Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere was named the WNBA Rookie of the Year today, becoming the first from the franchise to win the award.
The No. 6 pick became the fifth player since the inception of the award in 2010 to sweep the Rookie of the Month nods and go on to win. She appeared in all of New York’s 32 regular-season games – 29 of which she started. Onyenwere averaged 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 22 minutes of play, and scored a career-high 29 points in May.
“I’m so honored to be the 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year,” Onyenwere said. “To say that I am blessed to be in this position would be an understatement. Since I was drafted, I’ve always said that I couldn’t have been placed in a better situation. The people, the culture, and the organization have all been second to none, and my experience so far has been so fulfilling.”
The former UCLA standout helped lead a young Liberty team that won just two games last season to a hot start, and an eventual playoff berth. General Manager Jonathan Kolb said the franchise knew they were getting a pro-ready player when they drafted her.
“Her athleticism paired with her determination to help the team on both ends of the floor, simply can’t be taught,” Kolb said. “We are proud that she is in the Liberty family, and excited to witness her growth as her professional career continues.”
Second-year coach Walt Hopkins praised Onyenwere’s team-first attitude all season long. He said it was those attributes that won her the ROY honor.
“Michaela is one of the most unselfish, hardest working young players I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching,” Hopkins said. “Winning our franchise’s first ever Rookie of the Year award is a massive accomplishment in its own right, but the most impressive part is the fact that Mic never chased stats or sought recognition.”
“She was able to get herself to this point by simply doing what her team needed her to do every single day. We couldn’t be more proud of her, and we’re beyond thankful to have her with us on this journey.”
Onyenwere said she was fortunate to be drafted to a young team where she was able to make early contributions. But she also credited her coaches for believing in her and teammate DiDi Richards, who made the all-rookie team. She said she will take the momentum from winning the award into next season.
“Being excellent in my role and being elite in my role is really important for me,” she said. “I can only grow from this….and build on this. This is just the start.”
Onyenwere finished her career at UCLA as the program’s fourth-leading scorer, with 1,888 points, and helped guide the team to one Elite 8 berth, two Sweet 16 appearances, and the round of 32 as a senior. Though the last six months were a “whirlwind,” she said she has formed a foundation.
“What I’ve learned about myself, through adversity, is that I pride myself on being consistent,” Onyenwere said. “I’m consistent and adaptable, and what’s what kept me level-headed this season.”
She said she is proud to be one of the few players in the league who has come from Colorado.
“It means everything,” she said. “I’m born and raised in Colorado – a Colorado kid. I know I have the whole state behind me, and every time I go home, people are super proud to see me. I hope there are others besides me.”
Onyenwere will have to have surgery for a hand injury incurred in the last practice of the season, which will keep her from playing overseas right away. But besides that, she is just as joyful off the court as she is on it.
“It’s been a crazy six-ish months, but I’ve had the most fun I’ve ever had,” she said. “I’m lucky to be surrounded by great people in New York.”