After steering the WNBA through the 2020 wubble season, you would think that the basketball gods would smile on the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike.
Instead, the WNBPA president has experienced anything but good fortune.
She has struggled with injuries, with last season’s back troubles followed by a knee injury early this season. On top of that, she was denied an opportunity to play in the Olympics. Despite a demonstrated commitment to USA Basketball, Ogwumike was not selected for the 2020 Olympic team. When she then decided to play for Nigeria, the home country of both of her parents, FIBA rejected her petition.
This string of disappointment, understandably, has worn on her. In the Sparks’ press conference last week, Ogwumike teared up as she told reporters:
I just want to play basketball...I’ve always been described as resilient and I think I had to kind of tell myself that a lot to make sure that I believed it because it’s been a few weeks of feeling unvaluable or unworthy....It’s been very difficult.
"It's been very difficult...I'm just grateful to be playing with my team, with people who care about me. I just want to play basketball." @nnekaogwumike reflects on a difficult past few weeks battling injuries and missing out on the Olympics. @LASparks pic.twitter.com/aFFvy356c8— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) August 9, 2021
On Tuesday night, fate again appeared to conspire against Ogwumike. In the second quarter of LA’s home game against the Atlanta Dream, she went down with a what looked like knee injury, requiring her to go back to the locker room for further evaluation.
Fortunately, it was just a scare. Ogwumike not only would return to the game but play 38 minutes. She posted a near triple-double, with 13 points, nine rebounds and nine assists as she helped the Sparks secure the overtime win over the Dream.
Finally, Oguwmike was back where she belonged — balling out for LA.
It seems like we should expect more of this version of Ogwumike — the former MVP who makes timely and efficient plays for her team all while serving as a calm and confident leader — for the remainder of the 2021 season. (Fingers crossed!)
Will it be enough to carry the Sparks, currently in 11th place in the standings at 8-14, back to playoffs for a 10th-consecutive season?
What Nneka Ogwumike means to the Sparks
Teammates and coaches have consistently made it clear how much Ogwumike means to their team and, in turn, how much her return to the court will mean to the team.
In Los Angeles’ Aug. 9 press conference, Kristi Toliver emphasized:
She’s one of the foundational pieces of this team, her leadership, her positivity, her athleticism, her IQ, her experience...Just to have her presence back on the floor will speak dividends for us, whether she’s 100% or not, it really honestly doesn’t matter because her presence on the floor is gonna be a game-changer for everybody.
In her two games back, Ogwumike has provided proof of her power.
After contributing 12 points and seven rebounds in LA’s Sunday win over the Indiana Fever, she turned in the aforementioned masterpiece on Tuesday night, ameliorating several of the Sparks’ weaknesses with her almost triple-double.
Unsurprisingly, her scoring efficiency was MVP-caliber, as she was 6-for-7 from the field. For much of the season, her teammates have struggled to put the ball in the basket. LA is last in the league in points per game at 73.8 and true shooting percentage at 48.8 percent. Although she only has played seven games, Ogwumike is in the top-10 in the WNBA in true shooting percentage at 61.9 percent.
More impressively, Ogwumike also delivered a career-high nine assists. The Sparks could desperately use such playmaking from her. LA has averaged the fewest assists per game in the WNBA at 15.2. This low number is not necessarily surprising, as the franchise did lose their two best playmakers over the offseason in Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray. Starting point guard Erica Wheeler is in the top-10 in assists per game with an average of 4.5, but otherwise, the Sparks have struggled to make plays for each other.
Because of her expert-level shooting efficiency, Ogwumike always will attract the attention of the defense. If she can use this attention to set up others for easy scores, her playmaking can juice a Sparks offense that has the worst offensive rating in the WNBA at 91.7.
Likewise, Ogwumike can buoy LA’s performance on the boards. The Sparks also are at the bottom of the league in rebounds per game, averaging 30.4 per game. In her seven games this season, Ogwumike has averaged 7.3 rebounds per game. In her two games since her return from injury, this number has ticked up to eight per game. Her last fully healthy season, 2019, she averaged 8.8 boards, suggesting that, once she fully regains her burst, her work on the glass can increase.
How far can Ogwumike carry the Sparks?
Critically, the Ogwumike-led Sparks also earned two wins.
Yes, LA should take care of Indiana and Atlanta, the two teams below them in the standings, in STAPLES Center. However, dropping either game would have been a severe blow to their playoff hopes.
Even with a winning record over the final month of the season, the Sparks will be pressed to to extend their playoff streak, as the Washington Mystics, hopefully boosted by Elena Delle Donne (and maybe by Emma Meesseman), and the young and talented Dallas Wings also are fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Yet, too often lately Nneka Ogwumike has been told, “No.” No, you cannot play because of injury. No, you did not make the Olympic team. No, you will not be going to Tokyo.
Ogwumike and her teammates, however, are saying, “Yes.” Yes, to rising above disappointment. Yes, to proving doubters wrong. Yes, to making the playoffs.
We can’t wait to watch.