WNBA ROY Ladder: Onyenwere Dazzling Early


The WNBA season is in full swing, and the 2021 draft class has established itself across the league. So far, 19 rookies have taken the court. Only three teams (Minnesota, Phoenix, and Washington) haven’t played a rookie yet. Due to the unique schedule structure of this season, some rookies have had more opportunities than others, but one thing is for sure: last year’s draft may turn out to be deeper than expected. This wave of young talent has proven to be fiery and out to prove themselves in this league.

In addition to their on-court prowess, these rookies have brought a massive social media presence to the league with them. DiDi Richards set the internet on fire with her first pre-game outfit. Kysre Gondrezick already has promotions with Adidas. DiJonai Carrington has 112,000 Instagram followers. The league has done a phenomenal job finding ways to expand and grow for its 25th season, but the pull these rookies have is important as well.

That being said, the true impact these rookies can make on the league will be amplified by their play. After their first two weeks, which rookies have shone brighest?

1. Michaela Onyenwere, F, New York Liberty

Season averages: 21.3 minutes, 9.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44/45/83 shooting splits

Team record: 5-1

Coming into the draft, Michaela Onyenwere’s role at the WNBA level was a bit of a mystery. She spent most of her time in college playing power forward, but had questionable size for the position in the pros. Offensively, she was viewed as a capable transition ballhandler, but her fit in the halfcourt was a mystery due to shaky shooting. Combine the game with her six foot frame, and you can see why she was equally tantalizing as she was confusing.

In her first six games, she’s put a lot of that doubt to rest.

Onyenwere came out the gates firing, scoring a Liberty rookie record 18 points in her first game. The Liberty have slotted her at the power forward position, and utilized her defensive capabilities well in hedges and switches. She is still learning how to handle bigger players in the post, but her energy and effort have been great every night. As she develops more on defense, the duo of Onyenwere and Natasha Howard will be a force defensively.

On offense, she’s fit in well with the Liberty’s pace and space system. She’s smart at timing her cuts, and makes them with purpose. Her assist numbers aren’t high, but her passing has been good and she often makes the right read. Oh, and she’s shooting 45% from three so far on three attempts per night. The Liberty seem locked on her as their four of the future, and she’s responding well.

2. Charli Collier, C, Dallas Wings

Season averages: 15.6 minutes, 6.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 58/0/50 shooting splits

Team record: 1-2

After Onyenwere, this rookie class is wide open. Everyone is progressing at different rates and seeing different amounts of opportunity to prove themselves. Those opportunities will be key at differentiating how these rankings shape up going forward. For now, no other rookie is better set to have ample opportunity than Charli Collier.

Last year’s top pick, Charli Collier has already seen her role change a good bit through three games. In game one, she started, played 26 minutes, and posted a double-double. In game two, a week later, she started, but only played nine minutes against the reigning champion Storm. Two days later, she was replaced in the starting lineup by Izzy Harrison, who came on strong after returning from overseas.

Coming into the draft, Collier was expected to have the growing pains she’s already encountered. There were some questions surrounding her ability to perform against bigger opponents, due to her performances against bigger teams at the college level. Her best performance came against the smallest team she’s faced so far.

That said, there’s no cause for concern yet with Collier. Her work ethic is well-documented. She’s already flashed bits of improvement and tons of promise in three games. Her inside game is polished. Her rebounding has been solid. Defensively, she seems to be adjusting to the pace of the game, but she showed her potential on that end in college. She was the number one pick for a reason.

For now, Collier just needs some time and as many reps as possible, and the Wings are in prime position to provide her with both.

3. Stephanie Watts, G, Chicago Sky

Season averages: 12.8 minutes, 1.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.0 blocks

Team record: 2-1

Perhaps no rookie has been more of a shock than Stephanie Watts. When the Sparks drafted her at 10, it came as a surprise to most. When the Sparks traded her to Chicago for Gabby Williams, it was a surprise. When it was announced she was on the final roster, it was a surprise. Watts has been quite the story to follow.

James Wade must’ve seen something in camps that others didn’t, though. Watts has seen her minutes increase during the Sky’s last two games. While she may not maintain her current role as the Sky get back to full strength, she’s given Wade something to think about after that happens.

Watts’ offensive production hasn’t been great. She had the reputation as a shooter coming out of UNC, but has yet to make a field goal in seven attempts. However, she has wasted no time finding other ways to contribute.

Watts has been a spark plug on a team full of spark plugs. Against Atlanta, she was all over the place, recording three points, seven rebounds, one assist, and three steals. When the shot starts falling, she’ll have a case for a role piece on a contending team.

4. DiJonai Carrington, G, Connecticut Sun

Season averages: 9.6 minutes, 1.6 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.0 blocks, 23/0/100 shooting splits

Team record: 5-0

There’s something to be said for carving a role out on the best team in the league as a rookie, and that’s exactly what DiJonai Carrington has done. She has been a great fit in Curt Miller’s system. Her scoring is coming along slowly, but the other aspects of her game have looked good early.

Defensively, Carrington has been a big part of the league’s best defense. Her energy is infectious, and she’s active on and off the ball. She doesn’t record a ton of steals or blocks, but she’s very fundamentally sound already. Her size allows her to defend 1-3 effectively.

On offense, she’s still getting into the swing of things at this level. She doesn’t shoot much, and has gone scoreless in three games. On the other hand, she has also recorded two games with 3 assists. As shots start to fall, Carrington’s stock will rise, especially if the Sun continue to win.

5. DiDi Richards, G, New York Liberty

Season averages: 2.3 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 54/50/50 shooting splits

Team record:  5-1

Another Liberty player making the most of her opportunities, DiDi Richards has been exactly what she was projected to be in the best way. Her hustle and defense off the bench have impacted multiple games. Her offensive game is still a work in progress, but Richards does a good job of staying within herself and the system, which helps her be efficient.

Richards’ defense has translated well from the jump. She has recorded a steal in four of the six games the Liberty have played, and multiple steals in three of those four.

In their most recent game, Richards also recorded five assists, which is a welcome sign for her and her team. She’s still visibly adjusting to Walt Hopkins’ offense, which is a complete 180 from the offense she ran at Baylor. That said, she picks and chooses her spots wisely and hasn’t been a net negative on that end of the court. As she settles in on that end, her stock will rise.


About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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