2021 was a big year for the New York Liberty, who ended a four-year playoff drought. One of the players who helped them reach the playoffs was rookie forward Michaela Onyenwere, who made a bigger impact than most first-year players.
Coming out of UCLA, Onyenwere was drafted No. 6 overall in the 2021 WNBA Draft. She promptly made the starting lineup and started 29 of 32 games, averaging 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.
Onyenwere was the best rookie in the WNBA for the entirety of the season, sweeping the Rookie of the Month awards, making her just the fifth player in history to do so. When the Rookie of the Year voting finally took place, she was two votes shy of unanimous.
In 2022, Onyenwere will be splitting time between the Liberty and Spain's prestigious Spar Girona. With all of that experience, it may not be long before she's one of the biggest stars in the WNBA.
We caught up with Michaela to discuss the season that was, her recent partnership with Mobil 1, her favorite WNBA players and the LeBron vs. MJ debate.
This interview is made possible by Mobil 1:
TheSpun: You’ve teamed with Mobil 1 in their Project Backboard campaign. What made you want to get on board with this campaign right now?
Michaela Onyenwere: New York has become my home over the last year. So when this was brought to me I was very thrilled to be able to partner with Mobil 1 for the Tune Up program, where we are trying to refurbish outdoor courts. In New York outdoor courts are a very big deal so I wanted to give back to the community. I think our artist, Andre, did a great job creating a beautiful piece in the design department.
TheSpun: You were just named the WNBA Rookie of the Year. But how would you sum up your season?
MO: I don’t think it was the hardest transition. I came from a great program at UCLA and I came in with the mindset that I’m going to do whatever I can for my team. As a rookie you’re not really sure of your place or your role, but I knew that my mindset was to do what I was asked to do. On the bench, on the court, starter, non-starter, that was going to be my constant. Obviously I was placed into the starting role, which I was not expecting, but I took that challenge on and accepted that challenge.
Throughout the year I took a very confident approach to the season. Playing at a different level, I was excited to compete a lot with my teammates and getting them into the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
So I would describe my rookie year as “eventful” and “exciting,” and I’m looking forward to Year 2.
TheSpun: Were there any specific goals that you set for yourself before the season?
MO: For me I didn’t really come in with a lot of goals. My mindset was to do what I can for my team.
I think that one goal that transpired for our team was to make the playoffs. So when we did we were really excited. Obviously we were able to play against Phoenix and get that experience, but I’m even more excited to build on that. We want to make the playoffs again - and not just make the playoffs but go far.
TheSpun: How will you go farther next season?
MO: I think for us the experience was good for us. We had a lot of new pieces coming to our team who were rookies. So it was a very new team. I think our experience will be so essential for us this year.
We (now) know what it’s like to work hard. We know what it feels like to face adversity. We know what it takes to pick ourselves back up. When we lose eight straight games we have to pick ourselves back up. So this year when that happens we say to ourselves “Okay, we need to snip it in the bud” and operate differently from last year.
And the culture that Coach Sandy (Brondello) brought us and what it will bring this year - I think that will help us get there next year. The WNBA is a hard league. It’s hard to win in this league. There’s a lot of great players, great teams. But at the end of the day it is about the individual teams… So I’m excited.
TheSpun: You also joined Girona for the upcoming season. What made you want to join that club too and have you visited Spain yet?
MO: I actually just got back from Spain two weeks ago. That was a special experience for me. I actually got to play with my college teammate Kennedy Burke, and that experience definitely an opportunity to see different types of basketball - just how it’s played in Europe against other European women. It challenges how you play.
I was really excited to play and be a part of that team. I was really excited to play alongside Laia Palau as well in her final year. So I think I learned a lot that will help me play in this upcoming year as well.
TheSpun: You were born in Colorado, went to UCLA for college and now find yourself as a star in New York City. How has the transition into the big city life been for you - especially in the middle of a pandemic?
