Inside Michaela Onyenwere's quiet but deadly Rookie of the Year campaign

'People don't know what she's capable of'

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With a bit over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter and the New York Liberty down 10 against the Las Vegas Aces on Thursday night, Betnijah Laney found Michaela Onyenwere with an open lane to drive. The Aces defense was clogging the perimeter, with only Liz Cambage guarding the paint. Without hesitation, Onyenwere caught the ball, drove and fired on the left side of the basket. But Cambage, who is eight inches taller than the rookie, squared up and forced a missed layup, sending Onyenwere to the ground without a whistle.

Less than a minute later, it was Onyenwere versus Cambage again. But this time, the outcome was different. Cambage stood on the high post while Onyenwere stood calm and collected beyond the arc. The rookie dribbled to her right and then crossed to her left, blowing by Cambage. But as Onyenwere made her way into the paint, A’ja Wilson met her to help Cambage, sealing off the first-year’s entry into the restricted area.

That was no problem for Onyenwere. She landed on her pivot foot, turned around and shot a 15-foot jumper above both Wilson and Cambage. The ball rattled around the rim before going through the hoop. New York was within eight.

“Yeah, she’ll get beat a couple of times,” Jody Hollins, Onyenwere’s trainer since ninth grade, told The Next. “She’ll give up a three or whatever the case may be, but she’s going to continue to get better because she’s just a sponge.” 

Although she didn’t give up a three that time, she most definitely got beat by the more vertical and taller Cambage. But within seconds, Onyenwere adjusted and improved, faking out both Wilson and Cambage without much bravado. She made her shot and just kept going. The Liberty’s 2021 sixth overall pick is used to being challenged and overlooked. She has been for the majority of her journey playing basketball.

When she started playing on her high school’s varsity basketball team at age 15, bloggers weren’t impressed. They viewed her as a natural athlete, someone who was only successful because of her athleticism rather than her basketball skills. Onyenwere didn't accept or believe this idea that she was “just getting by,” and she took this criticism to heart. “It created a little of a chip in her early on to prove people wrong,” Hollins said.

This collective doubt within the basketball intelligentsia that began as a teenager has been cyclical for Onyenwere. Doubt was cast immediately once she was drafted to New York, with some calling her a tweener and someone who’d struggle to fit into a system so dependent upon 3-point shooting.

Flash forward less than two months later and Onyenwere currently averages 1.067 points per possession, which ranks in the 90th percentile according to Synergy Sports. She scores at least one point on 43.6 percent of her total possessions.

And get this: she’s shooting 44.7 percent from beyond the arc, the best of all rookies with more than two 3-point attempts. She also has the most attempts out of the entire 2021 rookie class, one that was guard-heavy.

Over 50 percent of Onyenwere’s offensive possessions have occurred on spot-up opportunities, mostly when the primarily ball-handler draws the defense and is able to kick it out to a wide-open Onyenwere either on the wing or in the corner pocket. Opposing defenses continue to disrespect the Liberty’s rookie power forward. Star wing Laney doesn’t mind. “I have no clue,” Laney said about why defenses leave the rookie wide open. “I’ve been playing with her and like you said, she’s been shooting at a very high clip and if that’s what defenses want to continue to do, that’s to our advantage. So I’m not going to help them figure it out.” 

Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins sums up Onyenwere’s success as a function of two factors: opportunity and effort. “I knew she was going to play really hard,” Hopkins said before Thursday night’s game. “I think a big part of success early in your career is opportunity, and Michaela has taken the opportunity and run with it.”

Onyenwere didn’t expect to start. With Jocelyn Willoughby’s season-ending injury shaking up the Liberty’s rotation, the rookie, who assistant coach Shelley Patterson has called a “mini Jocelyn,” was next in line. To deal with the pressure of starting so early in her WNBA career, Onyenwere took a trick out of her former coach Cori Close’s playbook: yoga. During the pandemic, Close had her athletes do yoga daily to continue to stay in shape. The Liberty rookie appreciated how accessible the activity is, as she’s able to find many routines on YouTube.

In addition to yoga, earning the opportunity to start came directly from the type of student of the game Onyenwere is. Her attention to detail and coachability help her stand out and have aided her over the years in proving doubters wrong.

Teammate Kylee Shook has known Onyenwere since they were teenagers growing up in Colorado and playing for the AAU team New Mexico Heat Elite. When asked what about Onyenwere has allowed her to achieve this type of success, Shook didn’t hesitate. “She’s coachable,” she said.

