It’s been a tough past couple of seasons for Nneka Ogwumike.
In 2020 as president of the players association, she valiantly led the WNBA through the bubble in Bradenton, FL, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she was slowed down that year due to various injuries and missed the Los Angeles Sparks’ playoff loss to the Connecticut Sun.
Her numbers dropped that season to a career-lows of 13.3 points per game, 4.8 rebounds and 9.3 field goal attempts.
That offseason, she was cored by the Sparks as a free agent and re-signed on a max contract. But five games into the 2021 season, she went down with a knee injury projected to keep her out for four to six weeks. While recovering from her injury, she also received the news that she was once again left off Team USA’s roster for the Olympics.
She made her return to the court on Aug. 15 when the WNBA season resumed following the Olympics, but it ultimately wasn’t enough as the Los Angeles Sparks missed out on the playoffs.
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This season, however, has been a bounce-back year for her. Now an 11-year WNBA veteran, her numbers are not too far off from 2016, when she was named league MVP. Her 17.8 points per game is the third-highest scoring mark of her career. In addition, she’s pulling down 7.4 rebounds and shooting 58.2 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three-point range.
All of that was good enough for Ogwumike to be named an All-Star, the seventh time in her career she’s achieved that honor and her first time as a starter.
Sparks interim head coach Fred Williams has been on the sidelines with Ogwumike the past couple of seasons as an assistant under former head coach Derek Fisher and he couldn’t be more thrilled that her play was rewarded.
“It means alot, especially for the fans to see it. A lot of the writers and players in the league know how hard Nneka works and her stats show it,” Williams said prior to the Sparks game against the Chicago Sky last Thursday. “She’s been scoring in double-digits and getting rebounds for us. Her teammates are happy for her. . .She’s a pioneer for this league and that’s good to see her continue to put that on her list as an All-Star.”
On Saturday evening, Ogwumike left no doubt that she deserved to be an All-Star starter as she turned in what was arguably her best performance of this season so far. Coming off a bad loss to the Sky, Ogwumike took control of the reigns in a big road win, 85-77, against the Seattle Storm.
She poured in 24 points, several of which came during crunchtime in the fourth quarter as the Sparks held off a late Storm rally, shot 12-18 from the field, grabbed four rebounds, dished out three assists and came up with two steals.
After the game, Ogwumike reflected a bit on what it meant to her to be recognized for her play this season while giving credit to her teammates for elevating her play.
“It’s a blessing to be playing this year, to be healthy, especially after last season and to be named an All-Star. It’s the first time I’ve been named a starter which is also another milestone,” Ogwumike said. “But I didn’t get here by myself. I’m just grateful to be on a team that helps me be better.”
One of the ways in which Ogwumike has managed to have such longevity and is enjoying one of her best seasons in year 11 is her attention to detail in terms of how other teams defend against her. Great players notice these trends and use them to their advantage.
After the Sparks win over the Washington Mystics last Tuesday, a game in which Ogwumike put up 21 points on 9-13 shooting and grabbed six rebounds, she credited her strong game to being able to read Washington’s defense and use it against them.
“I’ve been in the league long enough to know how certain coaches will scheme against me. I just wanted to establish my confidence with the pocket pass jumper because I know that’s something that Washington generally wants the opponent to shoot,” Ogwumike said. “I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t second-guessing when I was coming off those little pocket pass jumpers, and then also distributing the ball and making quick decisions.”
Aside from her play on the court, Ogwumike has been instrumental this season with her leadership and taking the younger players under her wing, most notably rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Nelson-Ododa started out as a long shot to make the Sparks opening night roster, but a strong preseason gave her the edge.
She’s given the Sparks some quality minutes this season and in the past couple of games in particular, Ogwumike has been front and center in providing Nelson-Ododa veteran mentorship. For Williams, Ogwumike’s leadership qualities go right along with her All-Star selection.
“That’s what makes her an All-Star, doing stuff like that, helping the young players come in as rookies. . . it means a lot,” Williams said. “That leadership and for Nneka to do that, that says a lot about her personality as a player. . .this is one step for her to get the All-Star, we’ve been pushing it this year, for her to play well for this team and help guide this team to a winning season.”
For Ogwumike, she’s just trying to give back the same way the vets gave back to her when she was a young player. She recalls being an inquisitive rookie and always trying to soak up whatever she could from her older teammates. She sees some of the same inquisitiveness in Nelson-Ododa and wants to make sure she’s available for any teammate that wants mentorship.
“I had really great vets and I know what it’s like to use them as kind of templates and models. I always made fun of Alana Beard and all of her rituals. . I watched her and I asked questions,” Ogwumike said. “I was in an environment where I was nurtured by AB, Ebony Hoffman, DeLisha [Milton-Jones] and even CP at times. . .it’s what contributes to the longevity of players in this league.”