New York Liberty rookies Onyenwere, Richards honored by WNBA

Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards’ efforts toward the New York Liberty’s playoff run were rewarded by the WNBA on Tuesday.

The WNBA named New York Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere its official 2021 Rookie of the Year on Tuesday. Onyenwere also appeared on the league’s All-Rookie team alongside teammates DiDi Richards. Through their efforts, the Liberty reached the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Onyenwere (pronounced On-yen-way-day) was a near-unanimous choice for the award, earning all but two of the 49 necessary votes. The lone outliers went to Richards and Aari McDonald of Atlanta.

“I’m so honored to be the 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year,” Onyenwere said in a team statement. “To say that I am blessed to be in this position would be an understatement. Since I was drafted, I’ve always said that I couldn’t have been placed in a better situation. The people, the culture, and the organization have all been second to none and my experience so far has been so fulfilling.”

Onyenwere was chosen sixth overall in last spring’s draft and was one of two New York representatives (along with Betnijah Laney) to appear in all 32 games this season. The UCLA alumna started the first 29 contests and led all WNBA freshmen in scoring (8.6 points per game) and minutes (22.5). She also ranked second in rebounds (2.9) behind Charli Collier of Dallas.

With the honor, Onyenwere becomes the first player in Liberty history to earned the league’s Rookie of the Year title. She also joins an illustrious list of players to take home all of the Rookie of the Month honors in a single season, appearing alongside Tina Charles, Elena Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, and Crystal Dangerfield.

“I truly couldn’t have done this without God, my family, my teammates, my coaches, and support staff who have all had a part in my development and growth this season,” she said. “Understanding the magnitude of the legacy of New York basketball and the trailblazers who have come before me, it means that much more that I’m able to be the first in Liberty history to win the Rookie of the Year Award. I’m so grateful to be here and so excited for what’s to come.”

Richards was likewise nominated to the league’s All-Rookie squad, as she and Onyenwere become the first New York teammates to appear on the honor roll since Kiah Stokes and Brittany Boyd in 2015 (teammate Jazmine Jones also appeared on last season’s edition). The Baylor alumna was chosen 17th overall in April for her defensive prowess. Richards gained a large following as one of the most inspirational stories of the draft: she returned for her senior season at Waco after a devastating injury suffered in an accidental collision at practice left her temporarily paralyzed.

Though Richards struggled to carve out a role for herself in the early going, she became one of the Liberty’s most talked-about stars in the second half of the season thanks to newfound shooting talents. After attempting over a single three-pointer over her four years with the Bears, Richards converted 9-of-15 tries from deep over the last 10 games of the regular season. She became one of the Liberty’s most trusted reserves as the season went one and partook in all but one game in her rookie year.

As she became one of the team’s most fearless shooters, Richards was also a reliable source of energy, constantly diving for loose balls and engaging in raucous bench celebrations with Jones.

“It’s an honor to be named to this year’s All-Rookie Team alongside some amazing athletes who are the future of the WNBA,” Richards said in another team statement. “Thanks to my teammates, coaches, support staff, and my family for all of their support. I’m excited to continue working on my game this offseason and look forward to 2022.”

Joining the New York pair on the All-Rookie team are Collier, McDonald, and Dana Evans of the Chicago Sky.

The WNBA Playoffs’ semifinal round continues on Wednesday night with a pair of fourth games: Evans and the sixth-seeded Sky will look to close out an upset of top-ranked Connecticut (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) while the fifth-seed Phoenix Mercury will look to do the same against No. 2 Las Vegas in the nightcap (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

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