Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural basketball season begins this week, with a plethora of new and old talent taking the court for the player-led five-week campaign. Of the 44-player roster, 11 hail from the WNBA, 11 from overseas and 12 from the sidelines after taking a year off for one reason or another.
Under AU’s unique scoring format, it’s hard to know who will come out on top. But it’s still fun to speculate, and Just Women’s Sports has five players to watch as the season gets underway Wednesday.
Most recent team: Club Aztks (Mexico)
A guard out of Louisville, Jackson went undrafted in 2017 before heading overseas to play in Brazil, Spain, Puerto Rico, Poland and Mexico. Most recently, Jackson spent the 2021 season with Club Aztks in Mexico, where she averaged 15 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists through 24 games.
Spending her first two NCAA seasons at the University of Central Florida, Jackson was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Year and averaged 17.8 points per game as a sophomore before transferring to Louisville. She finished her 2016-17 redshirt senior season with the Cardinals second on the team in steals (41) and assists (127). Nationally, she ranked 33rd with a 2.35 assist-to-turnover ratio. With steals and assists each worth 10 points in the Athletes Unlimited system, Jackson could quickly move up the scoreboard.
As one of four players picked up during AU’s open tryouts in Atlanta, Jackson is a well-rounded playmaker who should fit into the lineup of any team that drafts her, giving her an advantage with the turnover each week.
Most recent team: Indiana Fever (WNBA)
The Indiana Fever’s No. 2 pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, Mitchell is one of the most consistent scorers in the Athletes Unlimited pool. A member of the 2018 WNBA All-Rookie team, she’s only gotten better as her career has gone on. The 5-foot-8 guard has finished among the WNBA’s top-10 scorers the past two seasons, averaging 17.9 points per game in 2020 and 17.8 in 2021. She ended last season on a 23-game streak of scoring at least 10 points, the longest active such streak in the WNBA.
Mitchell is a prolific 3-point shooter, having left Ohio State as the NCAA’s all-time leader with 497 made 3-pointers. In 2018, Mitchell and Fever teammate Victoria Vivians recorded the most 3-pointers ever by a WNBA rookie tandem, with 135.
Made 3-pointers are worth 30 individual points in AU’s system, while a missed 3-pointer is a loss of just 10 points. A player loses the same amount of points for a field goal, but earns only 20 points for a made 2-point shot. While shot selection is still key, long-range shooters like Mitchell could end up being rewarded more for their efforts and find themselves higher up the leaderboard.
Most recent team: Seattle Storm (WNBA)
A two-time WNBA champion with Seattle, Russell has spent four total seasons in the WNBA. The 6-foot-6 center finished last season just off her career best in points per game with 7.3 and with a career-high 6.1 rebounds. She also added 1.6 assists per game for the fourth-place Storm.
It’s not just the number of shots Russell takes that will serve her well in AU, but her offensive efficiency. Last season, she shot 61.7 percent from the field, good for second-highest in the WNBA. She is currently third in field-goal percentage in Storm franchise history, ahead of the likes of Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, and is 14th all-time in the WNBA.
That level of efficiency should be rewarded in AU. While made shots are guaranteed points, missed shots lead to a deduction, meaning Russell is less likely to give up easy points.
Most recent team: Seattle Storm (WNBA)
A two-year WNBA veteran, Herbert Harrigan took off last year to give birth to a son. The Storm acquired the forward last February in a trade with the Minnesota Lynx, who drafted her sixth overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft. She made 21 appearances off the bench during her rookie season, averaging 3.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. She was an efficient shooter as well, with a field-goal percentage of 60 percent.
Before turning pro, Herbert Harrigan was a standout at South Carolina. As a senior, she averaged 13.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game during the regular season and was named SEC tournament MVP. Where Herbert Harrigan excels is on defense. She finished her career at South Carolina ranked second all-time with 210 blocked shots. While it might take some time for her to get back up to game speed after the year off, she could make an all-around impact for whichever captains draft her.
Most recent team: Energa Torun (Poland)
Burkholder has extensive experience on the international circuit, playing in Poland, Hungary, Belgium and Italy. Most recently, she averaged 12.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists in seven games for Energa Torun in Poland. Prior to that, she was with ZTE Noi Kosarlabda Klub in Hungary and averaged 14.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
Before heading overseas, Burkholder was a standout guard at James Madison University. As a senior, she averaged 18.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, finishing among the top-seven guards in the nation in rebounds per game and earning Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year. Upon graduating in 2014, Burkholder signed with the Mystics and competed in training camp before heading to Italy.
The guard has the high-scoring and high-rebounding potential to capitalize on AU’s scoring system.
Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.