(Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Imani McGee-Stafford doesn’t want there to be any mixup about why she chose to play in Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural basketball season.

The new domestic women’s basketball league can serve as a proving ground for players looking to get a shot in the WNBA, as Taj Cole demonstrated Wednesday when the Connecticut Sun signed her to a training camp contract. While McGee-Stafford has goals of getting back to the WNBA herself, the former Dallas Wings center recognizes that what they’re trying to build with AU Basketball isn’t just a pipeline to the WNBA.

“That’s kind of been the narrative, but that’s not what we’re trying to do,” McGee-Stafford told Just Women’s Sports before the start of the season. “Like, don’t get me wrong, I think maybe a quarter of our roster are WNBA players, former W players, if not more. But this isn’t about the WNBA. This is about having an option to play offseason stateside and being able to be seen.

“When we’re playing here and with Athletes Unlimited, we’re trying to build this.”

A big part of that transition for the players is learning how to balance the individuality of AU with the team sport of basketball. Based on AU’s system, players earn points for different categories of individual statistics and for winning quarters and games. Each quarter is worth 50 points, while a game is worth 100.

“As much as it rewards individuals with the point system, it’s always about winning,” McGee-Stafford said. “I think that’s the fun part, honestly, because you’ve gotta gel quickly.”

McGee-Stafford can find even greater joy in the game after sitting out the past two years to go to law school. Becoming a lawyer has always been part of the 27-year-old’s career plan. A survivor of sexual assault, she wants to one day change the laws surrounding women’s rights and sexual violence.

Getting her law degree wasn’t supposed to happen until later on, but when COVID-19 threatened the 2020 WNBA season, McGee-Stafford knew she had one of two choices: get a job or apply to law school. Dallas’ ownership, she says, was supportive of her decision.

“I still have my contract with them,” she said. “They easily could have just cut me and it would have been a different conversation. But they were just like, ‘We get it. We think that’s dope. We love that for you. When you’re ready, come back. We’ll have a contract for you to earn.’”

She had always planned to return for the 2022 season, and began training again in August to prepare for WNBA training camps opening in April. At that point, heading overseas seemed like the only option she had to get back up to speed before attempting to make a WNBA team.

Enter Athletes Unlimited.

With AU, McGee-Stafford can still attend law school (she is taking just three classes this semester to avoid overloading her schedule) while getting live game experience.

“As much as I feel ready, you don’t really know if you are ready, ready until you get into playing,” she said. “So that was really exciting for me. I can’t hide it. I’m a little giddy baby here because I miss playing basketball and I didn’t know I would miss it as much as I do.”

While she admits there were nerves during her first days back in training, there were also moments where it felt like everything was lining up, like divine intervention.

One of AU’s basketball facilitators, Pokey Chatman, was the coach who drafted McGee-Stafford to the Chicago Sky with the 10th overall pick in 2016. Despite not having played in a WNBA game since 2019, she said Chatman gave her “the best compliment” after her first day of practice.

“I asked her how I looked after our first practice, and she said I look like me,” said McGee-Stafford.

She’s looked like herself through the first two game weeks of the AU season, too. On opening night last Wednesday, as a member of the team captained by Kelsey Mitchell, McGee-Stafford was all over the glass, bringing down 11 rebounds in a 92-85 loss. After entering COVID-19 protocols and missing the two games over the weekend, the center returned Wednesday night to contribute seven points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes played in Team Brown’s 83-76 win.

McGee-Stafford, despite the two games missed, is currently 13th on AU’s leaderboard with 1,079 points. Natasha Cloud leads the way with 2,047 points through four games.

Records and standings aside, after more than two years away from the game, McGee-Stafford is grateful to have found a basketball home with AU.

“The question about me has always been about my focus and dedication to basketball, so taking that time away for a while really gave me a chance to rejuvenate with my body and my mind,” she said. “And I’m 100 percent here now.”

Emma Hruby is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.