In October of 2021, Athletes Unlimited, a player driven all-new model for pro athletes and sports, announced the launch of a new basketball league for women set to begin later this week. Received with great enthusiasm, the league will run for about a month from January 26th to February 26th, 2022. The first season is being held at Athletes Unlimited Arena at the Sport Center of Las Vegas. AU’s season doesn’t conflict with the WNBA’s season which usually kicks off in May. This allows current WNBA players to compete in the AU league. Instead of a league counter to the W, which isn’t the goal, Athletes Unlimited has the potential to serve as a ‘G-League’ for women to develop and display potential talent for future opportunity in the WNBA.
The league started with the signing of current Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and former WNBA players Sydney Colson and Tamara Young. Since its announcement, the league has grown to include 11 current WNBA players and 16 who have WNBA experience. 44 total players will compete in the league where there are no set teams; instead, each week four players draft their squads for the week in a fantasy sports format that awards individual points.
This unorthodox approach to a professional league just may bring the added attention and opportunity women’s basketball continues to garner. It will afford players the chance to stay home and compete instead of playing abroad during the WNBA off season. More importantly, Athletes Unlimited could be used as a steppingstone for players to showcase their talent to WNBA General Managers and Head Coaches. If there were some sort of collaboration in the future between the WNBA and AU, W teams could assign players to the AU league to allow time for development. This would alter the history of players basically being dismissed from the radar of the W if you don’t make a roster during training camp.
The WNBA has 12 teams for a total of 144 players. With the league being the size that it is, for now, many talented players don’t have a real shot at making a team. This is especially the case for players who may not be WNBA “ready” but have great potential. Look at Shay Peddy, current Mercury guard who found success in the league seven years after playing overseas. Imagine if there was an opportunity for her to develop stateside with the eyes and expertise of the W.
Of the 11 WNBA players competing next week, several are currently free agents. AU could also be a platform for players on the market to display their talents to other teams during Free Agency. Courtney Williams, who last played for the Atlanta Dream, is on the market for a team and although her game speaks for itself, it would be an opportunity for her to wow a team with her play and perhaps convince them to take a chance on a player who has had a few controversies off the court in the past.
Tianna Hawkins who also played for the Dream last season was recently waived and is on the market for a new team. AU would give her the chance to display her skills beyond what she was able to contribute last season. Hawkins started 8 games for the Dream and averaged 5 points per game and 3 rebounds per game; a far cry from some of the success Hawkins had in the past where she played a major role during the Mystics championship season in 2019.
Odyssey Sims, is another former Dream player who is an Unrestricted Free Agent and will compete in the AU league. Restricted Free Agent Lexie Brown, who recently re-signed with the 2021 WNBA Champs Chicago Sky has also signed up. Mercedes Russell, who Seattle is expected to re-sign has the opportunity to show more than the role she was assigned to with the Storm. Potentially, Russell can display a skillset unseen which may bring more suitors to the table. In addition to current W players, you have Imani McGee-Stafford who hasn’t played in the W since the 2019 as she pursues her law degree. Dallas has her rights but being away from the game will give her the opportunity to get back into the swing of competing on a team.
There are also non-league players competing who are certainly hoping it may lead to a training camp contract this summer. Although most women take their talents overseas to compete in European and Asian leagues during the off-season, AU could potentially create a space for players to stay stateside and continue to play the game they love in the U.S.. I’ll refer to a tweet recently sent by Dallas Wings forward Isabelle Harrison who has been interning with the Dallas Mavericks this fall and will compete in the AU league where she had 20 & 12 in her scrimmage debut last weekend lightheartedly said;
Although said in jest, I can assure you that if given the opportunity, along with financial incentive, WNBA players would much rather compete stateside than be away from friends and family for months at a time to play the game they love. Athlete’s Unlimited will play nationally televised basketball games on CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports 2 ,and on Bally Sports’ regional sports networks be sure to tune in!