February 13, 2023 

How trading Michaela Onyenwere helps clear up Liberty’s upcoming bench conundrum

New York clears cap space and earns rights of another talented wing

On Saturday afternoon, the Liberty announced they had officially traded 2021 rookie of the year Michaela Onyenwere to the Phoenix Mercury in a four-way trade which also included the Chicago Sky and the Dallas Wings. The Liberty received the rights to Chicago’s Leonie Fiebich, have the ability to swap a first round pick with the Phoenix Mercury in the 2025 draft, and will receive the Sky’s 2nd round pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft.

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Reports of the four-team deal appeared on Friday afternoon following a report from ESPN’s Andraya Carter that the Mercury were trading Diamond DeShields to the Dallas Wings. Winsidr’s Rachel Galligan reported that the trade was between four teams including the Mercury, Wings and Sky, and another team, but the terms were still being finalized.

Khristina Williams of Girls Talk Sports TV provided insight as to why there was a delay in getting the deal done. There was an issue getting a fourth team involved in the trade. Later she was able to report that the New York Liberty were exploring trading Onyenwere to the Mercury.

A league source told The Next that the Liberty had initially pulled out of the trade on Friday afternoon because New York wasn’t satisfied with what they would receive in return for Onyenwere. New York wanted the pick swap, and depending on how the Mercury finish during the 2024 season, the Liberty could earn a lottery pick in 2025.

Onyenwere was drafted sixth overall in the 2021 draft, and was inserted into the starting lineup to begin her rookie season. Due to Jocelyn Willoughby’s season ending achilles injury, she started in 29 out of 32 total games played during her rookie season for the Liberty, and scored 8.6 points per game, averaged 2.9 rebounds and shot 32.7 percent from three point range in 22.2 minutes per game in 2021.

In 2022, following a coaching change, new head coach Sandy Brondello’s system and style of play changed Onyenwere’s role from a smaller power forward alongside Natasha Howard or Kylee Shook at the five, to the small forward role, and sometimes coming off the bench for Howard at the four. As a result, Onyenwere’s minutes decreased to 13.7 per game and she only started once, averaging 4.7 points and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 30 percent from 3-point range.

“It was new for me,” she said of the role change during her 2022 exit interview with the media. “It was a new coaching staff, different than last year where you know, I was mainly a shooter, kind of open the floor kind of thing. Whereas here you had to really learn the game, know the game, know the reads. Setting ball screens, which was something that I wasn’t doing last year.”

While Onyenwere’s role in 2022 was less consequential than it was in 2021, she proved that she still has a bright future and can make plays at the WNBA level. The Liberty wouldn’t have beat the Chicago Sky on July 23 without Onyenwere in what was a must-win game at home, as her defense on Candace Parker — four inches taller than Onyenwere — prevented a go-ahead basket, and her defensive rebound sealed the win for the Liberty.

Still, the rationale behind New York’s willingness to trade the first rookie of the year in franchise history was a two-fold: 1) Onyenwere’s roster spot was in question with not only Breanna Stewart on roster, but she’d also slot in behind Kayla Thornton, who the Liberty acquired in the Jonquel Jones trade.

“[Onyenwere’s] contributions throughout the early parts of her career have been incredibly impressive,” Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb said in the team’s press release announcing the trade. “Mic brought unmatched energy and positivity, irrespective of her role, which speaks to her character and selflessness. She has a very bright future, and we wish her the absolute best in Phoenix where she is poised to take on a larger role.”

And 2), trading Onyenwere meant that New York could clear an additional $75,407 off their books, leaving the Liberty with $138,206 remaining in cap space. If the Liberty kept Onyenwere, and evaluated her at training camp, the team would have two weeks to figure out if they were going to guarantee her a fourth year on her rookie scale contract. But now, that is an evaluation and a decision in the hands of the Mercury, who still have a lot of cap space left.

Who is filling out the back-end of the Liberty roster?

Now what can the Liberty do with $138,206 left in cap space? Some of that money could go to Sika Koné, the Liberty’s third round pick and the No. 29 overall selection in the 2022 WNBA Draft. The Liberty announced on Friday that Koné, the 20 year-old from Mali, signed her rookie scale contract and that she will report to training camp this season. If Koné makes the team, she’d earn $62,285 following training camp.

