October 7, 2021 

‘There’s no going back’: The 2022 Liberty are on the Michaela Onyenwere plan

Both Onyenwere and DiDi Richards shattered expectations; New York aims to do the same

The New York Liberty’s Michaela Onyenwere received 47 total votes out of 49 to win the 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year award. After a whirlwind of a six months that included losing to Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament, moving back home to Colorado, planning a draft party, getting drafted and then finally moving to New York for her rookie season, Onyenwere took some time to reflect on social media, posting a long message to her Instagram profile, some of which read:

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So in the most humble way possible:

This is for all of those who wrote that without my athleticism, I wouldn’t be good at this game.

This if for the skeptics who tried to place this “tweener” marrative on me in such a negative light, questioning where and whether I belonged in this league.

This is for those who questioned my decision to declare for the draft asking why I didn’t opt to stay another year.

This is for those who doubted if my game would translate to the professional level.

Onyenwere addressed head-on a narrative that has followed her since she was a teenager. Would she be able to be the stretch four or three the Liberty needed her to be? Was she a “tweener”? Could she hit threes consistently?

Amid the doubt that has followed her, it pushed her to work harder. And that same very sentiment followed the 2021 New York Liberty, who many believed coming off an eight-game losing streak wouldn’t and couldn’t find a way into the playoffs. In previous Liberty seasons, a long losing streak meant it was all over. In 2018 the Liberty ended their season losing 13 in a row. The following year, New York went on two losing streaks of eight and six games to end the regular season. And in 2020, the Liberty won only twice in a 22-game regular season. 

“We went on an eight-game losing streak and [the coaching staff] still stuck with us and rolled with us,” Reshanda Gray, who had been on the 2019 roster said. “We won the last game and we ended up making the playoffs.”

Onyenwere’s peer and fellow rookie DiDi Richards landed with the ROY on the 2021 All-Rookie team. When Richards was asked what her favorite moments were in what was also a whirlwind of a rookie season, she immediately responded that the team’s trip to Napa was something she won’t forget. But her on-court memory was a loss — with purpose.

“I really hate that we lost this Phoenix game because I think that was hands down the best game,” she said during her season-ending Zoom interview with media members. “We played so well together. We gelled as a team.”

She spoke about where that all began, that momentum. She recalled their regular-season finale against the Mystics at home, where the Liberty found themselves and defeated their former franchise player in the process.

“I think that was just a glimpse of what we could have been this season,” Richards said. “It was so fun to be on the court with a team that was so coherent. It looked like we had so much fun out there.”

The New York Liberty celebrate success during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Washington Mystics at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY, USA on September 19, 2021. Photo Credit: Jessie Louie, Just Women’s Sports.

That’s the message coming out of New York Liberty camp as the team and their staff all go their separate ways into the next six months which includes overseas basketball, individual skill work and some decisions to make in this winter’s free agency period. New York aims to start the 2022 season how they finished 2021: with chemistry, cohesion and even some fun.

“It’s exciting for sure,” Sabrina Ionescu said on the momentum her team hopes to carry into the 2022 season amid the loss. “I think it hurts more because we knew that we should have won that last game, and we could have continued to advance and exceed expectation and achieve what we knew we could achieve. So I think that part is something that we’re all still holding on to but I think it shows and shines light on the growth of this team, the growth of the coaching staff and their belief in us and what we can accomplish.” 

But how did the Liberty get to a point where they feel confident and motivated rather than deflated heading into the offseason? A vast majority of the team dealt with that deflation during the regular season. Between going through professional growing pains and injuries, New York walked away from a taste of the postseason with a sense of their own aptitude.

“When it comes to defying the odds, I’m able to do that,” Richards said about what she learned about herself in her first professional season. “In Baylor in college, I played 40 minutes. Here I come, I get hurt, I get COVID, I don’t play and now I’m barely hanging onto a spot on this team and so it’s about being able to look adversity in the eye and be able to defy it no matter what odds are against you.”

According to Sami Whitcomb, the belief in their on-court culture and identity which includes “outworking teams” and prioritizing focus on 50-50 balls was critical and will be equally critical for the Liberty’s success moving forward. The way New York will build on these habits is by holding each other accountable, meaning working just as hard during the offseason. The Liberty’s culture will be omnipresent. No matter where the 2021 roster is in the world, the expectation from the coaching staff coming out of their exit interviews with players is that their time away from New York should be used intentionally. Hopkins urged his players to harness the disappointment that came from the close losses and heavy turnover games as fuel to keep working. Even if they are expected to perform certain functions internationally, it will be vital for players to continue adding and refining skills that are neeed to play in New York. 

But this effort goes both ways. Hopkins noted that he and his staff will maintain contact with players into the fall and winter months, checking in on the work they do along with guiding them as well.

Kylee Shook, who went overseas only briefly last season, explained her over-arching action plan for the offseason. “I plan… I mean basically work on everything: my shot, handles being aggressive, being able to drive just add stuff to my game, post up. In the offseason, just getting better.”

Betnijah Laney answered quite simply as well to the question of how the Liberty are going to maintain this momentum without being together for around six months. “Whatsapp,” she said. Bec Allen whispered under her breath: “There’s no going back.”

Keeping in contact is going to be the key for players themselves to hold each other accountable and prevent any type of offseason regression or slippage. Another goal for the Liberty will be remaining healthy or getting healthy in the offseason. In 2021, over half of the roster dealt with an injury throughout the season and that doesn’t include Jocelyn Willoughby, who missed her entire second season recovering from a ruptured Achilles she suffered in the preseason. “Like our whole team this year, all collectively together, all healthy, we probably played six, six or seven games together if you think about it,” Jazmine Jones noted.

One of Onyenwere’s goals this offseason will be getting healthy herself. Her Spanish team Spar Girona reported that she suffered a ligament rupture on her hand and she’ll need surgery. She confirmed this when she accepted the ROY award on Tuesday.

“Yeah I’m doing well,” she said. “I was evaluated and unfortunately I do have to have surgery soon but more information will be available soon.” The team announced less than a day later on Wednesday that Onyenwere had undergone successful surgery by the Liberty’s official hand specialist Dr. Duretti Fufa at Hospital for Special Surgery. According to a paper written by Daniel M. Avery, III, Elizabeth R. Inkellis, and Michelle G. Carlson called Thumb collateral ligament injuries in the athlete, patients had a full return to activities from two-to-three-and-a-half months and range of motion, grip and pinch strength returned to normal after six months following surgery.

Onyenwere will have her virtual village beside her as she recovers — her family, friends, current and former coaches and her Liberty teammates. A bunch of them suffered serious injuries this season, including Natasha Howard, Ionescu, DiDi Richards and Neah Odom, who all noted that it tested them mentally and emotionally. But they’ll be there and ready to support her when she needs it.

The same group that helped Onyenwere continue on and defy all expectations, including winning ROY, will have her back while she recovers.

“There are so many people who have believed in me and supported me who have been there with me through my journey that like again we can say this is our award,” she said. “This is the people of Brooklyn’s award, this is New York’s award. You know I’m just really honored you know to be Rookie of the year, but there are so many other people who have contributed in that way.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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