August 21, 2023
Michaela Onyenwere regaining groove this season with Phoenix Mercury
'I've seen her grow the most from her 3-point shooting. And expanding her game and being able to be an inside player and an outside player', Blue said
In 2021, the sky seemed to be the limit for Michaela Onyenwere‘s WNBA career.
The No. 6 pick in the 2021 draft showed the three teams that held the first five picks of the draft that they may have made a big mistake not drafting her. Playing for the New York Liberty, Onyenwere was tops among rookies in points per game, points scored, field goals, 3-pointers and minutes played per game. She was also second out of the 2021 rookie class in rebounds per game. She averaged 8.6 PPG and 2.9 RPG in 22.2 MPG. She won Rookie of the Month in all four months of the 2021 season and the Rookie of the Year Award.
Despite the Liberty sneaking into the playoffs in 2021, the team decided to part ways with head coach Walt Hopkins in December of that year. The Liberty decided to hire longtime Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, who was coming off of a year in Phoenix where she had led the Mercury to an appearance in the 2021 WNBA Finals.
Playing in Brondello’s system, Onyenwere took a major step in the wrong direction. Her MPG decreased to 13.7, and she only started one contest compared to the 29 starts she made in 2021. She averaged just 4.7 points per game and shot only 37.7%.
Onyenwere credited having to adapt to a new coaching staff and a bad ankle sprain she suffered overseas that caused her to miss much of training camp as reasons 2022 was not as good as 2021.
“New coaching staff – I wouldn’t say that’s the only reason, but a new coaching staff is always hard to kind of adjust to,” Onyenwere said. “I was hurt coming into training camp as well, so that probably didn’t help my case as well. I think I had a hard time just kind of learning where my role was on the team.”
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In the offseason, Onyenwere was acquired by the Mercury as part of a four-team trade. She discussed how it was tough for her at first because she had become so ingrained in the New York community and the trade came out of nowhere.
While she was a bit sad to leave New York, Onyenwere said she had “great people” in her corner who allowed her to realize how good of an opportunity the trade to Phoenix was for her. And after some time, she became thankful for it, something she mentioned continues to this day. She continues to be grateful to have the ability to contribute, compete and help the Mercury win games.
Onyenwere has not just contributed this season. She has had a career year. She is averaging a career-high 9.1 PPG and 3.8 RPG. Her 42.8% field goal percentage and 34.4% 3-point percentage are also career highs. In a WNBA season riddled with injuries, she has played all 32 games for Phoenix this season and is averaging a career-high 22.5 MPG. She has filled multiple roles this season, starting when needed and also being a bench spark.
Mercury interim head coach Nikki Blue spoke on where she has seen Onyenwere grow the most, referencing her 3-point shooting and her ability to switch between being a post player and a perimeter player.
“I’ve seen her grow the most from her 3-point shooting,” Blue said. “She’s really been in the gym before practices. She stays late. And she’s trying to become more consistent from the 3-point line. And just expanding her game and being able to be an inside player and an outside player. She was a four in college. … And her making that transition to the guard spot just has really been a process and we feel that on our team, she can play the post, she can play the post as well as the perimeter. Being a positionless player in this league is very valuable.”
Phoenix forward Sophie Cunningham heaped praises on Onyenwere. She talked about how she loves having Onyenwere on the team. Cunningham complimented Onyenwere’s competitiveness, strength and ability to drive to the basket. She also echoed Blue by pointing out Onyenwere’s versatility, saying her teammate can guard all five positions on the floor.
Onyenwere credits much of her success this season to playing overseas this past WNBA offseason for Perfumerias Avenida in Salamanca, Spain.
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“I was able to have the opportunity to play with a great club in Avenida who has been one of the top in … Europe for a very long time,” Onyenwere said. “And so I feel like in that I was able to be really confident. They put me in positions to be really successful and that translates. And so I was playing pretty much the entire offseason, so coming into training camp this year, I was really confident.”
With the season winding down, the battle for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player Award has heated up. Players in the mix for the award are Los Angeles Sparks guard Jordin Canada, Chicago Sky forward Alanna Smith, Onyenwere’s Phoenix teammate Sug Sutton, Connecticut Sun guard-forward DiJonai Carrington and Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally.
When asked if she would like to win the award, Onyenwere said she would, but she realizes there are a lot of good choices.
“Obviously, that would be definitely a great accomplishment,” Onyenwere said. “It’s always nice to put in the work and be recognized, but there’s so many candidates for it. There’s so many people who have done so well this year, who really improved from the year before.”
Written by Jesse Morrison
Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.