Also, some of that leftover money could go to Epiphanny Prince, the 13-year veteran, former Liberty guard and Brooklyn native. Prince was a serviceable reserve shooting specialist for the Seattle Storm in 2022, playing 12.3 minutes per game and hitting 35.6 percent of her shots from three. Still, nothing more than a training camp contract is guaranteed as of now, and her veteran minimum salary won’t count toward the salary cap until after training camp if she makes the roster.

But then what about Han Xu and Marine Johannés, the two reserved players who were both key contributors in the Liberty’s 2022 mid-season turnaround following the team’s 1-7 start? Both players have a desire to return to New York in 2023, but some national team commitments might get in the way. For Han, the Asia Cup will run from June 26 through July 2 at QuayCentre in Sydney, Australia. This is an event that the Chinese National team is expected to compete in and one that Han could miss time in the WNBA for.

Johannés also has a complication in her schedule. First, her French season with Lyon Asvel Feminin could end between May 2 and at the absolute latest May 22. While it isn’t known how far her French club will last through the French League Playoffs, Asvel Feminin sits in second place overall at 10-2 tied with Tango Bourges Basket.

But that’s not all, Johannés will have the EuroBasket championships with the French National team that runs from June 15 through the 25 in both Tel Aviv, Israel and Ljubljana, Slovenia. Will Johannés be able to join the Liberty following the French league playoffs for a few weeks and then leave for EuroBasket or will the National team require her to train with them in preparation for the competition?

Johannés spoke on the matter during an interview following the qualifying rounds for EuroBasket.

Question: “Speaking of the WNBA, your last season team at least, got a lot stronger with Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot for example…

Johannés shakes her head up and down and smiles at the camera without her teeth.

“What’s your contract situation right now? Any news regarding next season possibly with the Liberty?”

Johannés: “Uh yeah um… I still have a contract with them. I should go this summer. Now we have to see about the [French] National Team too about the schedule and everything. We have to fix everything, but I should go there, but I’m really excited. The team is going to be great. And just like playing and learning with them on the court is going to be great for me.”

Question: “I assume the goal is to win a championship next season?”

Johannés: “I think so.”

She smiled with teeth and giggled.

Question: “Good…”

All that this indicates is that she wants to play in New York during the 2023 season, but the logistics haven’t been hammered out yet. But is there a universe where the Liberty would tell Johannés that they don’t want her in Brooklyn? As of now there is not, but this is all dependent on her availability and possibly some more salary cap maneuvering.

And the one player’s rights that the Liberty did acquire will be someone in a similar position in Fiebich, who the Liberty have actually had their eyes on since the 2020 WNBA Draft before the Sparks drafted her 22nd overall in the second round.

Fiebich’s rights ended up with the Sky in May 2021 when Chicago traded Gabby Williams to LA. Head coach and General Manager James Wade commented on earning Fiebich’s rights. “Leonie is a young German prospect that we feel has a long career ahead of her,” he said. “She’s a 6’4 guard with limitless potential.”

Another WNBA talent evaluator agrees with Wade’s assessment and explained that Fiebich’s shooting stroke compares to former Liberty guard Sami Whitcomb’s, but the 23 year-old is big enough at 6’4 to command success on the block and post up smaller guards. She’s also a three level scorer who uses her length to get into passing lanes to create defensive havoc. Playing for Zaragoza in 2022-23, Fiebich has averaged 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 44.5 percent from three on 101 total attempts in 22 games.

Fiebich joins Raquel Carrera and Marine Fauthoux as another international prospect that New York’s scouting and player personnel department will keep their eyes on and will assess when it’s time to inquire about bringing her over to the WNBA.

“I like to play with the team for the team, whatever is needed and each game I can help,” Fiebich said during an interview on Aragón TV. “We are a family on the court and we fight for each other on and off the court and we get along really well so that helps.”

As of late, the Liberty have been creating a narrative that although New York has some of the best talent in the WNBA, their style of play and basketball philosophy is for the collective and is selfless. It sounds like Fiebich will fit right in whenever both she and the Liberty believe she’s ready and able to contribute.

The Liberty continue to create a good problem for themselves, with more players that they like than roster spots and cap space on the end of their bench. How they decide to juggle all of the complications involved for that group will be something to watch come training camp.

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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