Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

Women's professional basketball returns to action this week by way of Athletes Unlimited, a new model of professional sports in which athletes draft their own teams and are involved in other decision-making. 

Four WNBA players make their return to AU Hoops as Week 1 captains. Indiana Fever teammates Kelsey Mitchell and Lexie Hull, as well as Atlanta Dream guard Allisha Gray and former Dallas Wings guard Odyssey Sims, round out the first four captains. 

As the top four returners from the previous Championship Season's leaderboard, Sims (third, 6,383 leaderboard points) will lead Team Gold. Gray (fourth, 5,748 leaderboard points) will lead Team Orange, Lexie Hull (eighth, 5,411 leaderboard points) will captain Team Blue and Mitchell (ninth, 5,386 leaderboard points) will lead Team Purple. 

Each week, the top performers will be named captains for the upcoming week. The AU Hoops leaderboard follows an innovate points system and accounts for individual and team performance. Players can earn points in three ways: when their team wins a game or quarter, when they make a positive play such as assists and rebounds, and when they are voted one of the top three MVPs of a game by players and fans. 

Athletes Unlimited points system

Players can earn points for team wins as well as individual performance. Players earn points for the following:

  • Made 3-pointer: 30 points 
  • Made 2-pointer: 20 points 
  • Made free throw: 10 points 
  • Offensive rebound: 10 points 
  • Assist: 10 points 
  • Steal: 10 points 
  • Blocked shot: 10 points 
  • Offensive foul drawn: eight points 
  • Defensive rebound: five points 
  • Shooting foul drawn: four points 
  • Personal foul drawn: four points 

Players will also lose points for the following infractions:

  • Shooting foul committed: -8 points 
  • Personal foul committed: -8 points 
  • Other foul committed: -8 points 
  • Turnover: -10 points 
  • Missed free throw: -10 points 
  • Missed 2-pointer: -10 points 
  • Missed 3-pointer: -10 points 
  • Offensive foul committed: -16 points

The rosters

The Week 1 captains selected their teams via a snake draft -- the order is reversed every round –- earlier this week, meaning Odyssey Sims got the fourth and fifth pick. With the first pick, Kelsey Mitchell selected former Memphis guard Air Hearn. She impressed in her first two AU seasons and again during the preseason scrimmages. WNBA players Tiffany Mitchell, Kierstan Bell and Ruthy Hebard rounded out the first round. 

Mitchell and Hebard are among 15 newcomers to AU this season. There are also 15 players returning for their third season. The 40 players in the league come from 30 different NCAA schools, with South Carolina and Tennessee tied for most alumnae (four). The player pool also represents 10 of 12 WNBA teams, with the Atlanta Dream having the most (four).

A comeback?

Former Atlanta Dream All-Star Angel McCoughtry was drafted to Team Sims. The Louisville alum played 10 seasons for the Dream, including their three WNBA Finals appearances in 2010, 2011 and 2013. McCoughtry left Atlanta for the Las Vegas Aces in 2020. The five-time WNBA All-Star has been plagued with injuries since, and has been out of the league since agreeing to a buyout with the Minnesota Lynx a few games into the 2022 season. 

"When she reached out to us -- I mean me, personally, I was very surprised," Lexie Brown said during a press conference this week.  Brown is part of the Player Executive Committee, a group of decision-makers for the league. "We're trying to pivot to more of like a younger league. But Angel pretty much changed our mind immediately."

McCoughtry is hoping the same will happen for her. She attended a USA Basketball camp in the fall and hopes the AU Basketball season is another step toward a return to the WNBA. 

"We know that my situation is not the norm," McCoughtry told CBS Sports in the fall. "But what I had to do was just ask for the chance. I needed this. I needed this for my psyche."

Part of McCoughtry's departure from elite basketball was due to the death of her grandmother's brother, her uncle Bob. The death and her grandmother's grieving took a toll on McCoughtry. Between her family and her injuries, she needed to step away. 

But now, McCoughtry is back and will get a chance beginning this week to show the basketball world she's still a competitor. 

"I still have some left, I know I do," McCoughtry said. "And I want to finish strong. I want to finish playing ball strong. I want to get back in the [WNBA] and get on [a] team. I know I can help the team. ... So, that's my goal."

Athletes Unlimited has been not only an opportunity for WNBA veterans like Brown to stay stateside instead of play overseas; it has also revitalized careers, like that of now two-time WNBA champion Sydney Colson. 

"For me, personally, AU got me back in Vegas. I was out of the league after the 2020 season in the bubble," Colson told media on a video conference earlier this week.  "Had it not been for the AU season, Vegas wouldn't have seen me playing, things could look very different." 

Colson's play on the court and her personality off it created what she called a "perfect storm" for her to not only return to the WNBA, but also find opportunities outside of basketball -- such as her sketch comedy show with former WNBA player and current AU athlete Theresa Plaisance. 

How to watch Athletes Unlimited

Location: Fair Park Coliseum -- Dallas, Texas
Stream: WNBA App

AU's four-week season begins Thursday at the Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, and it concludes Saturday, March 23. In addition to league competition, AU athletes will participate in local community events. In a partnership with Give Lively, Athletes Unlimited empowers its players to donate funds equal to 100% of their season win bonus to a non-profit organization of their choosing.