MO: I think it was definitely an eye-opener for me. Colorado and California are two very different places from New York. I was like a deer in headlights (moving here). Just how people operate is very different from where I’m from. At first I didn’t know how I’d fit in in New York, but then learning the restaurants around here, the people around here, the things to do around here, I was just like “I love it so much.” And I think that’s why partnering with Mobil 1 and giving back to the community means so much more to me. I’m not a New York native. But it has become my community. It has become my home. I love New York now.
TheSpun: Which basketball players inspired you growing up?
MO: I’m of Nigerian descent, so the Nigerian basketball players who played in the WNBA specifically Nneka Ogwumike. She’s someone who people were saying to me, “Oh, you player like her.” And I was encouraged to watch her more. Having Nigerian heritage really connected her and I in a different way.
But I also love Elena Delle Donne. She’s my favorite player of all time and she signed my jersey in my rookie year. So that was a surreal experience for me. I love what she stands for. I love her story. I love her game as well. And I love the way she plays. I feel like I modeled my game around Nneka when I was younger, but I’ve learned to love Elena Delle Donne.
TheSpun: Has women’s basketball game changed for you since you were younger?
MO: Absolutely. I think as far as on the court, people are more versatile. You see taller people people being guards. You see more people on the perimeter. It’s a more versatile game than it was just FIVE years ago when I was in college.
You see new waves of talent coming in, making the game just really exciting. Back when I was in college the WNBA wasn’t like this. The eyes on this game have broadened. People are watching the WNBA a lot more than they were before. That’s a testament to the marketability of the league. Fans want to buy in and watch this market of basketball. It’s definitely shifted and changed. But I’m excited for what the WNBA is doing now.
TheSpun: Who would you put on the Mt. Rushmore of Women’s Basketball?
MO: Maya Moore, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Diana Taurasi
TheSpun: Who would you put on the Mt. Rushmore of Men’s Basketball?
MO: Kobe, LeBron, Michael Jordan… and (thinks for a moment) Kareem.
TheSpun: Let’s have a fun speed round: LeBron or Michael Jordan?
TheSpun: Kentucky Derby or Formula 1?
MO: I’m gonna go with the Kentucky Derby. I like the derby because it’s fun to see the horses.
TheSpun: Football, baseball or soccer?
TheSpun: The World Cup or the Super Bowl?
MO: I’m gonna go with the Super Bowl. It’s more exciting because my family and I (I don’t really love football) would get together at my grandma’s house to watch it every year. So I’m going with the Super Bowl.
TheSpun: Favorite sports teams? Be careful how you answer this one!
MO: The Denver Nuggets because I’m from Colorado. The Denver Broncos because I’m from Colorado.
TheSpun: PlayStation, XBox, PC or Nintendo?
MO: When I was younger I had a Nintendo DS, so I’m gonna go with Nintendo (laughs).
TheSpun: Marvel or DC?
TheSpun: What’s one final message you have for any youngster with dreams of being a WNBA player or even a professional basketball player in other leagues?
MO: For me, speaking from personal experience, there’s three things that I attest a lot of what’s happened for me to this day. Confidence, self discipline and consistency. If you can get those things down to a T, you’ll have really good success. There’s no secret sauce to work ethic, you just have to get in the gym, the field, the court, be disciplined enough to show up every day and be confident in yourself.
Have a lot of fun. Enjoy the sport. Separate the sport from your identity as well. It’s really important as an athlete to separate who you are from what you do.
TheSpun: Lastly, the WNBA is going to be showing support for Brittney Griner this season. Is there any message you have for Brittney Griner and her family right now?
MO: I would say that we show our support for Brittney Griner at this time. She’s one of our own, so obviously we want her back. And I’m wishing her and her family the best.
At 22 years of age, Michaela Onyenwere is in a position to be playing at a very high level of basketball for a very long time. We wish her the best in her career moving forward.