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2021 WNBA Draft Watch: Michaela Onyenwere’s star continues to rise

An explosive athlete, UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere is just scratching the surface of her potential. The sky is the limit for the Bruins star, both in the 2021 WNBA Draft and beyond.

Michaela Onyenwere gliding to the basket — a frequent sight for Pac-12 fans.
Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In each WNBA Draft, you have a handful of players who are — perhaps unfairly — labeled as “projects.” Their physical gifts are not in question and they’ve dominated every previous level of basketball, yet they’re criticized for lacking a certain skill or ability that seems to come naturally to other prospects.

UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere — a 6-foot forward from Aurora, Colo. — could be classified as such a player. As athletic as they come, Onyenwere did not begin playing basketball until her freshman year of high school, so when she was first recruited as the No. 10 player in the country, she had some catching up to do.

Now a decorated college senior, Onyenwere has since caught up — and then some. One of the hardest-working players in the 2021 draft class, she continues to power the Bruins in an uber-competitive Pac-12 conference, and is certainly a player to keep an eye on as a likely first-round WNBA Draft selection. Here’s just a bit of what makes Onyenwere such an intriguing pro prospect.

Honors and statistics

Since the conclusion of her freshman season, Onyenwere has quickly risen through the ranks of UCLA’s all-time greats. She was named to the All-Pac-12 team as a sophomore and a junior. In both seasons, Onyenwere averaged at least 18 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, earning her AP and USBWA Third-Team All-American honors for 2019-20.

Prior to 2020-21, Onyenwere was named to the preseason All-Pac-12 team and was recognized nationally as an AP preseason All-American. She was also named to the preseason watch list for the Cheryl Miller Award (given to the nation’s top small forward) and appeared on watch lists for the 2021 John R. Wooden Award, Wade Trophy and Naismith Trophy.

Internationally, Onyenwere has taken part in various Team USA activities since 2014. She won Silver with Team USA in the 2019 Pan American Games, averaging 10 points and 7.8 rebounds per game during the competition.

How she helps the Bruins

Onyenwere’s basketball skills are still developing, but her physical tools will give a patient WNBA team more than enough to work with.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Bruins head coach Cori Close describes Onyenwere as “competitive, consistent, athletic, still growing and totally selfless,” and believes her star forward is “an obvious top-three draft pick.”

While the jury is still out on a consensus WNBA draft order, it’s otherwise hard to argue with her.

In particular, effort and athleticism are Onyenwere’s calling cards. It’s immediately obvious that she once competed in track and field — she’s one of the country’s purest athletes not just at her position, but anywhere on the floor, with an explosive first step and seemingly boundless energy. Onyenwere routinely comes up with rebounds against players several inches taller than her thanks to a bounce that most of her peers simply don’t have. She’s never ranked lower than the 92nd percentile in offensive rebounding and she has a knack for making tough turnaround shots look easy, as demonstrated in these highlights:

While Onyenwere’s ability to get off the floor so quickly and outwork her opponents gives her a natural advantage against collegiate-level players, she hasn’t become one of the best players in the Pac-12 solely because of her athleticism. A work ethic gushed over by UCLA’s coaches has yielded the footwork necessary for those spin moves and the basketball IQ required to play multiple positions — something that, for a player of Onyenwere’s archetype, won’t be going away when she’s drafted.

This is where WNBA scouts might take pause. What is Onyenwere’s position going to be at the next level? Is she a small-ball power forward who will get easy buckets in transition, or can her skills develop to a point where she can play exclusively on the perimeter — and if they can, how long is that going to take?

If Onyenwere’s collegiate career arc is any indicator, she’ll be able to rise to the occasion, whatever it may be.

Watch her play

The Pac-12 is absolutely loaded this season, so there will be no shortage of good matchups for the Bruins. UCLA opens the new year with games against Oregon State (Jan. 1) and Oregon (Jan. 3), and it will get another crack at Stanford on Jan. 22. Broadcast information for these games has yet to be revealed, but primetime Pac-12 women’s basketball games tend to be televised on the main Pac-12 Network, as well as one of its regional affiliates.

All statistics for the 2020-21 season are current through Dec. 23, 2020.