This past weekend, Athletes Unlimited concluded its second season, another successful five-week run of hoops with a unique twist: weekly redrafts and an ever-changing leaderboard. As AU does with all its sports, this scoring system conflates a player’s individual output with team performance bonuses in a way that closely mirrors the always-growing fantasy sports template.
With season one as the blueprint, AU returned 21 of its initial roster to this year’s 44 participants, while adding an impressive list of newcomers. Essence Carson, a veteran of both AU Hoops (two seasons) and the WNBA (13 seasons), believed they leveled up with this crop of players. “As far as competition, [AU is] always looking to get better each and every year. You’re seeing a different pool of talent, but it definitely has improved from last year, when you’re looking at it offensively. People that can go get buckets, can get to the hole and score, can shoot long-range threes.”
One of those newcomers came to Dallas and won the whole thing. NaLyssa Smith, last year’s No. 2 overall pick by the Indiana Fever, capped off her impressive month of steady play with an incredible 50-point performance to climb atop the leaderboard, overtaking Naz Hillmon and Odyssey Sims. For Smith, the redraft structure was an initial pull towards joining the young league.
“Usually when you’re on a team,” Smith said, “you’re playing with the same players all the time. When you have to play with different players, it challenges you. You’ve got to learn what they like to do, whether they like to roll, pop, how they like to be communicated to. This just helps you as a leader, and it helps you to grow as both a person and a player.”
good morning to NaLyssa Smith and NaLyssa Smith only @NaLyssaSmith | #AUHoops pic.twitter.com/kMP4N7C4kb
— Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports) March 27, 2023
Smith wasn’t the only member of the Fever to spend her first professional offseason playing with Athletes Unlimited: Lexie Hull, last year’s No. 6 selection, made her way to Dallas and walked away as the Defensive Player of the Year, an accolade voted upon by all this year’s hoopers. Both Hull and Smith took advantage of the opportunity to remain stateside after a packed first year in the W.
“AU was super enticing because it gave us a chance to stay here and play,” Hull said. “I know coming straight from the college season, I really wanted a break to reset my body, my mind. The first couple of months after the season allowed me to see my family and friends, do things that I wasn’t able to do for the past year-and-a-half going from college straight to the WNBA. And then, being able to gear up for the W season with AU was perfect timing, because getting into game shape is not easy, so this was the perfect opportunity to do that while also getting to play against and with other players that I’ve grown up watching. That was super cool, also.”
Smith agreed. “It gives you an opportunity to get a little bit of a break. We’ve missed Thanksgiving and everything in the past couple of years now, while being in college, so we finally have this opportunity to be with—and actually play in front of—our families a lot more than we did.”
Hillmon, a forward with the Atlanta Dream and yet another member of that talented 2022 WNBA draft class, looks holistically at the impact AU’s existence has on the visibility for women playing professional basketball in the United States all year long. “It’s just another form of availability for young girls coming up, seeing that there are multiple options for them: not just going overseas, not just the W.”
The composition of talent isn’t contained to up-and-coming W hoopers. There are longtime pros, like Carson and Ty Young. Talented ballers that have spent a majority of their post-college careers overseas, like Rebecca Harris and Dani McCray. Nonstop vibes from CC Andrews and Syd Colson that made every drip of AU’s incredible social content a must-watch. On top of all that, though, some players find in this a chance to open even more doors. Last offseason, Lexie Brown entered looking for a W contract; this year, she balanced her time in Dallas with another job as a Studio Analyst for the ACC Network. This media opportunity, which she discussed in depth on Pull Up with Myles and Owen, would have passed her by if she hadn’t been able to remain in the United States this offseason.
AU’s success hasn’t escaped the notice of W players that aren’t participating, either. An impressive roster of W All-Stars, including Nneka Ogwumike, Arike Ogunbowale, and Ariel Atkins made cameo appearances, heading to Dallas to take in the action. Though she didn’t make the trip herself, reigning MVP A’ja Wilson offered her support. “I think it’s super dope that they’re doing that,” Wilson said. “They’re growing the game in the right direction and having fun while doing it… Hopefully, this knocks on the window of the W and says, ‘The ball is in your court, so how can we continue to grow it?’”
Natasha Cloud, another two-year vet of Athletes Unlimited, has adamantly pushed back any time a reporter floats this experience as a secondary one, or proposes AU as a potential developmental league for the WNBA. If anything, she believes the W could learn from AU’s willingness to evolve its model, with its receptiveness to player feedback. “We know what we need,” Cloud emphasized, “and what our fans want to see.”
For example, she’d love to see the scoring weight shifted more towards individual performances. As it currently stands, each player on the team that wins a quarter earns 50 points, and 150 points for whichever side wins the game. “I think there needs to be a happy medium,” Cloud countered. “Players shouldn’t ever score 40 points and not move up [in the leaderboard]because of not winning quarters.”
For Hillmon, the balance shifting towards team play actually helped her adjust. “Originally, I thought I would start thinking about, ‘I want to get these points and these rebounds. I want to make sure I don’t miss anything [because AU awards negative points for negative plays].’ But once you’re in the middle of the game, I want to win. That’s how competitive I am. It’s not necessarily about my individual stuff.”
This go-around, there were promising signs for future collaborations between AU and the WNBA. All AU games were available on League Pass, offering live women’s basketball during the W offseason. Brown thinks the connections can go even deeper, especially with AU’s timing occurring so closely to WNBA free agency. Several teams still had holes to fill, and this is an opportunity for front offices to scout talent against high-level competition. (I’ll say this, though: a source with a W team told me that, with prioritization on the horizon, having AU before free agency could help both WNBA franchises and players alike, so there’s still some room to add within the salary cap.)
“We have more W players this season, and this is the perfect situation for signing players for training camp,” Brown said. “[Adding these games to League Pass] was a no-brainer: we’re not trying to compete with the WNBA; we’re trying to work together.”