’s some peaks and some valleys and it’s not going exactly his way, he just stays the course, it’ll be a very productive year for him. But I think neck-up is where he has to make the next jump. He’s got all the tools, and he’s heard this for three years.”
Atkins needs to believe he’s as good as anybody else every time he steps on the court, Williford said.
“That was Akil’s biggest strength,” Williford said. “And at times we had to keep Akil in his lane, but that’s what made him so good. Darion’s a good kid, and he wants to do what we ask of him. But I think he’s gotta now go and say, `You know what? I can play. I can play with anybody in the country.’
“It’s a mindset, and we’ve talked about that over the years. But this is it. There’s no next year.”
“I feel like there will be more opportunities [for playing time], so we’ll see what happens,” Atkins said.
Atkins is sharing an apartment this school year with five teammates: Gill, Brogdon, Devon Hall, London Perrantes and Darius Thompson. They’re among the key pieces on a team that’s likely to be ranked in the top 20 of most preseason polls.
After sweeping the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles in 2013-14, the `Hoos know they won’t surprise any opponents this season.
“We all sense it,” Atkins said. “We all feel like we’ve got a target on our back, on our chest, and we’re embracing it. We’re ready to face the challenge. It is what it is, and we’re just going to play.”