• The San Juan Daily Star

Star rookie and veterans steer Liberty’s rocky season to the playoffs

Michaela Onyenwere, second from right, had a breakout rookie season for the Liberty, who are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

By Kelly Whiteside

Michaela Onyenwere’s WNBA career began with a celebration that spread across social media timelines and mentions. When the New York Liberty drafted her No. 6 overall in April, a video stream of her dancing grandmother took center stage. Theresa Duru wore traditional Nigerian apparel, including a head tie, called a gele, that billowed toward the ceiling like a cumulus cloud as she busted moves and turned heads. Duru became a meme and a tagline: “We’re all Grandma.”

For Onyenwere, the feel-good mood continued throughout the season. The 6-foot forward from UCLA started all but three games, averaged 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game and became the lopsided favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award.

On Monday, Onyenwere was named Rookie of the Month for the fourth consecutive time, sweeping the award for the season. “Again,” her teammate Betnijah Laney said. “All year. Reigning Rookie of the Month. We know what that means.”

Onyenwere said she knew who would be celebrating the most if she were to win the rookie award for the overall season. “I just can already imagine the call that I’m going to get from my grandma,” Onyenwere said. “Oh, my gosh. She’s going to be super, super, super excited. As soon as it happens, she’s going to be screaming on the phone.”

The season has been an emotional ride for the 12-20 Liberty, full of setbacks and surprises. They went into their final regular-season game on an eight-game losing streak last week but held off the Washington Mystics to keep their slight playoff hopes alive.

Though the Liberty won only two games after the Olympic break, a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2017 remained possible. To clinch the last playoff spot, the team needed the Mystics and the Los Angeles Sparks to lose Sunday. After both teams obliged, Onyenwere, who watched the games with teammates, posted a happy dance on Instagram Live.

Walt Hopkins, the team’s second-year head coach, was watching Sunday, too. Hopkins, 36, holds master’s degrees from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. His studies focused on applying findings from social, developmental and educational psychology to coaching settings.

He often seems both earnest and erudite, a hoop head on the verge of delivering an academic dissertation at any moment.

During a news conference Monday, a reporter asked Hopkins what his Sunday was like, given that the coach likes to focus on only what he can control.

“I just got drunk,” Hopkins deadpanned. “I was just drunk the whole day.” Then he smiled and said he had watched the games and prepared for the Phoenix Mercury, who will play the Liberty in a single-elimination game Thursday. Boring. But prudent.

There were many unknowns entering this season. With one of the youngest teams in the league, the Liberty fortified their roster with veterans, including forward Natasha Howard, a three-time WNBA champion and the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year; Laney, who was named the Most Improved Player last season; and Sami Whitcomb, who won two championships with the Seattle Storm.

Second-year forward Jocelyn Willoughby, the Liberty’s top performer in training camp, tore an Achilles tendon during a preseason scrimmage, ending her season and opening up a spot for Onyenwere.

“Opportunity is really the thing that can separate a lot of very talented rookies for that rookie of the year race,” Hopkins said. In an unexceptional year for WNBA rookies — many of the top picks saw limited playing time — Onyenwere rose to the top of the class.

“Michaela came into camp probably the most consistent shooter on the team in preseason. She was knocking down every shot,” Hopkins said. “Her athleticism, her explosion, her defensive versatility, and then her personality is absolutely wonderful, so she really separated herself in camp.”

In the season opener, Onyenwere scored 18 points against Indiana, in a victory punctuated by Sabrina Ionescu’s game-winning 3-pointer with less than a second remaining. Onyenwere closed out the first month of her pro career with a season-high 29 points against Atlanta.

“Coming in, I didn’t expect any of this,” Onyenwere said. “I didn’t put too much pressure on myself, because I know that if I do that, I won’t play as freely as I want to.” She continued to play with joy and purpose, though an elbow injury on her shooting arm affected her 3-point accuracy.

“Mic rises to occasions in part because the pressure doesn’t affect her like it affects other people,” Hopkins said, using a nickname for Onyenwere. “I don’t think she internalizes it. I don’t think it becomes this emotional burden to her. I think it’s just like, ‘OK, cool, I got you,’ and I admire that. That’s something that’s not normal. It’s a rare characteristic.”

After starting the season 5-1, the Liberty were the toast of the league, easily surpassing their win total from last season’s 2-20 debacle. The team’s first season at Barclays Center held promise mostly because of the return of Ionescu, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick from Oregon who severely sprained an ankle in her third WNBA game and missed the rest of her rookie season.

Ionescu led the team in hype — “The Next Queen of NY” read the April/May cover of Slam magazine — and gradually adjusted to the challenges ahead of her, including playing point guard after starring as a 2-guard in college.

“It’s like Sabs played two games and she’s never played in New York to be the queen of New York,” Hopkins said. “She’s just done a truly magnificent job of balancing expectations that may have been unrealistic for a rookie.”

Injuries slowed the team’s early progress. Howard sprained her knee at the end of May and didn’t return to the lineup until mid-August. Ankle tendinitis hobbled Ionescu in June, and the winning pace tapered off the rest of the season.

Laney proved to be the Liberty’s most consistent performer, completing a remarkable journey from castoff to All-Star. More journeyman than franchise player since the Chicago Sky drafted her in 2015, she was cut by Indiana after the 2019 season, found a spot with Atlanta last year, when she won the league’s Most Improved Player Award, then made her first All-Star team with the Liberty and led the team with 16.8 points per game this season.

So which Liberty team will emerge in the playoffs? The one that was blown off the court by Connecticut, 98-69, in the penultimate game of the regular season? “An anomaly,” Hopkins called it. Or the sharpshooting, defensive-minded, cohesive bunch that beat Washington, 91-80, on Friday? “That is the team we are right now,” Hopkins said.