After leading the WNBA through the wubble season in 2020, you would think the basketball gods are smiling over the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike.
Instead, the WNBPA president experienced anything but happiness.
She has struggled with injuries, with last season’s back problems, followed by a knee injury early this season. In addition, she was denied the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games. Despite a proven commitment to American basketball, Ogwumike was not selected for the 2020 Olympic team. When she then decided to play for Nigeria, the homeland of both her parents, FIBA rejected her request.
This string of disappointments made her understandable. At the Sparks press conference last week, Ogwumike cried when she told reporters:
I just want to play basketball…….It was very difficult.
“It was very difficult … I’m just grateful to play with my team, with people who care about me. I just want to play basketball.” @nnekaogwumike reflect on the difficult injuries of the past few weeks and the miss of the Olympics. @LASparke pic.twitter.com/aFFvy356c8
– Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) 9 August 2021
On Tuesday night, it looks like fate will merge again against Ogwumike. In the second quarter of LA’s home game against the Atlanta Dream, she sustained a knee injury, requiring her to return to the locker room for further evaluation.
Luckily it was just a scare. Ogwumike would not only return to the game but also play 38 minutes. She scored an almost triple-double, with 13 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, as she helped the Sparks secure victory over the Dream.
Eventually Oguwmike was back where she belonged – exile for LA.
It seems we should expect more from this version of Ogwumike – the former MVP who plays for her team in a timely and efficient manner while serving as a calm and confident leader – for the rest of the 2021 season. (Holding thumbs!)
Is that enough to carry the Sparks, who are currently in 11th place on the standings at 8-14, back to the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season?
What Nneka Ogwumike means to the Sparks
Teammates and coaches made it clear throughout how much Ogwumike means for their team and in turn how much her return to court will mean for the team.
At the August 9 press conference in Los Angeles, Emphasize Christ Toliver:
She is one of the most important pieces of this team, her leadership, her positivity, her athletics, her IQ, her experience … Just to have her presence on the floor again, speaks to us dividends, whether she is now 100% or not, it is It really does not matter, because her presence on the floor is going to be a game changer for everyone.
In her two matches, Ogwumike provided proof of her power.
After contributing 12 points and seven rebounds in LA’s win over the Indiana fever on Sunday, she reaped the aforementioned masterpiece on Tuesday night and improved on several of the Sparks’ weaknesses with her near triple-double.
It was not surprising that her score was effective on MVP caliber as she was 6-for-7 off the field. For most of the season, her teammates 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 with 48.8 percent. Although she has only played seven games, Ogwumike is in the top 10 in the WNBA with a true shooting percentage of 61.9 percent.
More impressively, Ogwumike has also delivered nine assists in his career. The Sparks could desperately use such playfulness of hers. LA averaged the least assists per game in the WNBA at 15.2. This low number is not necessarily surprising, as the franchise lost their two best players in the off-season 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 shooting efficiency at an expert level, Ogwumike will always attract the attention of the defense. If she can use this attention to set others up for easy scores, her game could get a Sparks offense that has the worst offensive score in the WNBA at 91.7.
Ogwumike could also increase LA’s performance on the boards. The Sparks are also bottom of the league in rebounds per game, averaging 30.4 per game. In her seven games this season, Ogwumike averaged 7.3 rebounds per game. In her two games since returning from injury, this number has tapped to eight per game. In her last healthy season, 2019, she averaged 8.8 boards, suggesting that her work on the glass could increase once she completely recovered her burst.
How far can Ogwumike carry the sparks?
Critically, the Ogwumike-led Sparks also scored two wins.
Yes, LA must take care of Indiana and Atlanta, the two teams among them in the standings, at STAPLES Center. Leaving one game or another, however, would have been a serious blow to their playoffs.
Even with a winning record in the final month of the season, there is pressure on the Sparks to extend their playoff series, as the Washington Mystics, hopefully given a boost by Elena Delle Donne (and perhaps by Emma Meesseman), and the young and talented Dallas Wings also fight for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Yet lately, Nneka Ogwumike has been told too often: “No.” No, due to an injury you can not play. No, you did not make the Olympic team. No, you will not go to Tokyo.
However, Ogwumike and her teammates say, “Yes.” Yes, to rise above disappointment. Yes, to prove doubters wrong. Yes, to make it to the playoffs.
We can not wait to watch.