When you Google “famous athletes from Colorado,” big names come up. Chauncey Billups. Amy Van Dyken. Calais Campbell.
You’ve got to dig a bit to get to New York Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere. Slightly understandable. The Aurora native is only 22 years old and just finished her rookie season.
But check the resume.
Onyenwere is the first Colorado native to be drafted in the first round of the WNBA. She was selected six overall by the Liberty.
Onyenwere is also the first Colorado native to win the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year award. That accolade extends further because she’s the first player in Liberty history to win the award.
Sounds worthy of a first page Google search, but Onyenwere is used to being counted out. From being called “too small” to being told she “can’t shoot,” Onyenwere hears it all and, to no one’s surprise, it doesn’t phase her.
“I don’t take it personally, and things like that don’t motivate me. I’m not going to drop 30 points because somebody said I can’t shoot,” Onyenwere said, laughing. “Being from Colorado, you hear it all. ‘Oh, you guys don’t produce a lot of great players,’ and whatever. We’re a state that doesn’t get any love. But I’ve put in the work. I’ve seen it. I’ve heard it… and if you want to continue to keep under-dogging me, that’s fine. I’m going to continue to keep working.”
That work ethic started at Aurora Quest K-8. But, it was first applied to other sports. Onyenwere tried volleyball, swimming, ballet and track, taking after her father, Peter, who competed for the Nigerian Olympic track and field team.
She didn’t pick up a basketball until she was 13, and that’s when the winning began, after she helped bring her seventh-grade B team to a district championship.
“I had just moved from private school to public school and hadn’t really played sports because my school didn’t offer any,” Onyenwere said. “When I got to public school I tried everything, and when I got to high school I stuck with track and basketball. I did track because my dad ran track…but I knew I loved basketball.”
At Grandview High School in Aurora, Onyenwere was a three-time Gatorade State Player of the Year, the first athlete in the state to win the award three times. She was also a 2017 McDonald’s All-American and the Denver Post’s 2017 Ms. Colorado Basketball.
In her senior year, Onyenwere averaged 20.8 points and 8.9 rebounds, leading Grandview to its first Class 5A state title, the Post reported.
Onyenwere’s high school coach Josh Ulitizky previously told the paper, “I think it’s fair to say she’s in the conversation as the best girls basketball player to ever come out of this state.”
Her accolades continued at UCLA. She was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team in 2017-18. She helped lead the Bruins to the Sweet Sixteen in her senior year, where she averaged 19.1 points and 7.2 rebounds. Onyenwere finished her collegiate career with 1,888 points, the fourth leading scorer in Lady Bruins history.
The list goes on and on, but not a boast or a brag is uttered by Onyenwere.
“This is a game that I love no matter what level I’m at: high school, college, professional,” Onyenwere said. “I’m not super into my accolades, but this game is so fun and I’m really grateful for it. And it’s given me so many opportunities.”
The biggest opportunity being the grand stage of the WNBA.
In Onyenwere’s first interview as a professional athlete, her grandma stole the spotlight yelling “I’m grandma” while doing a praise dance in traditional Nigerian attire, equipped with a shiny blue gele that could definitely fit into the color family of Liberty seafoam.
“The grandma y’all saw is the grandma I see every day,” Onyenwere said. “There’s not a whole bunch of [Nigerians] in Denver, but I’ve been with the same Nigerian community since I was four to five years old. You never really leave and even if you do leave, it’s always home. My grandma is a staple in the family. We have all the holidays at her house. So she keeps me grounded.”
Two days after draft day, Onyenwere was on her way to Brooklyn.
In a personal essay for the Players’ Tribune, Onyenwere said in her first professional game against the Indiana Fever, she went for a long three-pointer.
“I had to be at least two feet away from the three-point line,” Onyenwere wrote. “I mean, you gotta picture it. First shot ever in the W, and I’m sitting there — ball in mid air — like, Michaela, what are you doing, girl?”
She knew exactly what she was doing, especially as the ball went in. The Liberty won that game, and Onyenwere scored 18 points with five rebounds.
The Liberty started the season strong, going 5-2 in May, but fizzled out toward the end of season, ending the year with a 12-20 record.
But Onyenwere won every Rookie of the Month award throughout the season and unanimously won AP’s WNBA Rookie of the Year, before winning the league’s official ROTY award. She averaged 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game and started in 29 of her 32 appearances. She led the league rookies in games played, minutes played and points scored.
The Liberty went on to play the Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the play-offs, losing by a free throw with less than a second to play.
“We had some ups and downs,” Onyenwere said. “We were finding a way to mesh with each other with a lot of new pieces. Finding that rhythm was hard at times, but the one thing that was really consistent about us is we played really hard. When we went through that eight game losing streak, we really still believed in each other. At that point it can be easy to falter and I feel like we never did that. I think our team will be really scary next year.”
So what’s next for the Colorado kid? During the off-season, Onyenwere plans to play in Spain. When she returns to Aurora, she’ll eat at her favorite place, her mom’s house, and she’ll rejoin her Nigerian community.
She’ll continue working on her game, improving her three-pointer, honing in on her versatility and continuing to use her size as an advantage.
Onyenwere will also continue to humble brag. Because nothing silences the naysayers more than a slice of successful pie.
“When the Rookie of the Year moment came out I took a lot of time to reflect, and like I said, I’m not somebody who’s super into their accomplishments, but that’s a big deal,” Onyenwere said. “It was an ‘ah’ moment for me. Like, you did that. You put in the hours to help your team and to produce. You came into this league when people didn’t believe in you. You did that.”