Star Rookie and Veterans Steer Liberty’s Rocky Season to the Playoffs

“Michaela came into camp probably the most consistent shooter on the team in preseason. She was knocking down every shot,” Hopkins said. “Her athleticism, her explosion, her defensive versatility, and then her personality is absolutely wonderful, so she really separated herself in camp.”

In the season opener, Onyenwere scored 18 points against Indiana, in a victory punctuated by Sabrina Ionescu’s game-winning 3-pointer with less than a second remaining. Onyenwere closed out the first month of her pro career with a season-high 29 points against Atlanta.

“Coming in, I didn’t expect any of this,” Onyenwere said. “I didn’t put too much pressure on myself, because I know that if I do that, I won’t play as freely as I want to.” She continued to play with joy and purpose, though an elbow injury on her shooting arm affected her 3-point accuracy.

“Mic rises to occasions in part because the pressure doesn’t affect her like it affects other people,” Hopkins said, using a nickname for Onyenwere. “I don’t think she internalizes it. I don’t think it becomes this emotional burden to her. I think it’s just like, ‘OK, cool, I got you,’ and I admire that. That’s something that’s not normal. It’s a rare characteristic.”

After starting the season 5-1, the Liberty were the toast of the league, easily surpassing their win total from last season’s 2-20 debacle. The team’s first season at Barclays Center held promise mostly because of the return of Ionescu, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick from Oregon who severely sprained an ankle in her third W.N.B.A. game and missed the rest of her rookie season.

Ionescu led the team in hype — “The Next Queen of NY” read the April/May cover of Slam magazine — and gradually adjusted to the challenges ahead of her, including playing point guard after starring as a 2-guard in college.

“It’s like Sabs played two games and she’s never played in New York to be the queen of New York,” Hopkins said. “She’s just done a truly magnificent job of balancing expectations that may have been unrealistic for a rookie.”

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