DENVER, CO - APRIL 01: Nnemkadi Ogwumike #30 of the Stanford Cardinal drives for a shot attempt in the first half against Brittney Griner #42 of the Baylor Bears during the National Semifinal game of the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship at Pepsi Center on April 1, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Jake Curtis of The Examiner wrote a compelling argument for why Nneka Ogwumike might be the best Stanford Cardinal player of all time, which would be no small feat when considering the players that have come through Hall of Famer Tara VanDerveer's program.
But as much as that legacy has contributed to making her the assumptive #1 pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft , there might be reason to believe that she's on her way to paving an even more impressive WNBA legacy as a scorer.
"She can score - she can score probably more than she was even allowed to," said Lisa Leslie in an interview with Swish Appeal last week. "You know, I played for Tara, there's a system and you share the ball. But in the WNBA you have a little bit more free reign to do a little bit more one-on-one. And I think think there's areas that she'll have to continue to improve on, but I think she'll have success at the next level."
We saw a bit of that one-on-one ability when Ogwumike carried the Cardinal against Baylor in the Final Four, albeit in loss. Her ability to drive from the high post was a large part of why the Cardinal were able to hang with the eventual undefeated champions yet also probably the one source of critique as well.
"In terms of Nneka's offense, I thought she could've attacked a little bit more," said women's basketball legend and analyst Lisa Leslie in an interview with Swish Appeal today. "She could've faced up for a jumper a little bit more. Maybe even received a guard-post screen that could've alleviated a little pressure from Griner, but the times that she did attack and score and use the other side of the rim, I thought she was very effective."
However, the skill at the centerpiece of Stanford's game plan was Ogwumike's ability to step out and hit jumpers, something that truly took Ogwumike's game to new heights this season. And it's the development of that skill that represents why we might not fully grasp the extent of her potential, even in a loss in which she went 0-for-6 from the 3-point line.
"Her work ethic and her heart - those are two things that you can't teach," said Leslie. "She works hard, she's super smart, and she has great athletic ability - her ability to jump."
It's not often that a player with Ogwumike's combination of athleticism, basketball IQ, and work ethic comes along. And it's the extent to which she's leveraged that combination of gifts to improve year-to-year - perhaps moreso than the sum of her accomplishments - that makes her the type of can't-miss draft prospect that you just select and work out any other personnel conflicts later.
The statistics alone might even not do Ogwumike full justice, but when considering her potential as a WNBA scorer they speak volumes about just how much she's improved year-to-year. The best place to start is with Stanford's personnel changes really over the last two seasons, but especially this season and last.
Last season, Stanford was an extremely balanced team, with first round WNBA draft picks Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen accounting for about 35% of the Cardinal's overall statistical production. Often times when a balanced team loses a pair of WNBA players the remaining players struggle under the burden of having to pick up the slack; there are actually a few examples of that in this draft.
But to reinforce Leslie's point, the balance among four extremely talented players last year was more a product of how Stanford plays basketball than stars competing for production or a couple of players relying on those who departed; each of those players, to some extent, was sacrificing something for the sake of the team.
So to a minor extent, this year was an example of what Ogwumike could do if given more scoring responsibility. And that she was no less efficient in her senior year for a team that was entirely two-dimensional at times is really quite remarkable.
Nneka Ogwumike's numbers over the past two seasons.
Her increased scoring average shouldn't be much of a surprise - she had about 4 more field goal attempts per game as the focal point of Stanford's offense this season and a couple more free throw attempts per game as well. That increased scoring responsibility is reflected in her significantly increased usage rate, the percentage of her team's possessions that she uses while on the floor. That increased usage rate is what makes her small fluctuation in shooting efficiency so impressive.
Even as a post player who one would presume might be an efficient scorer due to taking more shots around the basket, having a true shooting percentage over 60% bodes well for WNBA success. But that Ogwumike maintained that 60+% shooting efficiency over the course of two years with a significant increase in scoring responsibility and defensive attention puts her in the category of an elite prospect. Maintaining that stellar shooting efficiency while expanding your game to take more long jumpers - lower percentage scoring opportunities - is rare to say the least, at any level of basketball.
It's never easy to predict what heights a prospect might achieve in terms of accolades or All Star appearances, but there isn't a post-scoring presence at power forward in the WNBA right now* that put up numbers like Ogwumike's coming out of the NCAA ranks.
However, Ogwumike's improvement wasn't limited to her scoring output either - with Pedersen gone, Ogwumike also increased her offensive rebounding percentage to about 13%. Offensive rebounding tends to be among the most transferable skills from college to pro - in men's and women's basketball - because it represents a combination of athleticism and awareness that will allow them to contribute to a WNBA roster somehow, even if they're not dominant on the boards.
And that diversity in her game - not to mention her defensive ability - again embodies what makes her such a potentially potent WNBA player: she's not a one-dimensional scorer; she does a little bit of everything you might want from a scoring power forward regardless of whether she manages to actually get better in the WNBA.
* Candace Parker obviously had eye-popping numbers coming out of college, but she is also a more versatile player that has played point guard through center in her time in the WNBA. The distinction here is that Ogwumike has been primarily a post scorer in college and could be projected to be the same in the WNBA whereas Parker spends time doing a number of things all over the court.