The Sparks are on a three-game losing streak as they head east to face off against the New York Liberty in a back-to-back matchup. This will be the regular season's final road trip, and these four games will have huge playoff implications for Los Angeles. With the Sparks dropping games and stars leaving the team, one player will play a key role in deciding how this regular season ends, and her name is Chiney Ogwumike.
With Liz Cambage's exit, Chiney has entered the starting lineup and has been given a bigger role. During the games without Cambage, Chiney has seen her minutes increase from an average of 19 per game to 26:43. Her overall production is up as well, averaging 8.25 points, 1.75 assists, and 8 rebounds per game, all above her season averages of 7.3 points, 1.1 assists, and 5.6 rebounds respectively.
The Sparks lost a lot of production with Cambage's exit; this late in the season, there are no significant moves the team can make to improve.
“Can't pick up any magical player to come in and do some things right now." interim head coach Fred Williams said Sunday. "So you have to run with the troops that we have."
Of the troops they have, it has to be Chiney who steps up and produces more. Nneka is already playing a team-high 31.8 minutes, and the other two bigs (Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Jasmine Walker) are too young and inexperienced to be depended on to produce at a high level in August. Chiney will have to step up and get closer to her 2014 season when she averaged 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 29.7 minutes of play.
She's certainly capable of doing this, sans Cambage; she is averaging 8 boards a game and had a 13 rebound game against Chicago. Rebounding is an aspect the Sparks have been abysmal in all season; as a team, they are dead last in rebounding. If Chiney's increase in minutes means more boards for the team, that's a step in the right direction.
One aspect that is already simpatico is the chemistry between Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. The sisters have played together forever, and it shows whether it's communicating defensively on switches, running pick and roll action on the wings, or setting up on opposite ends of the elbows; the chemistry they have is something that takes years to develop. And with under two weeks left in the season, the Sparks are fortunate that they have a starting five change where the chemistry between the latest addition and their MVP candidate couldn't be better.
From a scoring perspective getting Chiney up to her 2014 production will be a challenge. With her 48 percent shooting from the field, she will likely need about 13 shot attempts to get to that number. That's a lot of touches on steam with a dominant big like Nneka and guards who shoot a lot like Katie Lou Samuelson. Fred will have to run more plays for Chiney to get her these looks, and Chiney will likely have to shoot a bit above 50 percent to reach these numbers.
Inside the paint, she is incredible. Over the four games she played without Cambage, Chiney went 10-for-17 inside the paint. She was a lot less effective outside the paint, going 3-for-10. Chiney has to hit on those outside the paint shots better. It's hard to give her any more looks inside, with Nenka taking up space in the paint as well. Unless Williams staggers their minutes more, her best chance to get more points is to hit more of those midrange jumpers and three-pointers.
Being the key to the Sparks season is a lot of pressure, but if anyone is up for it, it's Chiney.
"It's been a rough three years; it really has," Chiney said. "And it just sort of forced you to be a professional. And to me going into the season, I was like, I want to play in as many games as possible. That was my number one goal. I didn't care what happened. I was just like, if I'm available for my team, I've won the season. And so I feel like I already won just because I'm there."
So far, she has accomplished those goals. She’s already played 24 games and barring injury, will finish playing 31 and starting 13. Either way, Chiney has had a good bounce back season, but If the Sparks want to play beyond the 36 regular-season games, they’ll need Chiney Ogwumike to be her best. The team’s next game is against the New York Liberty, Tuesday at 4 p.m. PT.