Aurora native Michaela Onyenwere had already made the Mile High City proud in April 2020, when she became the first Colorado woman ever selected in the first round of the WNBA draft after being picked sixth overall by the New York Liberty. The 22-year-old forward topped that historic feat Tuesday evening, however, when she was announced as the 2021 WNBA Rookie Of The Year.

Onyenwere grew up playing for Grandview High School, before going on to be a two-time All-American at UCLA. During her rookie season with the Liberty, she started nearly every game, averaging 8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, and more than 20 minutes over 32 games. Those consistent stats helped her clock more time on the court than any player from her draft class, lead all WNBA rookies in points per game, and finish second among first-year players in rebounds.

Although the Liberty lost in the first round of the WNBA playoffs a few weeks ago, Onyenwere’s newest accolade—she’s the first player in Liberty franchise history to win it—signals she could help lead the team to greater heights in the coming years. Here, we chatted with the homegrown basketball star about what it means to win the first-year award, her family’s internet-famous reaction during April’s draft, and the potential for bringing WNBA talent to Denver.

5280: Just six months after you made Colorado history as a first-round draft pick, you’ve been awarded WNBA Rookie of the Year. How are you feeling after the news?
Michaela Onyenwere: It was just such an honor to be able to get that recognition. It’s really cliché, but I really couldn’t have done it without my coaches and support staff that we had. They believed in me from the start, even when I was talking to coach Walt [Hopkins] during the draft process—just the way he spoke with me, the way the organization runs—it’s just really second to none. And so I’m super grateful that I was able to be in that position.

Your family—particularly your Mom and Grandma—went viral back in April for just how hype they were on draft day when you were picked by the New York Liberty. Did they have a similar reaction to your newest accolade?
They were really, really happy for me. Though, that’s just how my family is: super supportive of everything that I’ve been doing, whether that’s on or off the court. So yeah, they’re really excited—I got a call from my Grandma; I miss Grandma. They’ve always been my support system that I’ve been able to lean on all these times, so that was really nice to have that.

You came into this season after four years at UCLA, had to take on a different position, and played more minutes than any other first-year player. You not only adapted to that environment, but thrived. Were you expecting to have the rookie year you did?
I wouldn’t say so. My expectations coming in were definitely just doing the things that I could control, being a good teammate, giving all I could for my team, and just having that at the forefront of my brain. When I was given the starting role from Coach Walt, I was surprised. He told me in our scrimmage against Connecticut, actually … I definitely wasn’t expecting it.

Obviously training camp was going well, but you don’t expect to just come out the gates, you know? I just was in college a month ago, and then starting your first professional game the next week. So, that was definitely a surprise, but as the season went on, I think I definitely got used to it, and was able to just help my team any way I could.

The final stretch of the season was a battle, but you played a major role in muscling your team to that first-round playoff spot late last month. What was it like to clinch that, and play in the postseason with your team?
There were a lot of ups and downs in our season, and we had a lot of adversity. But to be able to have that playoffs spot and be the first team since 2017 to clinch that playoff berth was huge for our team. Obviously [it was] not the way we wanted it to end. But it’s a start, and it’s the beginning of something special for our team.We definitely earned it in that way, where we had to grind out a lot of tough close games—and we actually lost a lot of close games. So I think the experience for us will be really beneficial … having those close games and stuff like that. But we’re really, really proud of ourselves in that way, where we can continue to build on it next year.

With a young core, the Liberty is definitely positioned to carve out a competitive space in years ahead. As the newly proclaimed Rookie of the Year, how do you view your role in that building process heading into next season?
At the forefront, it is really just doing what I need to do for my team. But I think also getting better in this season, when we’re not playing in the WNBA, will be really important for me, to just kind of continue to hone on what I’m already pretty decent at and then work on a few things to be consistent at. But any role that I’m given or I earn next year, I’ll do my role the best I can, and just do whatever I can to help my team—whether starting, coming off the bench, whatever that may be—I’ll just be happy to do that for my team.

The league is equally as poised for growth, too. As one of the many Colorado women making waves in both collegiate and professional basketball right now, what do you think about the possibility bringing WNBA talent to Denver?
That’d be cool! I feel like it would be so easy because we do have the Nuggets, so it could be in … What do they call it now? The Ball Arena? Which is weird … I’m not gonna call it the Ball Arena. (laughs) But, I think it’d be just such a great transition. There have been so many homegrown Colorado professional athletes that have soared and really been successful in the last few years. Exposure is really important for our game, and expansion is really important in creating that exposure. I’d be all for it.

Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill is 5280’s former associate digital editor.