MEN’S BASKETBALL: On cusp of 1,000 points, Paul Atkinson ’21 redefining dependability
As a first year, he set a school record for field goal percentage in a single season. As a sophomore, he surpassed his own mark. Now, as the Elis’ leading scorer, he’s 19 points away from crossing the 1,000-point threshold.
Forward Paul Atkinson ’21 had just finished his sophomore year of high school when Yale men’s basketball assistant coach Justin Simon ’04 saw him play for the first time.
The now-junior came to New Haven from his home in West Palm Beach, Florida, for Yale’s elite camp. While Atkinson was not yet the field-goal finishing machine he would become, Simon could tell the foundation was there.
“He was like a puppy,” the Yale assistant said. “Great hands, great feet, could barely dunk, but had all the tools if he developed to be a really good player.”
If he was a puppy then, few can deny Atkinson has become a full-grown Bulldog now. His 17.6 points per game this season rank third in the Ivy League and lead the Elis, while his field goal percentage ranks among the 10 best in all of NCAA Division I men’s basketball. The 6-foot-10 player, who has scored in double figures during all 24 games this season, has become Yale’s most consistent scoring option — the nucleus of an inside–out offense.
Atkinson has not missed a game in his Yale career, and his 1,000th point in the Blue and White will likely come this weekend as the Bulldogs take on Cornell and Columbia.
“He never dogs it in practice, never really sits out practice,” Simon said. “He just shows up, plays, and does the same thing the next day and the day after and the day after… We feel comfortable throwing him the ball and letting him score one-on-one against anybody, and that’s been a huge revelation for our offense this year.”
His career point total rose to 981 after contributing 20, along with 10 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the year, during last weekend’s 69–61 loss at Penn. Assuming he logs his season average of 17.6 in Ithaca on Friday, he is set to cross the threshold early in Saturday’s game at Columbia.
Penn forward AJ Brodeur said the Quakers watched a lot of film on his moves, and while Penn won, none of the preparation proved too effective when it came to shutting down Atkinson.
“We were trying to get him to take those outside hook shots,” Brodeur said postgame. “He gets a lot of layups and baskets around the rim against other teams, and we were trying to just limit that and make him shoot over the defense. But he got to his spots. And we gotta live with what he earned.”
Atkinson has broken through defenses by being ruthlessly effective around the rim. As a first year, he started 30 of 31 games for the Elis after now-senior forward Jordan Bruner ’20 suffered a torn meniscus in a preseason scrimmage, leading the Ivy League with a 69.2 percent mark from the field. His field goal percentage set a new single-season school record, one Atkinson would break as a sophomore with a marginally improved 69.7 percent.
Again, his field goal percentage ranks among the nation’s best this year, sitting at seventh in the country as of Wednesday afternoon. Particularly at the beginning of games, Atkinson is Yale’s top option, the linchpin of an offense that leads the Ancient Eight with 76.5 points a game. Work the ball to him on the block, and the Elis benefit. A post-move might lead to two quick points, two attempts at the free throw line could very well follow — Atkinson has attempted 136 free throws this season, more than twice as many as any other Eli — or a pass back outside could create an open shot if defenders double-team the Yale big.
“I just kind of take the game in stride,” Atkinson said after scoring 24 points on seven-of-nine shooting (and a 10-for-12 mark from the charity stripe) after a win at Brown last month. “When my teammates find me, I go up there and try to finish… It’s just them kind of fueling me. [They] just pass me the ball and trust me and that keeps me going.”
All that trust has resulted in a 63.9 percent mark from the field, which trails that of Princeton center Richmond Aririguzoh by eight-tenths of a percentage point. But it puts Atkinson among the nation’s top 10 with Kansas’s Udoka Azubuike, Kentucky’s Nick Richards and Dayton’s Obi Toppin, whom The Athletic named its midseason national player of the year.
Atkinson almost ended up with Toppin in the Atlantic 10. After playing at Yale’s elite camp as a rising junior, the Yale coaching staff continued to evaluate him before offering a spot after that summer, Simon said. His decision came down to Dayton, Richmond, UNC-Wilmington and Yale before a visit to campus alongside guard Azar Swain ’21, Yale’s second-leading scorer, helped seal the deal during his senior year in September.
Incremental improvement has followed in the years since.
“His dad’s a big guy and worked with him a ton when he was younger — Mikan drills, all the different finishing drills, he used to put in the hours,” Simon said. “What really has changed for Paul is his body. He keeps getting bigger, stronger and more athletic. This offseason he gained 20 pounds and yet he was quicker and jumping higher than last year… To see where he is now versus where he was as a freshman is even night and day.”
Simon suggested that Atkinson has improved year to year more than any player Yale has seen, comparing his trajectory to that of former Eli and current Utah Jazz guard Miye Oni. While Oni drew many to the John J. Lee Amphitheater, fewer professional scouts have spectated from the press row at JLA this season — three attended Yale’s game with Siena in November and three showed up for the Yale–Harvard contest earlier this month.
Forecasting Atkinson’s basketball future might be premature, but associate head coach Matt Kingsley said he thinks the forward can play in the NBA, especially if he continues to develop his play away from the rim. Before this season, Atkinson had attempted one career three-pointer, but he has launched 10 attempts this year, converting four of them.
“Paul’s skills are all emerging,” Kingsley said. “It’s not just the three, it’s the face-up too as well for his position and his ability to post up. He’s not just going to be able to post up and score at the basket at the NBA level, but if he can mix in the face-up at 17 feet, 15 feet, the Sikma pivot and make the shot, I think that, along with the three, [are] the two next things he’s gotta be able to do.”
Atkinson, who the Ivy League has named Player of the Week three times this season, earned a spot on the Lou Henson Award Midseason Watch List for Division I mid-major player of the year.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org