Within the Margins 2023: Small Contracts With Potential for Big Payoffs

With the Oscars still in recent memory, I have been thinking about how the movie business parallels with the 2023 WNBA free agency period. Both have seen their share of blockbusters, controversies, Brendan Fraser level comeback stories (shoutout to Yvonne Turner; this Nebraska fan sees you), and small yet charming indie flicks you didn’t notice on the weekend they opened but became important pieces during award season. This article is going to focus on the last of these parallels because it’s once again time to recognize the offseason acquisitions that happened within the margins.

First, let me give a little clarification on what type of transaction I am talking about here. I deem a move within the “margins” to be one that involves a player who has not made an All-Star or All-WNBA team, who signed for a team-friendly deal (at or below $100,000), and who was acquired via trade or signing.  

Let’s roll out the red carpet for our 2023 nominees:


Michaela Onyenwere

The 2021 Rookie of the Year joined Phoenix as part of a four-team trade that sent former Mercury guard Diamond DeShields to the Dallas Wings, Marina Mabrey to the Chicago Sky, and draft picks to the New York Liberty. The move puzzled a number of WNBA fans because Phoenix gave up a high-profile player for one who averaged under 15.0 minutes per game (MPG) during the 2022 season. But there’s more to this move than meets the eye. 

At first glance, the confusion seems fair. As far as stats and playing time are concerned, Onyenwere’s 2022 season looked much different than DeShields’ season. Diamond appeared in 30 games for the Mercury, starting in 19 of them and getting on the court for over 25.0 MPG. While Michaela appeared in as many games, she was caught in the midst of a lineup shuffle for the Liberty’s wings, starting only four games and averaging 13.7 MPG.

However, Onyenwere’s 2022 season with the Liberty doesn’t reflect her promise. She is a high-IQ player who can move really well without the ball, especially on the perimeter. In this clip from a matchup against the Connecticut Sun, we can see her ability to find space on the court when her defender steps away to double team.



Michaela also finishes well around the basket and doesn’t require the ball to be in her hands to be effective on the court, which are traits that will play well for her on a team with high-usage players like Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner.

It’s also important to recognize that the contract fit may have been what was most appealing for Phoenix in this trade. Onyenwere’s $75,000 unprotected contract was a good fit for a team that had already handed out bigger contracts in the offseason to Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, Sophie Cunningham, and Moriah Jefferson. 

There is a lot more to Onyenwere than her contract, however, and she’ll be sure to put on a show if given the chance. When Onyenwere takes the court for the Mercury, we may finally see her promise come to fruition. 


Aari McDonald

This one breaks my own rules a bit, as McDonald wasn’t technically a free agent or acquisition during the offseason; rather, her fourth-year option was extended. I really just wanted to talk about Aari and her impact because I don’t think a lot of people are. And—as with the movie award season—everything is a bit better with some controversy, right? 

Another member of the 2021 WNBA rookie class, McDonald had a different trajectory than Onyenwere in 2022. Last season, McDonald saw twice as much time on the court as her rookie season and made the statistical improvements to justify that extra playing time. During the 2022 campaign, McDonald became more comfortable leading the offense and showcasing her signature style—strong dives to the paint that collapse the defense and lead to layups or open looks for her teammates. 



In 2022, McDonald’s scoring ability and versatility were on display. Her points per game (PPG) jumped from 6.3 her rookie season to 11.1 last year, and her overall field goal percentage (FG%) improved from a lowly 32.2 percent to a league-average 41.1 percent.

In addition to her offensive production, she has shown prowess on defense. McDonald notched 1.5 steals per game (SPG) in 2022, good for second most on the team next to Rhyne Howard. 

As far as areas of improvement go, McDonald needs to focus on reducing her turnovers. At 2.1 per game in 2022, she was only in the 22nd percentile of the league, according to Her Hoop Stats. Pairing that with 2.6 assists per game (APG) in 2022 means that McDonald will need to work on playmaking and limiting turnovers moving forward if she wishes to keep carving out the supporting role with the Dream.

See Also

In the midst of an offseason for Atlanta that saw the team bring in pieces to build around franchise superstar Rhyne Howard, Aari McDonald getting another guaranteed year on her rookie contract did not draw as much attention as the Dream’s acquisition of gold medalist Allisha Gray. However, looking at Atlanta’s depth chart, Aari is one of two point guards with WNBA experience currently on the roster. Assuming that she can clean up her turnovers, that makes McDonald a leading candidate to earn a starting spot and the honor of leading the offense from the point guard position in 2023.


Rebekah Gardner

You know the moment in any award show when all the nominees are shown on screen after not hearing their name called as the winner? That stone-faced look of rejection could describe how the Chicago Sky must have felt during their free agency period as they lost several key pieces one after another.

Though Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, and others exited the team, Chicago now has a new core featuring the likes of Marina Mabrey, Isabelle Harrison, and Kahleah Copper. What flew under the radar during that lineup shuffle was the Sky re-signing their rookie breakout star from last season, Rebekah Gardner, who—at age 32—accepted a one-year qualifying offer with the team. Gardner surprised many in her first WNBA season, averaging 8.4 PPG, 3.3 rebounds per game (RPG), and 1.4 SPG as well as earning a spot on last year’s All-Rookie team. 

Gardner brought steady play to the Sky on the offensive end, but she really made her impact known on the defensive side. During the 2022 regular season, Chicago was fourth in the WNBA in defensive rating, holding opponents to 99.7 points per 100 possessions. According to Her Hoop Stats, that number went down to 97.3 when Gardner was on the floor. She brought a ferociousness to the team by way of her defense, ranking 12th in the league in steals despite only playing 21.7 MPG. 


In 2023, Gardner will most likely still be coming off the bench, but look for her to play a much larger role for a franchise that is eager to prove this is a sequel that can be just as good as the original.


Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of WNBA.com.

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