Colorado’s Michaela Onyenwere Wins 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year Award

New York Liberty’s Michaela Onyenwere # 12 dribbles the ball as Phoenix Mercury’s Brianna Turner # 21 defends during the first half at Barclays Center on August 25, 2021 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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We caught up with the Aurora native and the New York Liberty forward after her last honor.


A native of Aurora, Michaela Onyenwere had already made Mile High City proud in April 2020, when she became Colorado’s first woman ever to be selected in the first round of the WNBA Draft after being selected sixth overall by the New York Liberty. The 22-year-old forward, however, surpassed this historic feat on Tuesday night, when she was announced as the 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year.

Onyenwere grew up playing for Grandview High School, before becoming a two-time All-American at UCLA. During her rookie season with the Liberty, she started almost every game, averaging 8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and over 20 minutes in 32 games. These consistent stats have helped her spend more time on the court than any player in her draft class, lead all WNBA rookies in points per game, and finish second among freshmen for. the rebounds.

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Although Liberty lost in the first round of the WNBA playoffs a few weeks ago, Onyenwere’s latest accolade – she is the first player in Liberty franchise history to win it – indicates that she could help the team reach greater heights in the years to come. Here, we chatted with the local basketball star about what it means to win the freshman award, his family’s famous internet reaction to the April Draft, and the potential to bring in WNBA talent. in Denver.

5280: Just six months after making Colorado history as a first-round pick, you were awarded the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award. How do you feel after the news?
Michaela Onyen were: It was just such an honor to be able to get this recognition. It’s really cliché, but I really couldn’t have done it without my coaches and the support staff we had. They believed in me from the start, even when I was talking to Coach Walt [Hopkins] during the writing process — just the way he spoke to me, the way the organization works — it’s really second to none. And so I’m super grateful that I was able to be in this position.

Your family, especially your mom and grandmother, went viral in April for the hype they had on draft day when you were picked by New York Liberty. Did they have a similar reaction to your new award?
They were really, really happy for me. However, that’s exactly how my family is: super supportive of everything I’ve done, whether it’s on or off the pitch. So yeah, they’re really excited – I got a call from my grandma; I miss Grandma. They’ve always been my support system that I’ve been able to lean on all of those times, so it was really good to have that.

You came into this season after four years at UCLA, had to be in a different job, and played more minutes than any other freshman. Not only have you adapted to this environment, but you have thrived. Did you expect to have the rookie year you did?
I will not tell. My expectations were definitely to do the things I could control, to be a good teammate, to give everything I could for my team and to have that at the forefront of my brain. When I got the starting role of Coach Walt, I was surprised. He told me that in our scrum against Connecticut, actually… I really didn’t expect it.

Obviously, training camp was going well, but you don’t expect to come out of the gates, you know? I was just in college a month ago and then started your first pro game the following week. So that was really a surprise but as the season went on I think I definitely got used to it and was able to help my team in any way I could.

The home stretch of the season has been a battle, but you played a major role in building your team to that first-round playoff spot late last month. What was it like to land that and play in the playoffs with your team?
There have been a lot of ups and downs in our season, and we’ve had a lot of adversity. But being able to have that playoff spot and be the first team since 2017 to land that playoff spot was huge for our team. Obviously [it was] not the way we wanted it to end. But it’s a start, and it’s the start of something special for our team. We definitely earned it this way, where we had to solve a lot of tough tight games – and we actually lost a lot of tight games. So I think the experience for us will be really beneficial… having those close games and stuff like that. But we’re really, really proud of ourselves in this way, where we can continue to build on that next year.

With a young core, the Liberty is definitely positioned to carve out a competitive niche in the years to come. As New Rookie of the Year, how do you see your role in this building process heading into next season?
First and foremost, it’s really about doing what I need to do for my team. But I also think that improving this season, when we’re not playing in the WNBA, will be really important to me, just to continue to perfect what I’m already decent enough for and then work on a few things to be consistent with. But whatever role I get or win next year, I will play my role the best I can, and I will do whatever I can to help my team, whether it’s initially, off the bench, whatever it is, I’ll just be happy to do it for my team.

The league is also poised for growth. As one of the many Colorado women making waves in college and pro basketball right now, what do you think of the possibility of bringing WNBA talent to Denver?
That would be cool ! I feel like it would be so easy because we have the Nuggets, so it could be in… What do they call it now? The ball arena? Which is weird… I’m not going to call it the Ball Arena. (Laughs) But, I think it would be such a good transition. There have been so many professional Colorado athletes who have skyrocketed and really succeeded in the last few years. Exposure is really important to our game, and expansion is really important to create that exposure. I would be all for it.

Madi Skahill

Madi Skahill

Madi oversees the social media strategy for the 5280 and 5280 Home accounts, as well as writes and edits stories for 5280.com.

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