Around this time last year I wrote one of the most emotional pieces I have ever written on this site. It
was essentially a Senior Day tribute to Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, and Thomas Rogers. To be honest, looking back on it, the post really wrote itself. Take Joe Harris, for instance. A coach's son from small-town Washington who decided to put his future in the hands of Tony Bennett by agreeing to follow him from Washington State to Virginia. Or Akil Mitchell, the recruit who has his scholarship offer from George Washington pulled, only to graduate college with the reputation as one of the best defenders in the country. Like I said, the stories pretty much wrote themselves. The only difficulty I had writing them was having to resist the temptation to write a 10,000 word post.
While both Joe and Akil's stories were incredible, they were somewhat predictable. As you watched them during their four years in Charlottesville, you began to realize that the progression of their careers nearly perfectly mirrored the progression of the program as a whole. As they grew and improved, so did the program (obviously, that is not a coincidence). Their final game seemed to be the culmination of everything. What better way to go out than to beat Syracuse to win the ACC in your final home game? In many ways, their stories were too perfect.
The same cannot be said about the story and career of Darion Atkins. Less than a year ago, after Virginia had just stumbled past Coastal Carolina to move on to the third round of the NCAA tournament, the frustration finally got to him. In a three month span in which everything seemed to be going right for the Virginia basketball program, the issue of Darion Atkins and his playing time was a kind of "elephant in the room." It was something that all fans were aware of, but few actually worried about, as the team was clearly finding ways to succeed despite whatever tension existed behind closed doors. Those that broached the topic did so mainly referring to its impact on next year, not this year. That changed in the locker room following the win over Coastal Carolina.
While others spoke about the game or the upcoming matchup with the Memphis Tigers, Atkins
vented about the decrease in his playing time to veteran Daily Press reporter Norm Wood:
“I can’t even express how frustrated I get sometimes. I feel like I want to talk a certain way to my coaches, or act a certain way, but I just have to keep it concealed. I mean, I don’t even really know what else to say. It’s really frustrating and I just have to stay positive.
“I feel like some guys mess up, and I don’t mess up. It just works on your head when you’re on the bench and you see people going in front of you and you just feel like you can not necessarily do better, but I just feel like I’m not really contributing.”
There was no more "elephant in the room." Fans stopped wondering about how Darion's lack of playing time would affect the team next year, and instead began to worry whether the issue could pose a threat to the current team's success. Other than a minor setback against Maryland, which most Virginia fans would probably say might have been a good thing, these comments represented the first sign of something going wrong with Virginia basketball in months. It became the topic of conversation in the media. That's not exactly a good thing for a team preparing to face a talented Memphis squad in less than 48 hours.
Looking back on the situation, it is clear that the comments had no impact on the team's results the rest of the way. Tony Bennett and the rest of the team understood that the words were simply the words of a frustrated kid who had more or less been dealt a bad hand, on more than one occasion. They were not indicative of some larger problem concerning Darion and the team. And yet, they did make outsiders wonder about his future at Virginia.
Some speculated that Atkins would graduate early and transfer to use his final year of eligibility at another school. Some wondered what next year's team would be like if he couldn't step up and be the leader that most seniors are expected to be. Many simply assumed that he would remain in Coach Bennett's "doghouse" and worried about the depth in the frontcourt.]
Few, if any, got it right.
Many "experts" will tell you that Justin Anderson is the most improved player in the country. While what Justin has done this year is incredible, I do not believe he is even the most improved player on his own team. That honor is reserved for Darion Atkins. I say this because it is one thing to work on your shot and offensive skillset in the offseason to try and prepare yourself to fill the shoes of Joe Harris. It was clear to Justin what he was working towards. The success of the team was going to depend greatly upon how much he improved, without question. It's another thing to put in all of that work when you're not even sure if you're going to play. It would have been so easy for Darion to just pack it in, not push himself in the offseason, and accept a small role coming of the bench on occasion. Thankfully, that wasn't good enough for him.
Instead, Darion DID put in the work, and then some. The first thing I noticed when the season began, and actually even earlier in the practice videos, was his physical transformation. He looked like he could have never been the skinny guy that he was just a short time ago. Then, you could tell that he had worked hard to become a contributor on offense. Just about every fan knew that Darion always had great potential, on both sides of the ball, but the question was whether that potential would ever become reliable production. We had seen him on the verge of making this step during the early part of his sophomore season. In the first few months of the 2012-2013 season, someone could have asked me, "Who has played the best basketball so far?" and my answer probably would have been Darion Atkins. He was sensational in a road upset of Wisconsin and a tough home win against Tennessee the following week. He was active on the glass on both ends and displayed tremendous improvement in his offensive ability. Many fans were extremely excited about the potential athleticism and versatility of a starting frontcourt of Atkins and Akil Mitchell. And then, Atkins got hurt.
I hate playing the "What if" game, but I will say that I do believe that both Virginia's 2012-2013 season and Darion's career would have turned out very differently had he not injured his shin. That was something that always bothered me. Losing him that year was frustrating, but that team still did some very nice things, and quite frankly, should have made the NCAA Tournament even in his absence. What really bothered me was that last year, when he made those controversial comments after the Coastal Carolina game, I realized that this could have all been avoided had he stayed healthy. He was on track to become on of Virginia's next great post players. I was so high on him that I really believed that he would be in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season last year, now that he was fully healthy. When his playing time decreased as the season went on, I really felt bad for him, and thought he got a raw deal. I didn't blame him for feeling frustrated. I got it.
I will, however, admit that I did not see this type of season from him coming. I thought that he would indeed step up and become a guy that could be relied upon as a solid contributor in the post, but when I thought of our frontcourt, I thought of Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. While those players might have slightly more potential than Atkins, I really feel that Darion has been indispensable this year. I feel incredibly comfortable whenever he has the ball. He now shows the calmness and patience that you would expect from a senior.
This team would still be good even if Darion Atkins had decided to take the easy road and accepted a role coming off the bench in certain situations. He is not as absolutely essential to the team's success as guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, or London Perrantes. But this team isn't just good; it is historically good. That sort of thing only happens when guys like Darion Atkins buy in, something that he is clearly done.
Whether right or wrong, Senior Day's are often tied up and associated with "legacies". Sometimes when you hear enough stories about guys like Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, you forget that things don't always work out perfectly. The path to success isn't always linear, in fact, it rarely ever is. Few fans spent much time thinking about the legacies of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell because everyone always knew how much they meant to the program, even before the incredible run last year.
I have always wondered what Darion's legacy will be. While he came to the school as part of recruiting class with Paul Jesperson and Malcolm Brogdon, he'll be the only scholarship senior honored tomorrow afternoon. I wonder what the reaction is going to be like. It will be near impossible to top last year's incredible ceremony. But I hope the fans realize what guys like Darion Atkins mean to a program. These days, more often than not, when a player struggles to find playing time, they look for it elsewhere instead of being patient and working to improve. UVA has seen at least one player transfer every year for I don't even know how many years. And yet, tomorrow we get the chance to honor a guy who was patient and chose to fight his frustration by working his butt off instead of looking for an easy way out. Before this season, it was common to see or hear Virginia fans say, "We'll be good this year, but we'll be GREAT the next year."
UVA is great this year, and for that, we can thank Darion Atkins.