“She’s one of the most coachable players I’ve ever seen. On and off the court, she’s just a good person, but she really listens to everything that anyone says. It doesn’t matter who you are. I could say something, Walt could say something, B[etnijah Laney] could say something and she’ll try it. She’ll try it right in that moment. You tell her to jump stop, she’ll jump stop. You tell her to get two feet and pass it, she will, and that’s what’s made her so successful so far. She’s already athletic and an amazing player, but she listens to what people say or how she can always get better and she’ll try it.”

Hollins, her trainer of over seven years, noted that she makes him better at what he does. When working with Onyenwere, it is now expected that he ought to be able to tell her for every single drill why she’s doing something or why she needs to do something in a particular way.

Michaela Onyenwere #12 is introduced as a starter. She stops to “get her picture taken” by Jazmine Jones. (Photo credit: Jesse Louie/Just Women’s Sports)

Hollins wasn’t surprised at all by how Onyenwere has been shooting the ball in this still very young WNBA season. He’s seen her hit 20 threes in a row in his gym, but he noted that this isn’t all that she can do. She actually has just been scratching the surface when it comes to her ceiling and how complete of a player she can be for New York in this young team’s future.

“That’s why she’s so dangerous because there’s so much about her game that people don’t know and what she’s capable of,” he said.

And that includes that turnaround jumper she unleashed against Cambage and Wilson. Although it might have been a different look for Liberty fans, that shot coupled with the vertical bounce she got on it is nothing new for Onyenwere. At UCLA, that shot was her “patent shot,” her bread and butter.

But, Hollins also contends that Onyenwere has many areas where she can improve, aspects of the game that could make her a mini Betnijah in addition to a mini Jocelyn.

Onyenwere will have to focus on evolving into a solid offensive rebounder in order to take some relief off New York’s guards and other posts who are trying to box out opposing bigs. The Liberty rely upon Bec Allen to be active on the boards but need Onyenwere to hold that same role as well. Ball handling remains another goal for the Liberty rookie. While Synergy sports ranks Onyenwere’s transition offense in the 60th percentile, she doesn’t create a lot of her own looks off the dribble.

The defensive end will also remain a work in progress for the sixth overall pick. While size isn’t on her side, her intellect very much is. When asked what she learned from guarding both Wilson and Cambage on Thursday night, she explained that at the pro level, it’s integral to know the tendencies and nuances of opposing personnel.

“When we had success on A’ja and Cambage, we were really locked into what we had learned in the scouting report,” she said. And in the second quarter on Thursday, Onyenwere figured out how to apply what she had learned. After Wilson caught a pass from Destiny Slocum on the block, Onyenwere had to play one-on-one and prevent the drive. She stayed straight up, didn't initiate contact and got two hands on the ball to force a tie-up.

When Onyenwere drills one of her corner-pocket threes off a pass from the strong side, the home crowd at Barclays Center booms. When she was fouled by Wilson in the third quarter on Thursday, one fan bellowed: “Rookie of the Year.”

Onyenwere herself is as perky for her teammates as fans are for her. When teammate Sami Whitcomb nailed a three against the Chicago Sky to help New York take the lead, to accompany the infamous celebratory trust fall by Neah Odom and DiDi Richards, Onyenwere stepped out from behind the second row of the bench and got in front of assistant Patterson. She spread her legs out wide and got real low just as Richards “fainted” to her right while yelling and smiling along with her teammates.

While New Yorkers have come to know Onyenwere’s game from deep, they also ought to know how she gives and includes the communities around her. Before she left Colorado for New York Liberty training camp, a local seventh grader wanted to watch her work out. The young girl watched Onyenwere for a full hour and then got to take pictures and get her questions answered by a future WNBA star.

While Onyenwere appears to be the current front-runner for Rookie of the Year, if she does indeed receive that honor this fall, it’s not going to be just her moment, just like every other pivotal event and accomplishment in her life.

For Onyenwere, an award like that is to be shared with the important people around her, like her new fans in Brooklyn, her coaches and teammates, her trainer Hollins and her family, including her animated grandmother.

Onyenwere recently released a merchandise collection through PWRFWD that included her grandmother in one of the designs. When asked about it, she reflected on how special of a memory draft night was, not only for her family but also for “a lot of different people around the world.”

“I feel like [the design] is really inclusive because it just wasn’t my moment, but it was our moment,” she said. And if she were to win Rookie of the Year, a first for the Liberty franchise, it wouldn’t just be her moment, either.

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