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In inaugural season, Athletes Unlimited is already earning its players WNBA opportunities

The Athletes Unlimited basketball league may still be in its infancy, but its players are already enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Basketball: Athletes Unlimited-Team Russell at Team Carrington
Taj Cole (right) will get her first taste of WNBA action this spring when she joins fellow Athletes Unlimited player DiJonai Carrington on the Connecticut Sun training camp roster.
Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

When Athletes Unlimited launched its inaugural basketball league in January, a major selling point of the league was the opportunity for players to compete professionally in the United States as an alternative to playing overseas. As outlined in an official statement, the league’s schedule was set up to complement that of the WNBA; competing in Athletes Unlimited would allow American-born WNBA players to stay home during the winter and compete against their peers.

For those who wouldn’t be playing in the WNBA in the summer, the benefits would be even greater. Playing against other professionals — including a handful of established WNBA players — in an American setting would serve as a golden opportunity for WNBA hopefuls to showcase their skills against some of the best talent in the world. Pioneering athlete Natasha Cloud said prior to the season that Athletes Unlimited “presents a different look” and hinted that the league would be ideal for players looking to break into the WNBA.

Basketball: Athletes Unlimited-Team Russell at Team Carrington
No. 25 Lauren Manis and No. 90 MeMe Jackson, pictured here competing in Athletes Unlimited, were signed to WNBA training camp contracts by the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics, respectively.
Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

As it turned out, Cloud was absolutely right. Several players who competed in Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural season signed contracts with WNBA teams for 2022, ranging from veterans looking to get back into the league to players who have yet to take the court in a WNBA game, each with their own unique story.

Taj Cole

2022 AU averages: 16.9 points, 6.1 assists, 1.7 steals (4415 total AU Points)

Cole, in a way, represents what an AU-to-WNBA pipeline might look like in the future, and if her WNBA career blossoms, she’ll surely be seen as a trailblazer who used Athletes Unlimited to play her way onto a WNBA roster. Unlike the other names on this list, Cole has no WNBA experience whatsoever; she went undrafted in 2020 after finishing her collegiate career at Virginia Tech and hadn’t been signed to any sort of WNBA contract since then despite ranking sixth in the nation in assists per game (6.5) as a senior.

“Even though I didn’t get drafted [to the WNBA] ... I just kept going,” Cole said of her post-college playing days. The left-handed guard has dreamed of playing in the WNBA since she was little, and she’s now close to achieving that dream after signing a training camp contract with the Connecticut Sun. Cole will be competing with Natisha Hiedeman and Yvonne Anderson for a role as the Sun’s backup point guard, and if she makes the final roster, she’ll be an important piece for a team that lacked backcourt depth in 2021.

Tianna Hawkins

2022 AU averages: 23.8 points, 11 rebounds, 1.2 steals (6831 total AU Points)

An eight-year WNBA veteran, Hawkins was perhaps the biggest star of Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural season. The 6’3 forward’s 6831 total AU Points led the competition by a healthy margin, as did her average of 23.8 points scored per game — a significant bounce-back from a disappointing 2021 WNBA campaign with the Atlanta Dream.

This summer, Hawkins will be back with a familiar team in the Washington Mystics, who signed her to a training camp contract in early February. She played with the Mystics in six of her eight WNBA seasons to date, winning a championship in 2019. Washington head coach Mike Thibault praised Hawkins’ 3-point shooting ability, saying in the team’s official release that her return will “help allow us to get back to the style of offense that the Mystics have become known for.”

Sydney Colson

2022 AU averages: 11.4 points, 6.9 assists, 1 steal (4162 total AU Points)

Colson was one of the first players to commit to the Athletes Unlimited vision, and as a veteran who has played WNBA basketball for New York, San Antonio, Minnesota, Las Vegas and Chicago, it makes sense that she’d be someone who WNBA figures would have their eyes on.

One of those figures was first-year Aces head coach Becky Hammon, who immediately noticed that “that competitive fire is definitely still there” after Colson went unsigned during the 2021 WNBA season. The Aces will bring Colson back on a training camp contract, and considering her familiarity with the franchise, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her make the team in 2022.

Kalani Brown

2022 AU averages: 16.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks (5192 total AU Points)

One of the most recognizable names in Athletes Unlimited, Brown saw the fledgling league as an opportunity to get back to where she wanted to be — both on and off the court.”

“I was really debating on whether or not I wanted to go back overseas after coming out of a really bad situation,” Brown told Khristina Williams in a January interview. The former Baylor great has been candid about about her mental health struggles since the 2020 WNBA “bubble” season, when she played for the Atlanta Dream, and Athletes Unlimited turned out to be just what she was looking for: a way to play competitive basketball and put herself back on the WNBA map without the rigors of going overseas.

It didn’t take long for Brown to get back into the swing of things, quickly emerging as one of Athletes Unlimited’s top centers and most efficient scorers (71.4 percent field goal percentage). She signed a training camp contract with the Las Vegas Aces back in February, and while the Aces still have a bit of work to do in filling out their training camp roster for 2022, Brown certainly seems favored to make their final roster.

Destinee Walker

2022 AU averages: 10.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 40.6 percent 3-point percentage (4032 total AU Points)

Walker will return to the Dallas Wings in 2022 after signing a training camp contract. The Notre Dame product originally signed with Dallas as an undrafted free agent last year and spent just under a month with the Wings before being waived.

Walker’s jumpshot was somewhat inconsistent in college; she shot 26 percent on 3-pointers in 2019-20 and 38.5 percent in 2020-21. If the Wings get the Athletes Unlimited iteration of Walker’s jumper, though (40.6 percent on 3-pointers), they’ll certainly be pleased. She’ll be up against players like Chelsea Dungee, Morgan Bertsch, and Unique Thompson in Dallas’ training camp.

Lauren Manis

2022 AU averages: 10.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.4 steals (3426 total AU Points)

Manis averaged at least 16 points and 11 rebounds per game in both her junior and senior seasons at Holy Cross and was drafted by the Las Vegas Aces in 2020. She participated in the Aces’ training camp in both 2020 and 2021, but was waived before getting the opportunity to play in a regular-season WNBA game.

Manis will get another chance in 2022, having signed a training camp contract with the Seattle Storm. That wasn’t her goal, though; to her, the Athletes Unlimited experience was much more personal.

“I do struggle with my confidence,” Manis admitted in an interview with W.G. Ramirez. “And coming here and being able to compete with these amazing athletes, it’s definitely boosted my confidence a little bit .... Now I’m gaining that confidence and going into this training camp with a whole different mindset is going to be huge for me.”

A 6’2 forward, Manis’ theoretical role with Seattle will likely be similar to that when she was in Vegas: stretch the floor as a 3-point shooting big. The Storm probably won’t have their training camp roster set until the 2022 WNBA Draft, so we’ll have a better idea of who Manis’ competition is then.

MeMe Jackson

2022 AU statistics: 9.5 points, 1.1 steals, 38.6 percent 3-point percentage (2829 total AU Points)

A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Jackson was originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019 by the Atlanta Dream, but was waived prior to the 2019 WNBA season.

Just like Manis, Jackson treated Athletes Unlimited as a personal building block, praising her teammates and player-coaches for helping to build her confidence. Her 101 made 3-pointers led the competition in its inaugural season, and she was named to the first-ever Athletes Unlimited Defensive Team of the Year, along with Manis.

Jackson will get another shot in the WNBA in 2022, this time with the Washington Mystics. Washington signed her to a training camp contract in mid-February; she’ll be competing with players like Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Linnae Harper, and Lee-Seul Kang for a spot on the Mystics’ final roster.