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Taj Cole epitomizes Athletes Unlimited’s WNBA proving ground

Taj Cole weaves through traffic to the basket in Wednesday's loss to Team Hawkins. (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Taj Cole didn’t know she had made the 44-person roster for Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural basketball season this winter until the end of an introductory Zoom call with all of the players.

“I didn’t know who was gonna be on the call,” Cole told Just Women’s Sports. “After a 30-minute Zoom call, they finally told us that we made the league. I was in complete shock.”

Cole attended AU’s open tryouts in early December, thinking it would be a good opportunity to get her name back out there after a standout college career. From there, she not only made the roster as one of four selected through the tryouts, she also showed right away that she can compete with the best in the league.

Through 13 games, Cole is averaging 16.3 points, 5.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. She currently ranks fifth in points and third in assists, putting her in 11th place on the leaderboard as the season heads into its final four games this weekend.

On Feb. 2, Cole also became the first AU player not already on a WNBA roster to sign with a team, when the Connecticut Sun picked her up on a training camp contract. She hasn’t been the last: Kalani Brown, a former No. 7 draft pick, signed with the Las Vegas Aces on Feb. 15, and Lauren Manis agreed to a training camp contract with the Seattle Storm on Thursday.

“I just hope that there’s other girls out there that don’t erase their goals, even though it don’t happen for them the first time,” Cole said. “Just keep working hard and always be prepared for the opportunity, and when you get it, go after it.”

Cole met Sun coach Curt Miller when he came to watch current Connecticut players Courtney Williams and DiJonai Carrington play with AU. From the moment they spoke, she sensed it was the right fit.

“I wanna go somewhere where I’m really, really wanted,” Cole said. “And I felt like not only do they want me, but they’re showing me that I can be a key piece of what they’re trying to build. So I’m excited.”

That feeling is important to Cole because her path to the WNBA has been anything but ordinary. After spending the 2015-16 season with Louisville and becoming a top SEC point guard across two seasons with Georgia, Cole transferred to Virginia Tech for her graduate year. There, she set the program record for assists in an ACC season with 121. But after a COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season, the NCAA Tournament was canceled and Cole went undrafted to the WNBA that April.

Rather than letting the situation deter her, Cole kept pushing.

“Once I didn’t get drafted, I just never let that not be my dream again,” she said. “I just knew that it was just gonna be a different path, a different route for me to get there.”

Cole spent five months playing overseas, from August to December of 2020, before she had to return to Virginia to take care of family. When she stepped on the court with AU in late January, it had been over a year since she’d last played in a professional basketball game.

“That’s why I value AU so much, because it also gave me that stage to play against pros again,” Cole said. “I’ve been learning a lot and listening to the vets a lot. It’s been fun. I love the competitiveness. The point guard battle, we all talk, we all compete. We go after it, we try to win and then off the court, we’re good, we’re close.”

Athletes Unlimited’s schedule, with three games a week during a five-week season, has helped prepare Cole for the pace of the WNBA, where consistency breeds success.

Soon, Cole will turn her attention to what will be a competitive training camp with the Sun, who return nearly the entire core from their No. 1-ranked team last season, including 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones. Until then, she intends to close out the AU season strong, grateful for the fresh start the new league has given her.

“I think a lot of people can say this is one of the best leagues for females, period,” she said. “Next year’s tryouts, the amount of people that are going to try to get in this league is gonna be crazy. I’m excited to see where it goes and how it evolves over the next couple of years.”

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.