Everyone has heard of ‘The Leap.' A lot of great players are expected to make a second-year leap, going from their great-for-a-rookie to great-for-a-veteran. Being a good rookie is easier than being a great vet, because of things outside of your control. Nobody really has any tape on you, and the expectations are lower because of the unbelievably steep learning curve from college to the pros.
That is ‘The Leap’ that most people are talking about. But there is another type of leap, one that happens even more rarely than the jump from great rookie to great vet; a second step that is even steeper, and even more improbably, and even more valuable. It’s the step from star player to the franchise player, and many, many Hall of Famers never make that jump.
Nneka Ogwumike has taken that Leap.
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She’s been a good-to-great player since she came into the league, back in 2012. She averaged 14 points on 53% shooting, grabbing 7.5 boards and making 73% of her free throws. If that was to be her career line, so be it; a rebounding forward with above-average offensive skills, one who can make free throws at a solid clip, one who fouls less than three times per game.
Many teams would kill for that. It’s third-banana work, to be sure; You’d need a franchise star and a secondary star, but she would be the missing piece.
However, as Ogwumike’s numbers indicate, she was never content with her place in the game. In her second year, she played two fewer minutes per game and scored more points, and grabbed more boards, and shot nearly ten percent better from the line and 3.1% better overall, and made her first All-Star game.
Her third year, she bumped her scoring average again, to nearly 16 points per game, and her free throw percentage went up another five points, making her second All-Star game, and the All-WNBA Second Team at forward.
Her fourth year, her minutes went way up, and her scoring went up, but most everything went the same. She had made that first gigantic leap; from great rookie to great vet, and had moved further into the realm of star. She, teamed up with Candace Parker, made for the best one-two punch in the league.
Two forwards, both able to take over games, and when Parker didn’t have it, Ogwumike would step in. However, there was no doubt that Parker was the franchise star; no doubt that Parker, who will go down as one of the best players in WNBA history, was the one that would take them to the promised land.
But then, The Leap happened. And the Los Angeles Sparks, a team full of potential and promise, that had come close but never broken through, suddenly had not one, but two, franchise stars on its roster.
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In 2016, Nneka Ogwumike averaged 19.7 points on 66.5% shooting; she shot 5.1 free throws per game, and made 4.4. She grabbed 9.1 boards, a 1.6 increase over the year before, and dished 3.1 assists, a 1.0 increase. She won her first MVP, outscoring and outrebounding her more heralded teammate, Candace Parker.
Her numbers came at the expense of Parker’s, to some degree; Parker’s were very much down over her normal production. However, they couldn’t have done it without both of them, and Parker, in her eighth season of WNBA play (plus the many minutes she’s played overseas), had earned the right to pick her spots.
Los Angeles doesn’t have the deepest roster; only one other player on the roster averaged double-digit points, and their backup center, who played nearly twenty minutes a game, grabbed only 3.6 rebounds per contest.
They’ve had to rely heavily on their two stars, and they couldn’t do a typical ‘franchise star - secondary star - third banana’ to win a title. They needed Nneka Ogwumike to take that Leap, and to become a franchise star on her own right, and she did.
The question is now: how much further can she go? Can she get even better than she is now? She’s maxed out, I think, how good she can be as a traditional forward; she’ll need to a three-point shot, or dish a few more assists, to really break through to the highest levels of basketball.
She’s got an example of a player like that on her own team in Parker; a point forward behemoth that is a threat from anywhere, but especially near the rim. If Nneka Ogwumike breaks out in that way, and the Sparks end with a permanent lineup of double point forwards, then we’ll see something truly extraordinary.
For now, we’ll have to settle for seeing a great player reach a Hall of Fame peak. We’ll have to settle for watching someone who hasn’t. We’ll have to settle for a few more years of the Sparks running up and around teams. It’s a real tragedy, having to watch a player zoom past her potential, but I suspect that we’ll find a way to manage.