Courtney Williams among 5 WNBA players joining Athletes Unlimited basketball league in Las Vegas

·5 min read

Athletes Unlimited will play its inaugural basketball season in Las Vegas early next year with five more WNBA players signed to its roster, the organization announced on Monday. The group includes free agent Courtney Williams after a stint with the Atlanta Dream, and Seattle Storm forward Kiki Herbert Harrigan, who is returning after a year off due to pregnancy.

The network of sports league introduced its fourth league last month headlined by the signing of Washington Mystics champion Natasha Cloud. It will be played at the Athletes Unlimited Arena at the Sport Center of Las Vegas from Jan. 26 through Feb. 26, a slight adjustment of dates from its original announcement.

Las Vegas is home to the WNBA's Aces and has hosted the two most recent WNBA All-Star games. The team, which plays at Michelob Ultra Arena, ranked second in attendance in 2021.  

WNBA players sign on to AU league

AU announced 10 more players on Monday, five of whom were on 2021 WNBA rosters. The group consists of Herbert Harrigan, Indiana Fever forward Jantel Lavender and Atlanta Dream players Tianna Hawkins, Odyssey Sims and Williams.

Lavender, 32, is a 10-year veteran who won the 2016 title with the Los Angeles Sparks. Hawkins, who will enter her ninth season in the W, won the 2019 title with the Washington Mystics.

“Athletes Unlimited provides American players an additional opportunity to play in the United States, an opportunity we have always hoped for," Lavender said in a release. "Staying in the U.S. allows us to spend more time with our families while earning money and not putting as much wear and tear on our bodies, so that we can put out the best product."

Herbert Harrigan, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 draft out of South Carolina, did not play for the Storm last season due to pregnancy. After giving birth to her son late last month, she’ll have about three months before the AU league tips. She is the youngest player (23) signed to the league so far. 

Sims, an eight-year veteran and 2019 All-Star, and Williams, a sixth-year veteran named to her first All-Star team in 2021, will be free agents. The Dream are in a rebuild mode with new team ownership, new front office personnel and few players signed on for 2022. Hawkins is one of five players in contract, but one of four who is unprotected, via Her Hoop Stats. 

The team has said it will not bring Williams back after she posted a video of herself and teammates in a physical altercation in a parking lot in Atlanta. Dream co-owner and ESPN analyst Renee Montgomery said during the WNBA playoffs semifinals the league and union are looking into the matter.

AU continues to round out roster

AU announced five additional players, bringing the total signed to 13. Cloud, Ty Young and Sydney Colson, both former WNBA players, signed last month. The organization said it plans to have 44 players compete.

Essence Carson played 13 years in the WNBA, winning the ’16 title with Lavender and the Sparks. The 6-foot guard split the 2020 season with the Mystics and Connecticut Sun. She was inducted into the Rutgers Athletics Hall of Fame last year.

Kirby Burkholder, a 6-foot guard who attended James Madison, currently plays in Puerto Rico’s top women’s league. Tyce Knox, a 5-foot-7 guard, remains Texas A&M’s record-holder for assists in a season and was the first to reach 300 in a single season in the SEC. Jessica Kuster is the all-time leading scorer in either Rice basketball program with 2,081 points and briefly made WNBA training camp rosters. And Laurin Mincy, a third-round draft pick out of Maryland in the 2015 WNBA draft, has played four seasons overseas.

AU will hold open tryouts in Atlanta from Dec. 11-12. At least one spot on the roster will be offered to a player attending the tryout, the league said.

AU expands with fantasy-like basketball league

The five-week league is played at one location with no set teams. Players serve as coaches/general managers and acquire points for individual and team performances. The top four point-getters each week draft a team for the following week.

The launch comes at potentially the perfect time. There is a clause in the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement that allows the league to fine players who don’t report to their team for camp on time beginning in 2023. Players are often late reporting because they are still with their overseas teams; the new clause would end that.

Athletes Unlimited opens a way to play at home while still making money, though it’s not to the level of income top teams in Europe pay their female players. It also allows players to have more of an offseason since it’s only a month long, stay closer to their families rather than fly to the other side of the world and play on national TV in their home country. Judging by the number of mothers who have signed on to play, the organization’s approach to maternity policies is also a plus.

The league said in a release it will announce a national and international broadcast schedule in December. Tickets will also go on sale next month. 

The organization has softball, volleyball and lacrosse leagues. Games have aired on CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports, Facebook, YouTube and ESPN International.

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