January 19, 2022 

Breaking down the Athletes Unlimited 2022 basketball roster

Talented group includes 11 current WNBA players

On Tuesday, innovative women’s sports league Athletes Unlimited (AU) announced the full 44-player roster for their first-ever women’s basketball season, an expansion decision they announced in October 2021.

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AU is a player-focused professional sports league that creates player-captained teams without coaches or owners with a Player Executive Committee steering all decisions. Before their basketball expansion, the company fielded two women’s softball seasons and a single volleyball and lacrosse season.

Of the 44 women, 16 hold WNBA experience, 11 were 2021 WNBA players, five W champions, and players hailing from 37 college programs.

WNBA talent

Right off the bat in their opening press conference, Athletes Unlimited named former and current W heavy hitters joining their roster. The founding roster was made up of Natasha Cloud, Sydney Colson and Ty Young. In December, the organization announced tryouts and roster additions of Kiki Harrigan, Tianna Hawkins, Jantel Lavender, Odyssey Sims and Courtney Williams.

After Dec 10 and 11 tryouts, AU announced their full roster for their season, which begins January 26.

From the 2021 WNBA, newly minted Chicago Sky champion Lexie Brown, 2018 and 2020 Seattle Storm champion Mercedes Russell, Connecticut Sun DiJonai Carrington, Dallas Wings’ Isabelle Harrison and the Indiana Fever’s Kelsey Mitchell all join the team.

Mercedes Russell goes up in traffic for a layup, Betnijah Laney swinging onto her arm and Natasha Howard trying to block from behind
Mercedes Russell (2) averaged 12.2 points-per-36 on 66.1% shooting after the Olympic break. (Photo credit: Neil Enns | Seattle Storm)

And the championship-caliber doesn’t end with the Brown and Russell. Essence Carson, who boasts a long 13-season W career, won with the Sparks in 2016. Carter and Jantel Lavender, who played together for the champion Sparks, will be teammates once again. Natasha Cloud also won a W Championship in 2019 with the Mystics. Apart from the roster’s 6 W championships, the players also boast a variety of NCAA National accolades.

College champions

After winning the 2019 NCAA National Championships with Baylor and three seasons in the WNBA, Kalani Brown recently joined the AU roster. The Seattle Storm’s Kiki Harrigan took home the NCAA chip in 2017 with South Carolina. Previously announced players Sydney Colson won with Texas A&M in 2011, and the following year Odyssey Sims brought championship glory to Baylor.

Kalani Brown

6 of the AU players were also named All-American in their college days.

A new opportunity and fresh start

Athletes Unlimited poses a unique opportunity for players to make a splash when they are just shy or aged out of the slim W spots available.

A new addition that falls into this category is Imani McGee-Stafford, who played in 4 W seasons from 2016 to 2019. Daughter of gold medalist Pamela McGee and sister of NBA center Javale McGee, Imani is currently pursuing a law degree and playing in the 2021 AU season.

McGee-Stafford tweeted after the roster announcement that she’s hoping to sign a multi-year W deal this season.

Her tweets and ambitions illustrate the unique doors that AU opens; with the WNBA operating at a max of 144 roster spots (usually fewer) and no equivalent to the NBA’s G League, AU gives new life to women’s basketball.

This was a sentiment that Colson and Young also expressed in the initial expansion announcement. 

​​“I think it’s gonna be personal for a lot of people,” Colson said in the inaugural press conference. “I’ve been cut from teams. I’ve been in and out of the league in the 10 years that I’ve been out of school. And so every time I’m not in it I do take it personally, but once I saw this opportunity come along, it just made sense for me.”

Among these players are 20 players who have most recently played abroad and haven’t garnered W contracts, and an additional 13 players who have not reported play since college.

Some of these players include ​​Becca Wann-Taylor, an All-American soccer player and basketball star, Taj Cole, Dominique Wilson and Brianna Jackson.

And AU’s domestic play instantly appeals to many American players who are forced abroad for contracts, consistent game-play and money to sustain their lives. The AU’s five-week season is the only professional league stateside other than the WNBA.

Although they’ve already signed quite a few big names from the current and past WNBA, AU is likely only to attract more players who prefer to opt for their shorter, closer-to-home season. And many fans and players are taking note.

The season begins January 26 in Las Vegas and will be overseen by a Player Executive Committee of Lavender, Hawkins, Cloud, Colson and Young. Tickets and viewing packages are now on sale, and read more about the full broadcast schedule here

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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