WNBA rookie notebook: Michaela Onyenwere impressing with Liberty

Chicago Sky forward Ruthy Hebard, left, and New York Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere, right, battle for the ball during a WNBA basketball game Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Chicago. (Eileen T. Meslar/AP)

The 2021 WNBA rookie class features no shortage of tremendous-looking talent, saw some surprises on draft night and even some heartbreak. With a third of the season already in the books, here’s a look at how this rookie crop is already starting to shape the future of the league.

Liberty’s pick pays off

Sixth-overall pick Michaela Onyenwere’s game from her UCLA days has easily transferred to New York Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins’ offensive system.

Onyenwere has started all nine games for the Liberty so far and has even already notched a career high of 29 points in a game. Of the Liberty players who have played in all nine games, Onyenwere trails only Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu in scoring average – something that shouldn’t come as a surprise as she was the Bruins’ leading scorer for three straight seasons previously.

Rebuild rookies

Teams like Atlanta and Indiana lucked out after their rocky 2020 seasons knowing they had top-five draft picks to try and help bring themselves back to the win column.

No. 3 overall pick Aari McDonald had a slower start to her rookie campaign for the Dream in comparison to others, but had back-to-back 15-point games against the Minnesota Lynx earlier this season. Now she is starting to find her groove in a talented guard lineup of Tiffany Hayes, Courtney Williams and Chennedy Carter, whose current injury leaves room for McDonald to squeeze in more time in this talented backcourt to develop.

As for Indiana, they’ve only managed to find one win this season while fourth-overall pick Kysre Gondrezick is seeing limited playing time off the bench as veterans Kelsey Mitchell, Danielle Robinson and Teaira McCowan get the bulk of minutes as the Fever have tried to turn things around. One positive from Gondrezick’s time, however, is that she’s been deadly from deep, shooting 42.1 per cent from three-point range, one of the many reasons Fever general manager Tamika Catchings was confident in her pick from West Virginia that many didn’t understand at on draft night.

Best of the bench

The Dallas Wings had four draft picks in the first two rounds and picked up both the first- and second-overall picks in Charli Collier and Awak Kuier. Additionally, they also picked up Chelsea Dungee at No. 5 and Dana Evans at No. 13, who is now with Chicago.

Though the Wings currently have a 5-4 record, they’ve won three of their last four games, including important wins over the defending champion Seattle Storm and the Phoenix Mercury. None of the Wings rookies, other than Collier, are yet to start a game, and even Collier is only averaging 13.6 minutes per game.

Collier’s impact so far has been seen on both sides of the ball, but it looks like the other Wings youngsters will have to wait for their time as players like Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey have been strong for Dallas this season and are looking a lot more up to standard than they did last year.

And as for former Baylor teammates DiJonai Carrington and Didi Richards, they’re both enjoying the ride as their teams play good basketball. Richards, a Liberty rookie, is sitting back and observing players like Laney and Ionescu and learning in her limited minutes. With that said, she likely will never score as much as her veteran counterparts as that isn’t a major part of her game. Richards is a defensive force, a weakness of the Liberty and something that figures to be a continued asset for New York.

As for Carrington, the Connecticut Sun have been hot (pun intended). The team only has two losses this season, losing by a combined eight points between the two games including an overtime loss to the Lynx. The Sun are performing well because of their incredibly well-rounded squad that Carrington’s play mirrors.

The rookie had 10 points in 17 minutes against a tough Washington Mystics squad a couple weeks ago, and was one of five players in that contest to score in double digits. The end of the 2020 season showed that Connecticut was here to play, and as they continue to rack up wins, Carrington will get more chances to grow alongside Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner.

Shattered dreams

The unfortunate reality of the WNBA is that with limited roster spots, year-round play overseas and now an AmeriCup and Olympic year upcoming, transactions in the league have been constant with waived players and hardship contracts being signed every other day, injuries happening far too often and talented rookies not getting the chance to achieve their dreams.

The Chicago Sky, who drafted Australian teen Shyla Heal eighth overall, ended up trading the rookie for Dana Evans, and Heal was immediately waived by the Wings. Though Heal is confident she will be back in the league, as she is currently just 19, visa issues and a delayed arrival to Chicago ended her rookie campaign far too early. The Sky, who already only have 10 roster spots due to salary issues, also waived and re-signed rookie Natasha Mack to hardship contracts on-and-off all season – currently Mack has been waived, but her status with the team legitimately changes daily. Mack has only appeared in three games for the Sky, averaging two points and 1.3 rebounds per game in five minutes.

As far as injuries go, the Los Angeles Sparks’ Jasmine Walker and Lynx rookie Rennia Davis have both been forced to miss the rest of the season. Walker suffered an ACL tear on May 26 while playing against the Las Vegas Aces. The Sparks sit at .500 with a 4-4 record.

As for Davis, she hasn’t appeared in any games for the Lynx this season as the guard suffered a stress fracture in her foot during her time at the University of Tennessee, with pain increasing during training camp in Minnesota. The Lynx were also without Kayla McBride and Napheesa Collier to start their season, but have won three of their last four games, and will look to get back on track with their returns. However, since the roster is not below 10, they can’t replace Davis with a hardship contract exception.

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