Sparks season preview: Nneka Ogwumike takes center stage

The Sparks’ descent from the top of the WNBA has been gradual, and controversial. On the court, the franchise went from the 2016 championship to 2017 runner-up to not even making it out of the second round of the playoffs in 2020.

On the sidelines, they changed coaches. The front office got a new general manager after Penny Toler was ousted for allegedly using a racial epithet during a locker-room rant in 2019; she’s now suing the team. They lost longtime star Candace Parker in free agency this summer.

Through it all, Nneka Ogwumike remains as calm, determined and efficient as ever. Almost a decade after the Sparks picked the forward first overall in the 2012 WNBA draft, the team is looking to the 30-year-old to steer the franchise into its next era.

“When you have those kinds of people as the cornerstone of your franchise, it makes everybody else’s job easier because of who they are,” said head coach Derek Fisher. “Nneka has a lot of those characteristics.”

Fisher compared Ogwumike’s steady leadership presence with what Tim Duncan gave the San Antonio Spurs. During her first nine years in L.A., the 2016 MVP stood as a twin pillar with Candace Parker. Now Ogwumike is the unquestioned star. She is no stranger to such a heavy burden.

As the WNBPA president, she helped lead negotiations for a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement in 2020 then steered the league through its pandemic season. The WNBA converged on Bradenton, Fla., where it set up a bubble for games while mobilizing for change off the court.

WNBA players elevated the stories of Black women lost to police violence through the #SayHerName movement. They helped flip the U.S. Senate by championing Raphael Warnock in a run-off election against former Atlanta Dream minority owner Kelly Loeffler. League-wide, the efforts were considered a success.

Ogwumike, however, suffered personally. She averaged a career-low 13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, missing five games because of a bad back and migraines. She said the injuries were physical manifestations of the mental stress plaguing her during the unprecedented season.

“The mental component of last year, as a human being, for all of us, it really kind of paid a toll on me being able to bring my whole self — what I know to be ‘Nnekanator’ — to the season,” Ogwumike said.

The Nnekanator hit reset this season. Ogwumike said she was feeling refreshed after setting stricter boundaries to safeguard her mental health. Fisher noted how much more energy the forward had during training camp this spring compared with when she arrived in Bradenton last year.

When Ogwumike is firing on all cylinders, she attacks with ruthless efficiency on the court. Her 66.5% shooting from the field in 2016 was the second-best for a single season in WNBA history.

As the team’s focal point, Ogwumike will be tasked with showing a wider skillset to “find ways to be even more dominant on the court,” Fisher said, including being a primary playmaker and facilitator in big moments.

“She’s played next to a lot of great players, and she’s fit in seamlessly in that way, but this is now an opportunity for her to take more of a leadership role in terms of her performance night in and night out,” Fisher said. “It’s been great for years; there’s still room to grow.”

In his first year as general manager — in addition to his head coach responsibilities — Fisher had to rebuild the roster when his plans to retain Parker and point guard Chelsea Gray during free agency fell through. Parker ended her 14-year tenure with the Sparks by joining her hometown Chicago Sky. Gray went to Las Vegas, which is now a championship favorite.

Fisher surrounded Ogwumike with versatile guards, athletic defenders and three-point shooters. Guard Erica Wheeler shot a career-best 38.4% from three-point range in 2019 with the Indiana Fever and signed as a free agent this season, knowing that she and Ogwumike could become a lethal pick-and-roll combination.

From watching Ogwumike lead all the WNBA players to now getting to share the court with her every day in practice, Wheeler has eagerly followed Ogwumike’s lead in L.A.

“Her energy just bounces all through the gym,” Wheeler said. “Even [when] you’re having moments like, ‘I’m struggling I need to get through it,’ just look at Nneka. She just gives you that extra boost because she’s nonstop.”

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