March 27, 2024 

Allisha Gray’s record-breaking Athletes Unlimited title run caps off third season

2024 was a record breaking year for for the league

Throughout the Athletes Unlimited Pro Basketball (AU) season, there is a constant shuffle in the leaderboard, with players jockeying for points on a nightly basis. But that was not the case at the top of the leaderboard this season, as guard Allisha Gray dominated the competition from the very start en route to the title.

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In doing so, Gray set a league record with 6,918 points, blowing well past the previous record of 6,831 points from inaugural season champion Tianna Hawkins. For comparison, Gray’s final tally is more than 100 points higher than what 2023 champion NaLyssa Smith earned (6,811 points) and over 1,000 points more than what Gray herself had last season (5,748 points) when she finished fourth in the competition.

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The unique point system is what makes AU interesting to watch. In order for players to earn the most points individually, they not only have to tally positive stats like points, rebounds and assists, but they have to keep mistakes to a minimum. Fouls, turnovers, and missed shots all count against them. You can’t just go try and pad stats; you have to play high-quality basketball.

Success is also a challenge itself in the player-driven league where captains draft and help coach their teams alongside “facilitators.” The former South Carolina standout told The Next that there was absolutely nothing easy about being a captain like she was for the entire season.

“It was difficult after Week 1, when my top players were put as captains,” Gray said.

She was referring to guards Natasha Cloud and Tiffany Mitchell, who were her teammates when Team Gray went 3-0 right out of the gates. Because captains come from the top four on the leaderboard, the huge start turned her teammates into her rivals, with Mitchell becoming a captain for Weeks 2 and 3 and Cloud remaining a captain through the rest of the season.

Emily Engstler shows off her medal for Defensive Player of the Year. Photo credit: Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

But with each week, Gray was able to keep an important teammate on her squad until the final week of the season in Defensive Player of the Year Emily Engstler. The 6’1 forward shattered the single-season blocked shots record with 28, passing Theresa Plaisance‘s 22 in 2023. Engstler also led the league with 122 rebounds and was second in steals with 25. Engstler finished the season in seventh place with 4,919 points.

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Newcomer of the Year takes a bite out of her medal for a taste of victory.. Photo credit: Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

Mitchell was voted Newcomer of the Year, a new award category for the 2024 season created for the influx of new players in AU. The 5’9 guard averaged 24.8 points with a 48% field goal percentage during the AU season, finishing in sixth place with 4,948 points.

By the final week, Gray’s position in first place was secured, but the battle for the other medalists spots lasted until the final week. Odyssey Sims (6,046 points), Kierstan Bell (5,689 points) and Cloud (5,602 points) rounded out the top four.

Sims was on a mission to get the top spot this season, particularly after she got injured late last season and fell out of third place. The former Baylor standout recorded the second triple-double in league history with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.

Cloud never fell out of the top four. She was second in assists dishing out 113 and was fifth in 3-point percentage at 43.4%. Meanwhile, Bell did well enough to earn her second shot at being a captain after otherwise being drafted to Team Sims during her AU career (Week 4 of last season and this season). She averaged 17.7 points her game.

How players and facilitators benefit from participating in AU

The chance to play domestically in the WNBA offseason has clearly been a draw for many players. In turn, it has also helped raised the talent level in AU. But not only has the competition allowed for players to receive and give advice and support each other, but it has also allowed for current and former WNBA teammates to reunite, like Gray and facilitator Karima Christmas-Kelly.

Christmas-Kelly, who was the facilitator for Team Gray in the final week of AU, played 10 seasons in the WNBA, including with the Dallas Wings during Gray’s rookie season in 2017. Gray said told The Next that the two had remained in contact ever since.

“I still talk to Rima. It was cool to be with her. She is a very smart basketball player and I was her rook so it was cool,” she said.

Karima Christmas-Kelly facilitating the Orange Squad. Photo credit: Athletes Unlimited

Christmas-Kelly, who is currently getting ready for her second season as an assistant coach for the Indiana Fever, told The Next that said the experience as a facilitator was a little bit of a shell shock at first. Not only do do coaches and captains focuses on different things each game, she realized, but facilitators also may work with several different captains during the season. But her time in AU showed her how she can do a lot more as a coach.

“I think it pulled a lot out of me and helped me find my voice in that regard for that, with a little bit more in certain situations and things that I see,” Christmas-Kelly told The Next. “It definitely gave me a little bit more experience.”

Players decide to join AU for all sorts of reasons, but to the surprise of no one, one person in particular was vocal in getting some returnees. Both Plaisance and Ty Young credited Sydney Colson with convincing them to return to AU.

Young has played professionally for 18 seasons — she’s earned her AU nickname of “The OG” — and bestowed her knowledge to the younger players. She told The Next that the most important lesson she’s passed along is telling players to listen to their body, which she says was a key component to the 6’2 guard-forward’s longevity.

“They think about what they have to do to keep getting better. But you don’t think about listening to your body as well and resting,” Young told The Next. “So just as a just as much as you are in the gym to perfect your game you have the rest of the body as well and that’s just what I’ve been doing throughout my career; making sure that I’m listening to my body.”

Young recorded AU career-highs on March with 22 points on 11 rebounds. She also scored a career-high leaderboard points in a single game with 621 points coming off of the bench. Young said she has been mulling over retirement, but this season showed herself that she still had some juice left.

As for Plaisance, she suffered an eye injury in 2023 and has used to AU to showcase that she still has what it takes to be in the WNBA — even if she’s got a new look with googles.

“I’m still doing what I do best,” Plaisance told The Next. “I floorspace, I’m solid. I’m a good passer. I’m a good rebounder and I can do all the little things but really taking advantage of this opportunity in the minutes that I’m going to have to hear and showcase just a little bit of that”, she said.

But more than anything, that chance to play at home is still the top draw for players. Current Indiana Fever player Kelsey Mitchell, who led AU in 3-pointers made, told The Next that playing overseas did not work for her personally, but playing in AU has allowed her to be herself. Ahead of what’s likely to be a big season for the Fever, The 5’8 guard really wanted to use AU to actually be limitless.

“I want to be as unlimited as possible,” Mitchell told The Next. “I think for me is I don’t want I don’t want to be you know, held or limited to anything. When I’m actually on this scale I want me to be I want myself to be limitless. I want to use both hands, be able to shoot with confidence. I want to play in transition and utilize my teammates in the process.”

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Written by Arie Graham

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

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