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 

New York Liberty: Three stars from Wednesday’s loss vs. Phoenix

Despite further energy from DiDi Richards, the New York Liberty couldn’t overcome a garish first quarter on Wednesday night against Phoenix.

On a night where the New York Liberty honored one of the most accomplished sharpshooters in franchise history, their visitors came ready for the occasion.

Three members of the Phoenix Mercury cross the 20-point plateau (paced by 27 from Skylar Diggins-Smith) while Brianna Turner (10 points, 12 rebounds) earned her third double-double over the last four games. Their antics paced a 35-19 first quarter advantage, which was enough to power the Mercury to a 106-79 victory over the Liberty on Wednesday night at Barclays Center. Their visit coincided with the Liberty’s induction of Crystal Robinson, the franchise’s all-time leader in three-pointers (400), into their Ring of Honor.

Phoenix (14-10) has now won five in a row to move into fifth place on the WNBA playoff bracket. The Liberty (11-15) have dropped four of their first five in the post-Olympic slate. A chance for redemption awaits on Friday night in a rematch with the Mercury (8 p.m. ET, CBSSN).

Brittney Griner had 26 points for the Mercury but left the game with a late injury that required assistance from trainers to leave the floor. Wednesday also marked a homecoming showcase for Kia Nurse, the Liberty first-round pick from 2018. Nurse earned six points after being dealt from New York to the desert in the multi-team deal that brought Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb to Brooklyn.

ESM has three silver linings from this latest defeat.

3rd Star: Bec Allen

12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals

2nd Star: Betnijah Laney

20 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists

1st Star: DiDi Richards

14 points, 3 rebounds

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

New York Liberty: 3 stars from Wednesday’s win vs. Seattle

The Bank of New York was open late on Wednesday night, as Betnijah Laney’s jumper won it for the New York Liberty.

Betnijah Laney cashed a valuable check at the Bank of New York on Wednesday night.

The 2021 WNBA All-Star’s fourth quarter jumper banked home with 17.6 seconds left, breaking the New York Liberty’s tie with the defending champion Seattle Storm. It was the last of Laney’s 17 team-high points on the night, an honor she shared with Bec Allen off the bench, and the Liberty earned an 83-79 victory at Barclays Center. The Liberty (11-12) overcame a diamond performance from Seattle Jewell Loyd, who tallied a career-best 35 points over the first three quarters. Wednesday was a comeback effort for the Liberty, who trailed by as many as 15 and wiped out a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter.

New York and Seattle (16-7) will meet again in Brooklyn on Friday night (7 p.m. ET, YES).

ESM has three game balls to bestow from a crucial win for the Liberty…

Allen struggled in her first go-around since coming back from representing Australia in the Tokyo Olympics but showed off an electrifying souvenir on Wednesday. Leading the way off the bench for an eight-woman rotation for New York, Allen sank three huge triples in the fourth carter, breaking double figures for the first time since June 20. Allen shot 5-of-9 from the field, including 5-of-6 from a Land Down Under alone…OK, they weren’t that far, but they still paved the for the Liberty’s win.

3rd Star: Bec Allen

17 points, 6 rebounds

2nd Star: Betnijah Laney

17 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds

Laney didn’t reach her customary 20 points but emerged with something far more valuable: a win. The Liberty’s All-Star was a woman of many talents on Wednesday night, falling respectfully short of a triple-double. If the Liberty are able to clinch a playoff spot…and, perhaps more importantly, host their first playoff game since 2017…Laney’s shot will go down as one of the symbolic turning points in the team’s ongoing “hybrid rebuild”. The win loses a quantum of luster knowing that league legends Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart didn’t play, but a win over the defending champs in spite of one of the better shooters having a career night…all while the team’s face of the future provides the heroics…could be long remembered in Liberty land.

1st Star: DiDi Richards

9 points, 2 assists

Richards’ numbers were relatively pedestrian but Wednesday set the stage for an incredible showcase. Having been held scoreless since June 24, the Liberty’s second-round pick sank all three of her attempts to set an infantile career-high. Richards, known for her defense at Baylor, also came huge on the other end, holding Loyd scoreless over the final ten minutes. Her most notable contributions to the team, the endless energy seen through her infectious smile and unrelenting tenacity, will probably never be measured by any box score metric. But Richards’ activities…diving for loose balls, attacking the paint, and a new sense of fearless shooting…could help make her case to stick around for the Liberty’s long run.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: 3 stars from Thursday’s loss vs. Chicago

A second onslaught from the Chicago Sky doomed the New York Liberty to their fourth loss in their last six.

