Michaela Onyenwere’s raced into the spotlight as quickly as she gets up and down a basketball court.
A mere eight games into her freshman season at Grandview, the 5-foot-10 forward has shown uncommon athleticism and polish for a young player and rocketed her way onto ESPN’s list of the top 27 players to watch in the country in the Class of 2017.
Onyenwere’s averaged 20.4 points — second-best in Class 5A — and 10.8 rebounds (No. 6) per game for the Wolves, but it’s not just the statistics, it’s the way Onyenwere plays that’s remarkable.
Coach Josh Ulitzky has had his share of outstanding players in nearly a decade on the Grandview bench, but even he struggles to fully describe what he sees day in and day out from his young phenom.
“We’re honestly in awe of some of the stuff she does, so I’m glad she’s on our side,” Ulitzky said with a grin earlier in the season. “She’s very, very special, so I’m very fortunate to get to work with her.”
Fluid, instinctual and “athletically superior” to most of the players she goes against, Onyenwere’s arrival is timed perfectly for the Wolves, who lost a large core of seniors from a team that advanced to the Class 5A state semifinals for the first time last season.
She’s been received with open arms by Grandview’s two returning veterans — seniors Katie Cunningham and Natalie Halbleib — who know a player who can help them when they see her.
So far, so good, as the Wolves come out of winter break with a 7-1 record and sit No. 3 in the new Associated Press Class 5A girls prep basketball poll. Onyenwere’s been no small part of that success thus far, as her teammates are more than willing to describe.
“Honestly, you can do anything with Michaela; I can throw the ball to her and she’ll catch it, no matter if it’s a bad pass or a good one,” said Halbleib, the team’s second-leading scorer at 10.7 points per game.
“I trust her to get every rebound and even dribbling the ball up the floor,” she added.
There’s little to no hyperbole in Halbleib’s words, as Onyenwere’s shown the ability to affect both ends of the floor, made even more impressive considering she said she only took up basketball seriously in seventh grade.
Onyenwere admitted her biggest battle with varsity basketball has been nerves, something the Grandview seniors help with regularly.
“I was really nervous for tryouts and before the first game I was freaking out; I thought I was going to cry,” she said. “But then I realized it’s just basketball, it’s what I’ve been doing for two years now. …Katie told me she was a freshman on varsity and that it’s OK to make mistakes. Nobody’s going to make fun of me.”
Onyenwere masked any butterflies in that opening game, as she poured in 24 points in Grandview’s demolition of Denver East and hasn’t slowed since. She’s scored at least 14 points in every game this season and 20 or more five times, including twice in the Wolves’ 2-1 showing at the tough Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix.
Ulitzky was pleased with how his freshman handled the physical play administered in the tournament by three out-of-state opponents. Despite the contact and extra defensive attention, Onyenwere posted double-doubles in all three games, going for 14 points and 10 rebounds against Centennial (Ariz.), 26 points and 15 boards vs. Hamilton and 23 points and 16 rebounds against Miramonte (Calif.) in the Wolves’ lone loss.
“It was really physical down there, but Michaela did a good job with that and didn’t get frustrated with those things,” Ulitzky said. “She continues to work hard and rebound exceptionally well, so she’s created easy opportunities for herself. She also draws a lot of attention, which helps get other kids open. I’m curious to see how it continues from here.
“I know she’s going to run into some teams that are going to do some things that will be frustrating, so in practice, we’re working on how to counter things other teams might do with her.”
Indeed Onyenwere might find fewer easy baskets than she’s had thus far when she enters league play, but she’s able to score in a variety of ways, which has help her succeed despite increased defensive attention.
She’s a blur up and down the floor (she also runs the 100 meters in track season) and gets to the free throw line often. Many of Onyenwere’s points have come on putbacks, however, as she’s improve greatly in her ability to rebound in a crowd without fouling and getting the ball to the rim before defenders can react.
“When I first started playing basketball, I used to go over the back and foul a lot,” Onyenwere said. “I’ve just learned how to box out mostly. I didn’t really box out before, mostly because I could just jump really high, but I’ve been taught to box out, clear space and get the rebound. It’s way easier.
“It’s tough to play with fouls, it doesn’t let you be aggressive as you would like.”
The same athletic traits also make Onyenwere a defensive force, as she blocks and alters several shots a game and compliments the long-armed Cunningham and Halbleib on Grandview’s press.
Centennial League play tends to weed out the flash-in-the-pans versus the legitimate stars, but so far Onyenwere has the look of a player who is only beginning to realize her vast potential and taking it in stride.
“I’m just enjoying myself so far,” she said. “We have a lot of great coaches who help one-on-one and the seniors are great, too. I honestly think we can go far this year.”
Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. Facebook: Aurora Prep Sentinel