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Liberty take UCLA wing with No. 6 pick, shore up defense

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UCLA v Stanford Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Liberty continued their off-season makeover Thursday night by taking UCLA wing Michaela Onyenwere with the No. 6 pick in the WNBA. The 6’0” Colorado native was one of four picks the Libs selected.

Rather than go for need, and draft a big, the Liberty went with who they believed was the best player available ... and made defense their priority throughout the Draft.

Onyenwere is seen as a plus defender and a hyper athlete. Her father, Peter, competed in the Olympics in track and field for Nigeria and at the University of Missouri, but the star of the evening was Onyenwere’s grandmother who stole the show when ESPN cameras turned to a family gathering that celebrated Onyenwere’s selection...

The pick was a bit of a risk for GM Jonathan Kolb. In her mock draft Wednesday, ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel wrote of Onyenwere...

Onyenwere will have to improve her guard skills in the WNBA, but she is well aware of that and has been working on it. That includes her 3-point shot. Onyenwere, a tweener by size at 6 feet tall who averaged 19.1 points and 7.2 rebounds as a senior, doesn’t necessarily fit perfectly into any WNBA position coming out of college. But it might not matter: She has a great motor, can guard a variety of players and tends to make things happen on the court.

Still, Voepel had Onyenwere going seventh. as did Analis Bailey of USA Today. Joseph Zucker of Bleacher Report had her at No. 10 and Jack Maloney of CBS Sports had her at 12.

“I think character is your true self and who you when things hit the fan, when you’re going through adversity,” said Onyenwere after being selected. “I’d like to think I do have high character...hopefully I can bring that to New York and fit in as much as I can.”

Onyenwere also told ESPN that she’s happy not be on the other side of the ball from the Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, with whom she had more than a few battles in PAC-12 competition.

“I’m just glad we’re on the same side now,” Onyenwere said of Ionescu. “I’m really excited to get started in New York.”

Walt Hopkins, the Liberty head coach, called the pick “a home run.”

“Getting to have interviews with Michaela was really what moved the needle,” Hopkins said. “I’ve been watching her for years at UCLA, even as an assistant coach (with the Minnesota Lynx) and I was scouting, and I absolutely loved her. She’s got a motor that just is unbelievable.”

The Liberty later posted highlights of Onyenwere on Twitter...

And commentary from Hopkins and Kolb...

The Liberty’s defensive mindset continued with the next two picks at Nos. 17 and 25 taking two women who won Defensive Player of the Year honors in their collegiate conferences.

At No. 17, the Liberty selected Didi Richards of Baylor, another wing who won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year honors as well as the DPOY from the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and Big 12 Conference.

Richards may have the best “story” of all the players drafted. During an intrasquad scrimmage last October, she and a teammate collided in mid-air and Richards fell to the floor. She was knocked unconscious and and for a while was temporarily paralyzed recovering enough to return to action 38 days later.

In the third round, New York filled out their draft board by taking Valerie Higgins, the U. of Pacific guard and the Defensive Player of the Year in the West Coast Conference, at No. 25 and Marine Fouthoux of France, a 5’9” point guard who plays for Lyon in the Euroleague and for the French national team in FIBA competition, at 29.

The Liberty’s focus on defense in the Draft shouldn’t have come as a surprise. New York’s Kolb added Natasha Howard, the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, and Betnijah Laney, the WNBA Most Improved Player in 2020 who is also known for her “D.” With a healthy Ionescu, the WNBA first overall draft pick in 2020, Joe Tsai’s team hopes the new look will lead them back to the playoffs in their new building.

After playing in three different arenas over the last decade — Madison Square Garden, the Prudential Center in Newark and most recently the Westchester County Center in White Plains as well as the Bradenton, Florida, “wubble” last season — the Liberty will celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversary by making Flatbush and Atlantic their permanent home, starting May 14 against the Indiana Fever.