A garish second quarter led to the New York Liberty’s downfall on Thursday night, as a four-point deficit ballooned to 28. The Chicago Sky were paced by 18 points from Diamond DeShields and Kahleah Copper while Candace Parker earned another double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds in what became a 91-68 victory over New York (7-8). Chicago has now won seven in a row, the latter two coming at Barclays Center in a back-to-back, the first segment coming on Tuesday.

ESM has three silver linings from Thursday’s loss…

3rd Star: DiDi Richards

3 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal (11 minutes)

As things became ridiculously dire for the Liberty…down a whopping 28 points after a brutal second quarter…Richards played the role of beautifier, invading the interior to generate some strong opportunities. Chalk it up to the lingering hockey season, but Richards’ impact was best demonstrated in her plus/minus. New York was a jaw-dropping +12 when she was on the floor.

2nd Star: Kylee Shook 

6 points, 11 rebounds

It was easy for Shook’s interior antics to get lost in another defeat, especially with Candace Parker making yet another MVP case in relatively stifled minutes. But Shook hauled in an infantile career-best in rebounds and held Parker and Stefanie Dolson to relatively manageable numbers. The Liberty’s true sin on Thursday was letting Chicago’s deadly outside game get going, as DeShields and Allie Quigley sank three triples each.

1st Star: Michaela Onyenwere

16 points, 6 rebounds

Onyenwere made a valiant effort to penetrate the Chicago paint in the early stages of the game, but her efforts were rewarded with futility. She shot 1-of-10 in the first half, though she managed to clean things up by (along with Bec Allen) forcing Chicago into five quick fouls over the first four minutes of the second quarter, all of which produced free throws. Onyenwere found redemption in the second half, contributing to a relative surge (New York won the second half 41-36) by shooting 4-of-7 from the field.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: 3 stars from Monday’s win vs. Dallas

Despite losing Natasha Howard to an injury, the New York Liberty were able to sweep a back-to-back headed into a four-day break.

Forced to play three games in three cities over a four-day span, the New York Liberty learned in the most enjoyable way that two out of three isn’t bad.

Betnijah Laney scored 26 points, while Sabrina Ionescu (15 points, 9 assists) fell just short of a double-double en route to an 88-81 victory on Monday night at Barclays Center. The game was previously scheduled for Tuesday night but moved due to the Brooklyn Nets’ NBA playoff series against the Boston Celtics.

ESM has three heroines from Monday’s game…

3rd Star: DiDi Richards

3 points, 5 assists, 2 steals 

The energetic Richards, chosen in the second round in last month’s draft, has quickly become a fan favorite in New York. She cemented that status on Monday through the basketball’s de facto equivalent of a hockey fight, diving for a loose ball late in the first half that more or less changed the course of the game. At the time of Richards’ gritty display, the lethargic Liberty trailed 39-31. Over the final 1:54, they went on an 8-0 run to create a tie game and go into the half on a good note.

2nd Star: Betnijah Laney

Death. Taxes. Betnijah Laney scoring 20 points in a Liberty uniform.

The trend came to pass once again on Monday, as Laney once again broke the double-decalogue plateau. She likewise dealt the Brooklyn fans an unintentional scare, as she took an elbow to the mouth in the penultimate minute of the ball game while going for a rebound. Fortunately, she returned to the floor and went on to sink several free throws that played a role in securing the win.

1st Star: Natasha Howard

17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists

Time will tell if Howard is able to build on her strong debut. The three-time WNBA champion left Monday’s game with a late knee injury sustained while setting a pick, but she made her prescience felt. What’s impressive about her early showings is that she has yet to partake in a single practice with the team, having only joined the team on Sunday, immediately before this back-to-back.

The Liberty (5-1) return to action on Saturday afternoon against the Atlanta Dream at Barclays Center (2 p.m. ET, YES App/Amazon Prime). 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags