Going into the 2020 Draft, the New York Liberty had a lot to work on. An injury filled, 2-20 Wubble season meant Coach Walt Hopkins, General Manager Jonathan Kolb, and the entire organization had room for growth.
The first pick on draft night was Michaela Onyenwere. From UCLA, the forward was thrust into a starting role after Jocelyn Willoughby suffered an Achilles injury right at the end of training camp. With that injury, Onyenwere entered into the starting five and quickly adapted to the new role she was in. She and Betnijah Laney were the only two players to appear in all 32 games this season and averaged an impressive 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 22 minutes of action a night. Sabrina Ionescu spoke about her teammate’s growth last week and said:
“Her ability to come in from college and play a completely different position and excel at that position is something that’s unheard of, especially in a rookie year. There’s not a lot of rookies around the league that are having the impact that she does on our team. And so, she’s just scratching the surface. She has so much more room for improvement and growth.”
Onyenwere’s exceptional play led to her being named WNBA Rookie of the Month every month this season. And on Wednesday, she took home another award as she was named AP Rookie of the Year. The vote was unanimous. Here’s how she found out:
Here’s a little more from the star of the hour:
Blessed is an understatement. I couldn’t have done this without my teammates, coaches, support staff & everyone else in the NY Liberty organization. I’m so grateful to be here! now let’s go make this playoff run! https://t.co/hGngwApnBZ— michaela onyenwere (@monyenwere_) September 22, 2021
Onyenwere was named to the AP All Rookie team, along with her teammate, Didi Richards. Richards gradually improved as the season went on and shot an incredibly impressive .529/.563/.750 in the second half following the Olympic break. The highpoint of her second half was when she helped slow down Seattle Storm All Star Jewell Loyd in the second half as the Liberty pulled off a last second win against the defending champions.
Richards got a chance to shine today as well as she was named to the AP All Rookie team:
In late August, Liberty legend Crystal Robinson had tons of praise for the rook and said:
“I think that DiDi is definitely one of the players on this team that embodies the New York state of mind, that embodies that hard work because her effort and energy is something that is hard to coach. To me she brings that workhorse mentality to this team and sometimes those players don’t always show up in stats.”
The official WNBA awards will be announced in the playoffs, but it’s a guarantee Onyenwere and Richards will win the same awards again.
For a franchise like the Liberty that is working its way back to contention, having excellent young players like Onyenwere and Richards — not to mention second year “rookie” Sabrina Ionescu — will go a long towards achieving that goal. Things are looking up.
- Sun forward Jones, coach Miller win major AP WNBA awards - Doug Feinberg - AP
- Star Rookie and Veterans Steer Liberty’s Rocky Season to the Playoffs - Kelly Whiteside - New York Times