March 28, 2023 

Observations from the second season of Athletes Unlimited basketball

NaLyssa Smith captures top player honors

After five entertaining, grueling weeks of basketball the second season of Athletes Unlimited (AU) is now complete. The athletes played three games per week, which included a back-to-back every week. The level of competition was high from the start and each game was a battle. AU gave every player opportunities to grow both on and off the court.

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The Athletes Unlimited Basketball Leaders

No. 1 NaLyssa Smith

The 2023 Athletes Unlimited Basketball Champion. Dallas, TX. Credit: Domenic Allegra

“I feel like I was second in everything. Second Rookie of the Year. Second draft pick. Second child. Just winning this it means everything.”

Smith

Smith claimed the first spot in the final game of the season with a historic performance. The former Baylor standout put up 50 points and grabbed 13 boards to lead her team to a 120-73 victory over Team Sims. She finished the season with 6811 total points.

No. 2 Naz Hillmon

Hillmon in Game 28 against Team Sims at the Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, TX. Credit: Domenic Allegra

“My favorite part of being a captain is actually more so the coach’s role of it. I really enjoy just putting people in what I think is there in their best light.”

Hillmon

The four-time captain was the second youngest player in AU this season. She grew as a leader and was not that concerned about winning individually. Hillmon finished with 6660 points and led the league in MVP points totaling 540 points.


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Forward Theresa Plaisance played for Team Hillmon twice and she spoke highly of her leadership and work ethic.

“Everything she does as an undersized post, you have to do a little more and have a niche to your game. There’s [her] basketball IQ as well as her ability to score around the rim over size and her ability to rebound is absolutely incredible,” Plaisance said.

No. 3 Odyssey Sims

Sims in Game 28 against Team Hillmon at the Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, TX. Credit: Domenic Allegra

“I’m still really good at basketball. I think some people think I fell off but I haven’t. AU speaks volumes so I just let my game talk. Everything else will show for itself.”

A quote from Sims’ AU Captains’ Journal

In the final week Team Sims went 1-2 for the first time. She was first on the leaderboard the majority of the season. With the losses of her team and after suffering an injury during the final game she finished her second AU in third place with 6383 points. Sims put on a clinic throughout the season and showed that she still has what it takes to perform at the highest level.

No. 4 Allisha Gray

Gray in Game 29 against Team Harrison at Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, TX. Credit: Domenic Allegra

I always appreciate [Gray’s] competitiveness, how sound her game is. Another big guard with good size that can score at three levels when she wants to. I always appreciate high-level competition and I also appreciate the growth she has shown.”

Essence Carson

Gray snuck into the fourth spot during the final game of her rookie season. Team Hillmon ended Week 5 3-0 and the 6′ guard is a big reason why. She averaged just over 25.6 points per game and 6 rebounds per game which propelled her to the fourth spot. Gray finished the season with 5748 points.

Defensive Player of the Year Lexie Hull

Hull holding her medal for DOPY at Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, TX. Credit: Domenic Allegra

“I felt like I was able to kind of maintain what I brought to the game throughout the five week, which I think is kind of hard to do when you are playing three games a week. So I felt that’s something that I realized that I cannot slack off, not take a play off because I can last longer than I think I can.”

Hull during the final AU press conference

Hull led the league in steals with 29. She was fifth in rebounding and sixth in blocked shots. Most WNBA rookies go through a whirlwind of basketball play. AU gave her the chance to take a small break and still get into basketball shape for her second season.

Hull spoke with our Editor-in-Chief Howard Megdal on the Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast when it was announced that she would be playing in AU. She said that she was super excited to gain confidence by playing with and against athletes that she will also be facing in the WNBA. Hull finished in eighth place with 5411 points.


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2023 All-Defensive Team was Ty Young, Jordin Canada, Natasha Cloud, Gray and Hull.

Teammate of the Year CC Andrews

Andrews after she won Teammate of the Year at Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, TX. Credit: Domenic Allegra

The 5’9 guard played five minutes and did not score a single point in her second season of AU. However she may have made the biggest contribution by elevating the confidence of everyone she plays with. Whoever was playing against her and whichever team she was on had to beware.

She was one of the most animated players one the bench. The 2022 Sportsmanship Award winner was very entertaining player to watch be it on the sideline or social media. Her positive attitude was a light throughout a grinding season. She still ended her second season in 24th place with 3290 points. All of her points were earned from how each team played that she had a spot on. That alone shows the impact she made.

The point system for Athletes Unlimited and the officiating

One thing that stood out was the officiating. The athletes showed their frustration on the court throughout the entire season. Officials had games where they let the players battle it out and there were times when certain things should be called that were not. Losing points for committing a foul while also being able to gain points by drawing a foul puts the players and the officials in an awkward position.

The athletes and the officials just had to work through it. Canada was edged out of the fourth spot by 43 points. With the way she slashes through the paint and scores there are many chance where fouls can be drawn at the same time. Playing for the foul will not always work in a player’s favor in Athletes Unlimited.

Canada was third in personal fouls drawn earning 96 points, but those points are cancelled out with the 88 she lost from the fouls she committed. Regardless of how the games were called there were no excuses made. It only helped players learn how to move on quickly from their mistakes.

Forward Isabelle Harrison was just 18 points behind Canada. There is no way to tell if the calls or no calls would have made a difference overall, but each decision made was crucial, especially in the final week of the season.

Building chemistry and relationships

AU Basketball brought together an elite group of athletes from the WNBA and others that have played overseas. Until AU there was no opportunity for players to stay home and enjoy family while being able to train and still get paid. All athletes were able to learn a lot about each other, gain confidence and prepare for whatever the next stage is in their career.

Throughout the course of the five-week season, players got to bond. There were a few sets of WNBA teammates that they were able to play with or against to help them prepare for the upcoming their upcoming seasons.

Hull and Smith during Week 1 of AU at the Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, TX. Credit Dorothy J. Gentry

Teammates included Hull, Kelsey Mitchell and Smith from the Indiana Fever. As the DPOY Hull said her teammate Mitchell was the most difficult to guard.

“That is in practice. When she is in game mode [she] is locked in and that’s [another] beast. She wants the ball in her hand that last possession. She’s a baller,” Hull said.

Other WNBA teammates included: Canada, Layshia Clarendon and Lexie Brown from the Los Angeles Sparks, Harrison and guard Courtney Williams from the Chicago Sky, Sydney Colson and Kierstan Bell from the Las Vegas Aces and Gray and Hillmon from the Atlanta Dream.

Hillmon said the reason why she drafted Gray on her team every week because she wanted to build that chemistry before heading into the season.

“I already have a step ahead than anybody else in Atlanta because I am not sure if anybody else has played with her, so I think that’s super important,” Hillmon said.

There were players, legends and staff of WNBA teams that attended games to not only support AU but to get a look at the athletes prior to the start of the upcoming season. Athletes Unlimited has announced it will return in 2024. The location will be revealed at a later date.

Written by Arie Graham

Arie Graham joined 'The Next' in May 2021 as the beat writer for the Dallas Wings.

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